Ms. Juliet Morris of International Banker interviews Ms. Nahla Khaddage Boudiab, COO of AM Bank on Lebanon’s banking sector, AM Bank’s success and her role within the World Union of Arab Bankers.
Today, International Banker is joined by Nahla Boudiab, COO of AM Bank, to discuss AM Bank’s success and her role within the World Union of Arab Bankers. Nahla, welcome.
So on your role within the World Union of Arab Bankers, one of your many roles is as head of women empowerment for the banking sector. So what does this entail, and what are your responsibilities?
The World Union of Arab Bankers is an entity that brings Arab bankers together and works on creating a network between them, connecting them, assisting them in their own learning and evolution. So that we present an evolved image of what the Arab bankers are. They have nine groups, and one of the groups is Women Empowerment. I was invited to head this group. The way we are tackling women empowerment is not really by focusing on the notion of women empowerment but focusing on the need for diversity in organizations. Therefore, the end result will be women empowerment.
On that issue of diversity, the gender pay gap springs to mind. This is one that affects many countries around the world, particularly, it seems, in areas that are traditionally perceived as a male domain. Is there in your opinion gender pay gap in the Arab world? In the Arab banking world? And if so, what can be done to address it and ultimately to eliminate it?
For me, before the gender pay gap, we need to worry about the opportunity gap. I worry less about the gender pay gap, because at this stage in banks in the Middle East, in the Arab world, we lack women managers at the senior level. I don’t think we have an issue with pay gap in terms of the women that are there today. But before we can talk about pay gap, we have to bring the women in to actually perform similar jobs. Then we can worry about the pay gap. Right now our focus is to give women the opportunities to work at a senior-level management in banks in the Arab world.
As it stands, though, in those senior roles, where obviously you’re saying we need to bring more women on. But for those few that are there, are they paid on an equal basis with their male counterparts for the same jobs, would you say?
There are very few women, and I think those that are there do not suffer from a pay gap.
Impressively, you also continue to play a huge role and a hugely influential role in academia, for example, through your teaching program for the American University of Beirut and MBA program. Has this strong academic grounding helped you within your role as COO?
I taught the executive MBA program for 10 years. I’m no longer teaching there. And it was a fundamental for me because as leaders in organizations, we must ensure our continuous learning. And learning happens from not only depicting information but also executing this information so that it becomes real knowledge. The program I taught is an executive program. And so, yes, I was teaching, but I was learning a lot more than I was teaching because I was sitting there sharing thoughts and information with senior executives that have a lot of experience. So, yes, it’s been fundamental for my own personal learning.
So despite being in such a senior and influential position yourself, you are still learning huge amounts, too, from everything that you do.
In my opinion, the day we stop learning is the day we start aging. So this is not an option. It’s not something, it’s not a decision. I think people and mostly leaders have to understand that this is part of their core and their abilities to be qualified to hold whatever position they hold.
So, if you had to identify one specific personality trait that you believe makes a successful banking leader, what would it be?
I’m sorry, I have to define two, because they go hand in hand. It’s the ability to constantly learn and empathy. Because those two characteristics will ensure that the leader has covered both dimensions, the external and the internal. If your mind is open and is always in inquiry mode to be constantly learning, then you see what’s happening in the global environment, and you can gear your organization towards the future. But you have to have empathy to be able to pass this on to your team. To your organization. So you need both. And those are two fundamental characteristics that in my opinion leaders must have in this era.
What do you consider to be your greatest success to date as COO of AM Bank? And what has been your toughest challenge?
Actually, ironically enough, it would be the same answer to both. The greatest success is the culture that we have created. And the biggest challenge is the culture we have created. For many reasons. First of all, we have…I’ve been truly lucky because I have shareholders who are totally aligned in terms of values and what they want in their organizations. So having that commitment from the top enabled this success. Without it, I don’t think anybody would have been able to do anything. The main challenge is that we established a culture inside the bank that is in a way different than the social culture that dominates the country. Which made it much harder to implement. Because you’re teaching people about a new culture that they don’t experience when they leave the bank.
So what is that culture? Explain to us what is different about it.
I’ll give you an example. We as an organization have said that there is no outside interference to enable your success within the organization. Social culture usually is built on who you know and the references and, you know, the people you have trying to push you in a certain direction. So now you have those people that have experienced this on a social setting, live in an organization where the only thing that defines your success is your own contribution, is your ability. Well, it takes awhile for them to actually believe that this is real. And the longer they take to believe it, the harder it is for myself and my chairman to actually implement it. So that has been a great challenge for us. It’s been a great success story. And it was, it took a lot of effort, for sure. So, this would be something I would like to always celebrate. And it was the toughest thing I’ve ever participated in actually implementing.
And if you had to identify one area of AM Bank that requires the most immediate attention or improvement, what would that be?
I think one of our areas where we need to improve is the communication, the marketing communication element. We are a group of people that tend to work really hard to get things done. And we rely on our customers and our people to talk about us and talk about our successes. At the end of the day, you are a bank, and you’re an institution, and that’s just not enough. I know this because every time somebody meets us, especially international entities, they are shocked by what they see. And this tells me that we haven’t done enough to communicate what we’ve done and what we are about as an institution. We’re rectifying this in 2018. But this is something that required attention from us.
So are you saying you need to celebrate yourselves more within the open market?
We need to celebrate, and we need to communicate. And we need to become a role model for other institutions. Because we are able to encourage other organizations within the Arab world to actually implement some of the notions and concepts that we have implemented that have yielded success stories.
And that is a culture of openness, supportiveness. I mean, what makes you so different?
The way we drive our organization is founded on a different leadership style. A lot of institutions today still manage the way they did many years ago. So a lot of institutions still believe that the leaders are there to provide the answers, to provide the solutions. And the teams within the organizations are there to execute those instructions. This is a style that worked very well many years ago when the economy was very stable. And leaders were able to control the changes happening to their organizations. This no longer works. Today you need to activate the power of thinking within your organization. You need to create and unleash passion and collaboration among your teams. And this is something that differentiates the way we drive our bank from other institutions. And we would love for the industry in the Arab world to actually see this. Because this will create well-being for not only the organization but for the humans inside the organizations. So it’s the humans, it’s the organization. And which will yield well-being to society.
Well-being, which you’ve mentioned, obviously is also defined in a healthy work-life balance. Now, many of us really struggle to be able to achieve that. So how important is that for you and your employees? And how do you do it?
It is critical. It is not only important. It is critical. It’s fundamental. I think we must remember that we are human beings. And we must remember that we don’t have two lives, a personal one and a work one. We have one life in which we have relationships. And those relationships serve different purposes. We have to allow the human to live as a human being within the organization. Instead of just focusing—that when I walk into the organization, I become a robot. That person is a human being who has feelings, who has fears, and who seeks happiness and joy. Why not enable this inside the organization?
Because you’ve also got to make money at the same time; you’re a business. And some businesses would argue that when an employee comes into work, they work to serve the organization. And when they go home, they sort out their personal life.
Well, what we’re trying to say, if you think organizations make money by turning people into robots, you should see how much money they will make if they unleash the passion of the humans inside their organizations. And in fact when I talk about allowing the person to be a human being inside the organization, I assure you those people work tremendously hard if not harder than other organizations. The difference is they do it because they love it instead of doing it because I’m forcing them to do it. And this is the difference between what I’m talking about.
What do you enjoy most about your role as COO?
Connecting with my organization, watching people evolve, watching people come up with innovation and be very successful and then watching them celebrate it and be so happy because they achieved it. It’s the achievement coupled with the joy of the people that actually achieved. It’s being part of this. It’s connecting to all of this. This is the most amazing part of my job.
So, within your organization, there is a focus on this healthy culture that nurtures collaboration, diversity, collective thinking. So how does AM Bank promote that collaboration? How does that work?
First, we really focus on the recruiting process. So we select people that are very qualified, and our teams are international standard. They all come from internationally recognized firms. So there’s a lot of technical qualifications there. But that’s not enough. We also select people that feel that there’s value in our culture and are willing to contribute to it. When those people come into your organization, the way we manage the organization attracts them. So the decision-making process; when you have people who are very qualified, and they are international standard, you don’t want to tell them what to do. You want to sit and think with them. You want to unleash their thoughts. And that is an amazing opportunity for these people. Because it enables them to build their knowledge and to learn; and more importantly, to feel that they are part of the bank. None of the managers in our bank feel that they work for a bank. All of them feel that this is their bank.
Beyond the issue of gender diversity, do you regard AM Bank and Lebanon’s banking sector in general to be sufficiently focused on promoting all kinds of diversity?
At the end of the day, you know, one of the greatest advantages of the banking industry in Lebanon is that a big part of our banks are family-owned businesses, which means they care about the value of their organizations. This means that they will focus on the skills that their organizations need, which will automatically yield diversity. If I were to talk about AM Bank, the type of people we have in the organization don’t see anything but skills, competencies and culture. Which has created an incredible place where we have a lot of diversity on all levels. So it’s not only gender diversity—it’s skill diversity, it’s people coming from different areas. And this enriches our environment.
In the wake of the industry’s technology revolution, would you say that the skill-set for hiring those to work within the industry has changed? And what are some of those newer skills that people such as yourself now are looking for?
Technology has and will continue to play a great role in everything we do in our organization. But technology will only replace robotic jobs. Therefore, it is our job to activate thinking so that our teams will always have jobs. Technology is as good as the brains behind it. By itself, it doesn’t replace knowledge. So you still want a very solid team that has knowledge and is able to collaborate to drive technology. For me, there are some fundamental skills that are needed today. It’s no longer about the experience of what you’ve done. It’s about the ability for you to continuously learn and share. This is the most important skill for the future because what you know may become idle next month. And so this is not the right approach of recruiting. It’s the ability to learn and to share.
So how do you find those people? How do you attract and retain the top talent within the banking system? And how do you ensure that AM Bank remains one of the most attractive places for people to work at?
Initially, when we started this, obviously there weren’t a lot of people in the bank that were able to refer other people. So it was our interviewing process and our commitment to these concepts that attracted people. So the hardest part was attracting the first two managers, for example. And then those managers…as a leader you have to deliver on what you’re preaching. When they saw that we deliver, and this is a great environment to be in, those people started referring people they knew. And this is an excellent measure of commitment. It tells you that if you have someone who came from an international organization, and he or she feels that this is a great place to work, and they’re referring colleagues, ex-colleagues, that they worked with, then that’s an excellent indication of how happy and satisfied these people are with the learning. So we actually have recruited a lot of people through referrals from our existing managers, and we retain them by delivering on what we promise. Delivering on a clean, healthy culture that focuses on working together, innovating. It’s a resilient culture. It doesn’t mean we don’t face issues as an organization. All organizations will face issues. The size of the organization or where it is doesn’t protect it from facing issues. But what we do have is a resilient culture capable of standing solid to deal with any crisis that we may face.
What is the one goal that you hope to achieve above all others by the time that you leave your current role as COO of AM Bank?
Obviously sustainability of this culture. And I think we’re on the right track. Because the way you sustain the culture is by ensuring that the culture is not linked only with me and the chairman; it’s linked with everyone within the organization. And I think we’ve managed to achieve this on the management level. I’m hoping that they would drill it down to their employees, and this will enable sustainability. I would also love to see other organizations do it. Because when you see the joy and the happiness of people that are very qualified and producing and achieving. I would love to see this more in other organizations, whether in Lebanon, in the Arab world or across the globe. Because this is an issue common to all of us as human beings.
Nahla Boudiab, thank you very much for talking to us.
Thank you so much for having me here. Thank you.