The 10 Qualities of Successful Islamic Bankers
“A man shall not deserve but (the reward of) his own effort” (Qurān: 53:39).
Success is a multifaceted achievement that varies in its form and accomplishment from individual to individual. However, every success story leaves behind footprints that allow us to understand the common patterns in the journey of success. I always have been on a quest to explore why some Islamic banking professionals climb the ladder of success faster than others, and what makes them on the top of an organization’s hierarchy and shining star in the Islamic banking industry. I have started asking a few of them whenever I get a chance. I realized there are a few non-mystical secrets behind their successful career. The first part of my observations is published in Islamic Finance Review as an article entitled “The Three Skills of Successful Sharīah Advisors”. In this article, I will highlight the common personality traits of successful Islamic bankers that I have observed over the years.
1. Purpose Driven
For more than five decades, researchers and practitioners have been identifying various leadership theories and frameworks to train successful leaders. Recently, the focus has been shifted to developing purpose-driven leadership. Academics argue that an executive’s most important role is to be a steward of the organization’s purpose. Psychologists and health experts describe purpose as the pathway to greater well-being, while business experts consider it is as a key to productivity and exceptional performance (Craig & Snook, 2014). John Mackey CEO of Whole Foods Market beautifully articulated “Just as people cannot live without eating, so a business cannot live without profits. But most people do not live to eat, and neither must businesses live just to make profits”.
Like any other profession, a career in Islamic banking can be broadly classified into three categories:
- WHAT: career at this stage deals with the end result produced by the bank i.e., products and services offered to the customers, and the income generated.
- HOW: this refers to the mission statement of a bank. Bankers in this stage, deal with the process, procedures, and operations to run a bank.
- WHY: it refers to the vision statement of a bank i.e., purpose. This is the leadership stage in the Islamic banking career. WHY is the raison d’etre behind WHAT an Islamic bank does and why it exists in the first place. Hence, WHY does not refer to profit maximization and money, which is the end result, not a purpose.
The inspirational Islamic banking leaders always focus on the WHY of their banks and the larger picture by strategically thinking, acting, and communicating from the inside out (WHY, HOW, and WHAT) of the Golden Circle as introduced by Simon Sinek (2009). While the rest usually communicates the other way around (WHAT, HOW, and WHY) by focusing on WHAT unique products their banks offer, HOW much profit they make, and HOW efficient they are as depicted in the below digram.
It reminds us of the story of a generator working at NASA. During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom. The President then casually asked the janitor what he is doing for NASA, and the janitor replied, “I am helping to put a man on the moon” (Carton, 2018). A seasoned Islamic banker displayed an inspiring WHY on his Twitter account as an Islamic finance specialist who wants to make the financial system a source of mercy for humanity. This reflects the prophetic cause of Muhamaad (ﷺ) who was sent as a source of mercy for the world. No matter how large or small your role is in the bank, you are actually contributing to martialize the bigger goal. So every morning before starting your job, proudly you should say: I am making the financial system a source of mercy for humanity.
2. Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
With the rise of fintech in the fourth industrial revolution; automation, blockchain, artificial intelligence, and robot technology are disrupting demand and the nature of existing jobs and skills in the financial industry. According to the World Economic Forum Report on the future of jobs (2020), various functions in the financial services sector are set to be significantly replaced by machine labor in the near future.
To remain relevant in the era of disruptive technologies, successful Islamic bankers are consistently upgrading their skills and continuing professional development (CPD). It makes them aware of the changing trends and directions in the industry. As a career-long obligation for practicing professionals, CPD stands for an ongoing self-made process for professional skills development through formal training or informal learning at the job. For example, an Islamic banker stated that a secret of his career growth is productive reading and writing. Reading makes your productivity compound while writing makes you inspire thought-provoking ideas. If you can develop both skills, you are unstoppable. Not all readers and writers are leaders, but almost all leaders are readers and writers.
3. Personal Development
Successful Islamic bankers are committed to consistent personal growth. Personal growth brings a transformation in their mind-set, heart-set, health-set, and soul-set. While formal education taught them some technical skills and modalities, personal development instills in them compassion, mindfulness, and gratitude that enables them to build their own personal brand.
The degrees and certificates brought them to the interview table, but personal growth keeps them climbing the ladder. They are always working on themselves to live to the fullest of their potential. They invest heavily in their personal development to build trust, integrity and reputation which are the most valuable currencies in financial services. They firmly believe that successes or failure is nothing more than a vehicle for their personal growth.
In a corporate culture, where the rules of human connections and personal interest are evolving at breakneck speed, successful Islamic bankers frequently invest their time and energy in building genuine and healthy relationships. They consistently nurture a personal network of authentic and transformational relationships with professionals in their field. Since they know progression does not happen in isolation, building a powerful network of allies becomes a trait of their personality.
Your network is your net worth. For your career growth, it is not only about “WHAT” you know (qualification and experience) and “HOW” you can do it (expertise). Your next move largely depends on 'WHO' you know (networking). The quality of your relationship matters more than headcount. The networking guru and author of ‘Never Eat Alone’ Keith Ferrazzi beatifically articulated: “Who you know is more important than what you know.” This can be further substantiated by the hiring statistics. According to jobvite.com, 40% of hires come from referrals, the next largest channel is via career sites at 21%. Referrals get hired in an average of 3 weeks while other applicants take up to 7 weeks. Referrals get paid more on average than normal applicants.
Bill Gates and Warn Buffet both consider focus as the single most important factor behind their success. Psychologists deem it as an important predictor of career growth. Distraction is a curse of modern life as technology is becoming more pervasive and persuasive. In the pursuit of multitasking, we often end up digitally overloaded and indecisive. Disruption is junk food for the brain that results in a unique mental problem called digital dementia — the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning. Digital Dementia damages our critical thinking and problem-solving ability, which are the top required job skills according to the employers’ survey by the World Economic Forum 2020.
Being indistractable is one of the most desirable skills in a banking career. Successful Islamic bankers know the art of controlling their attention to operate with clarity and determination. In an environment of diverting multitasking demands, your attention is a fuel empowering your productivity and efficiency. Extraordinary achievements are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus. Hence, your career success does not depend on “HOW” many tasks you perform, rather it is actually about how “focused” you can operate. Gary, an entrepreneur, and author of the bestselling book “The ONE Thing”, greatly summarized: Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time. Success is built sequentially; it is one thing at a time.
“In the hiring process, I observed most of the candidates are looking for money. They are unaware of the secret that employers hire talent who can add value to the organization, not money seekers”, says Prof Humayon Dar, Director general of Cambridge Institute of Islamic Finance. An employee is an asset of a company and compensation is an investment in that asset. Therefore, businesses do not pay for the employees’ time spent in the premises, rather, the compensation is paid for the positive value created during that time.
A banking career is notoriously subject to the risk of ruthless competition, mergers, and acquisition in the industry. Your survival and retention in a specific position significantly depend on your ability of value creation other than your job description. Islamic bankers who master the art of making an identifiable, noteworthy value-driven impact on the business of their banks and achieving their objectives, create higher chances of pay raises, promotions, recognition, and appreciation. The more you create measurable and positive outcomes through your actions, the more you increase your bank’s return-on-investment (ROI) on retaining you.
“In the pyramid of hiring and promotion, we prioritize adaptability over qualification and expertise. A cultural-fit candidate is certainly more valuable to the bank than a qualified fix-minded banker”, says the HR head of a reputed Islamic bank. In fact, adaptability turns out to be even more important for success in the modern Islamic banking industry that is fast-moving toward a digitalized future.
In a climate of perpetual disruption and competition, your professional success significantly depends on your quality of resilience — flexibility combined with versatility. A Head of Islamic banking in a multinational bank commented “adaptability cum flexibility is the key for long term success, which is much needed in the current uncertain times”. Flexibility is your willingness to adjust to the changing norms and culture in your bank. It is your attitude. Versatility is your ability to adapt. It is your aptitude for learning the new professional skills to survive the twists with a competitive edge. The more adaptable you are, the more relevant, productive, and resourceful banker you will become.
8. Positive Intelligence
Shirzad Chamine, the author of the bestselling book, Positive Intelligence, stated, “an analysis of more than 200 scientific studies examining about 275, 000 people, concluded that higher PQ (Positive Intelligence Quotient) leads to higher salary and greater success in professional and social life. Your mind is your best friend, but it is also your worst enemy. Your Positive Intelligence Quotient is the percentage of time your mind is serving you as opposed to sabotaging you. Your PQ indicates how much mastery you have over your own mind” (Chamine, 2012).
An Islamic banker like any other professional at times may encounter the challenge of favoritism, partisanship, discrimination, or lack of appreciation in his career. As a result, he might lose the promotion, bonus, or increments. This is the moment where the strength of your positive mental muscles (Sage) versus the negative (Saboteur) is tested. Successful Islamic bankers empower their positive mindset over pessimism. Research shows professionals with higher PQ perform better and they are entitled to the bigger opportunity in their career (Chamine, 2012). Successful Islamic bankers know a psychological secret that instead of plying the “victim card”, focusing on solutions not only generates better ideas but also stimulates optimism, and cultivates happiness and confidence.
“If I had not had mentors, I wouldn't be here today. I am a product of great mentoring, great coaching”, says Indra Nooyi ex CEO of Pepsi. Bill Gates credited Warren Buffet for teaching him how to deal with tough situations and how to think long-term. Similarly, Zuckerberg praised his inspiring mentor Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs used to go on a weekly walk with Bill Campbell, the Silicon Valley coach, who also mentored Google’s founders (Agha, 2019). Every individual carries the seeds of greatness within himself, but you need someone to trace the identity of the seeds so it would be planted in the appropriate region and weather for optimal growth.
A mentor is like a sculptor who analyses his mentee with a humble conviction that a unique and beautiful piece of art already exists within the stone, and his job is only to unveil it. A mentor sees an unexplored treasure of talent and skills in your DNA and helps you to navigate your deserved destination. A C-suit Islamic banking executive agreed that mentorship from seniors helps him in getting religious guidance, motivation, maintaining work-life balance, and career counseling.
10. Effective Communication
According to a 2016 LinkedIn survey, oral and written communication proficiency consistently topped the most sought-after soft skills among employers. Business executives sometimes hire consultants to coach them in sharpening their communication skills (Schaub et al., 2017). For that very reason, the skill of effective communication has a high demand in the Islamic banking industry.
In the context of Islamic banking business, an effective communication skill can be described as a two-fold process; first, comprehending the purpose and behavior of a financial product/query, and second, eloquently articulating the Shari'ah principles, regulatory and risk requirement about the enquired case in an engaging and deliberated way without jeopardizing the spiritof Islamic law (Agha, 2020).
In addition to the local language where the business operates, successful Islamic bankers are also fluent in international business languages such as English, French, etc. An Islamic banker who is skilled in intercultural communication will not only be able to work productively in the multi-cultural industry of Islamic finance, but can also appreciate differing values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, to anticipate, act, and react in appropriate ways to produce the most effective results.
By analyzing the above qualities, it can be concluded that these personality traits together point towards two key principles of success. First is the Law of Resonance. Successful Islamic bankers attract people who resonant with their wavelength, and opportunities in resonance with their personas. As Dr. Steve articulated, the universe does not give you what you want, it gives you what you demand with your actions. In other words, success is not about your dominant thought, it is about your dominant identity. So, if you want higher success in your career, change your personality to the frequency that vibrates your dream future. This is why Qurān says, “Allah will never change the condition of people until they change themselves”.
Second, attaining success is not simply a matter of luck. It is the product of a unique combination of skills, mindset, and efforts. Qurān refers to this principle as “A man shall not deserve but (the reward of) his own effort” in this world and the world hereafter. The Prophet (ﷺ) used to pray, “O Allah, no one can withhold what You have given, and none can give what You have withheld, and no fortune can benefit anyone without your permission”. Despite being a critical factor in success, no formula can predict good luck. However, through consistent hardworking with the right mindset, you can increase your chances of being “at the right time and place with the right skills”.
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Dr. Ehsanullah Agha