A leader par excellence: Ali Reza Iftekhar
TBS Report
30 May, 2023, 01:25 pm

Kotler Impact Inc, a renowned marketing consultancy firm, recently launched the prestigious Kotler Awards in Bangladesh at the Modern Marketing Summit 2023, where Ali Reza Iftekhar has been honoured as the first ever CEO of the Year Award in the country

The award is a recognition of Iftekhar's significant contributions to the baking industry of Bangladesh. In his 16 years as CEO of EBL, Ali Reza Iftekhar not only turned the private commercial bank into one of the most valuable financial brands in Bangladesh, but also one of the most profitable enterprises. 

As the longest serving CEO of the country's banking industry, Iftekhar is widely acclaimed for his drive to embrace digital transformation, his eagerness for rapid change, his flair to develop strategies to diversify revenue sources, and a no-nonsense approach. 

When he assumed office of the CEO in 2007, the consolidated asset base of the bank was Tk4,257.9 crore that grew to Tk45,986.8 crore in 2022. He has always been a staunch advocate of the notion that profits stem from a company's values, not from its day-to-day businesses.

He is instrumental in introducing international best practices and ethical banking at EBL. He also believes that the core business of a company is to create shared values for its customers through customer-employee interface. The key driver of "value creation" for him is the employees of the organisation.

Over the years, the CEO's prime objective has been to establish EBL as the employer of choice. His favourite HR slogan is "At EBL we do not offer jobs, we shape careers." In order to achieve that he wanted its human resources wing to be world class and contribute meaningfully in human capital development. Last year, Singapore-based prestigious World Business Outlook magazine conferred the Best Banking CEO of the Year Bangladesh in 2022 to this accomplished banker. Iftekhar talks about wide ranging issues from leadership challenges, corporate culture, and sustainable growth strategy to future plans with EBL. 

Why were you drawn to banking? 

I was initially drawn to the banking industry simply because of the smart lifestyle of the bankers and also because a lot of people I looked up to around me were bankers. However, as I gained experience, I discovered that banking provides a unique opportunity to positively impact people's lives by addressing their financial needs and advising on investment opportunities.

By helping them overcome these challenges, I am not only solving problems, but also making a meaningful connection with their lives and touching their hearts.

You have seen the Bangladesh banking industry as an insider. How has banking changed over the years?

The banking industry has undergone significant changes over the years, particularly in the areas of technology and regulation. With the advent of digital technology, banking has become increasingly reliant on online and mobile platforms to deliver services to customers. This has resulted in the development of new products and services, such as online banking, mobile banking, and digital wallets, QR code, etc. Additionally, banking has become more accessible to individuals who previously may not have had access to traditional banking services, such as those in rural or remote areas.

Regulation has also played a significant role in shaping the banking industry. Following the global financial crisis in 2008, regulators around the world introduced stricter rules and regulations to strengthen the financial system and prevent similar crises from occurring in the future. These regulations have had a significant impact on the banking industry, leading to changes in risk management practices, the way banks operate, and the types of products and services they offer.

As we are striving towards a cashless society and smart Bangladesh, accessible, innovative, and customer-centric banking is what we are going to have. No doubt, this has its fair share of new challenges.

Your career spans over three decades. And for half of that period, you have been leading EBL and transformed the bank into an industry leader. What do you think, in retrospect, were the crucial decisions that proved to be key to the transformation?  

To successfully transform a company, it is crucial to focus on three key factors: corporate governance, placing the right people in the right roles and instilling a passion for performance. 

Strong corporate governance is vital to maintaining a company's integrity, transparency, and protecting the interests of stakeholders. At EBL, we prioritise international best practices in corporate governance to foster a culture of accountability, integrity, transparency, and sound financial management. I believe in investing in people today for a better tomorrow.

Placing the right individuals in the right places involves hiring candidates with the necessary qualifications and skills for a particular job. But most importantly, ensuring that they have the passion for the job and giving them a work culture that gets the best out of them. This can increase employee productivity and job satisfaction as they are more likely to excel in roles that complement their abilities. At EBL we believe and promote the notion: we don't offer jobs, we shape careers.

Instilling passion for performance is the third crucial factor in transforming a company. By fostering a work environment that inspires dedication, commitment, and passion, employees are motivated to perform at their best. Clear communication of expectations, providing opportunities for growth and development, and recognising and rewarding high performance are some ways to create this environment. Passion is the catalyst for achieving significant milestones in one's personal and professional life.

When you took over the office of CEO back in 2007, EBL was a small bank. How did you inspire the company to adopt a growth mind-set?

For any sustainable growth, we need a vision and a strategy and to broaden our horizon that can be translated to reality. We have adopted a growth mindset by setting a clear vision and strategic direction for the company. We have communicated a compelling vision for the future of the bank, emphasising the importance of innovation, customer service, and growth. 

By providing a clear sense of purpose and direction, we have helped to align the entire organisation around a common goal and inspire employees to work towards that goal.

My drive has always been to foster a culture of innovation and creativity at EBL. I have encouraged employees to think outside the box, take calculated risks, and experiment with new ideas and approaches and have implemented processes and structures to support innovation, and I took risks on my people.

EBL has emphasised the importance of learning and development. We have encouraged employees to continuously develop their skills and knowledge, and invested in employee training and development programs. By fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement, we helped to equip employees with the tools and mindset needed to drive growth and innovation at EBL.

What was your most unexpected lesson in leading for growth?

People resist change. Dealing with resistance to change is a common challenge that many individuals and organisations face, and I was no exception. However, I was able to overcome this challenge by effectively shifting the mindset of the people involved. 

This task required a significant amount of effort, persistence, and patience on my part, as it involved breaking down deep-seated beliefs and ingrained habits.

To achieve this, I employed a variety of strategies, such as open communication, active listening, installing values in corporate culture, acknowledging their success and rewarding them. At the same time, I adopted the policy of zero tolerance against non-performers and value destroyers. 

By engaging in honest and transparent conversations with the individuals, I was able to understand their concerns and motivations and design my approach accordingly. I also made sure to listen attentively to their feedback and incorporate their ideas and suggestions whenever possible.

In addition, I recognised that building trust was crucial to my leadership. I consistently demonstrated my commitment to the change and its potential benefits, as well as my willingness to work collaboratively with the individuals involved. By doing so, I was able to create a safe and supportive environment where people felt comfortable expressing their thoughts and concerns.

Through these efforts, I was ultimately able to successfully shift the mindset of the people and facilitate meaningful change. While it was a difficult and challenging process, I am proud of the work I did and the positive impact it had on the organisation and the individuals involved.

It is said that a leader's actions must be tailored to meet the demands of a high-growth environment. How do you tailor your actions with the demands? In other words, what has been your growth strategy?

Before embarking on any growth strategy, it is essential to have a deep understanding of the organisation's strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge can help identify areas that need improvement and those that can be leveraged to achieve the organisation's objectives. 

By focusing on their strengths, organisations can position themselves to capitalise on opportunities and mitigate threats.

At the same time, a culture of compliance must be established within the organisation. Compliance is critical to ensuring that the organisation operates within legal and ethical boundaries, protecting its reputation, and building trust with stakeholders. It involves following laws, regulations, and internal policies and procedures.

Additionally, a culture of not just competition but a culture of action to excel should be nurtured and instilled in employees. This culture emphasises continuous improvement, innovation, and a drive to exceed expectations. Employees are encouraged to take calculated risks and embrace change to improve processes and products continually.

By fostering a culture of compliance and a culture of action to excel, organisations can create an environment that promotes innovation and growth while ensuring that the organisation operates within ethical and legal boundaries. This can lead to increased employee engagement, improved customer satisfaction, and sustained growth over the long term.

To be an agent of change inside the company, it is important to understand the existing culture first. What was your process of understanding the culture and starting to initiate the change? What did you do differently to initiate the change? 

To effect change within a company, it is crucial to first comprehend its current culture. Cultural transformation is the most significant factor in any organisation. If you can instil a culture of passion and ethical banking, it can have a tremendous impact. Identifying these critical factors and inspiring employees to embrace them is essential. EBL had no shortage of talent or skill sets; what they lacked was inspiration and motivation. As a catalyst, my role was to inspire and motivate them and reward them. 

How do you align people towards a number of goals? 

Before setting the goals, we need to create a work-life balance first. Achieving a work-life balance is a prerequisite for setting and achieving goals. It's crucial to approach work with a positive mindset, create boundaries, prioritise self-care, and be open to growth opportunities. By doing so, individuals can find fulfilment and success in all areas of life.

To create a work-life balance, it is important to set boundaries for both time and energy. By taking time to recharge and reset, one can return to work feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Additionally, clear communication with colleagues and supervisors regarding working hours and availability can help prevent burnout and ensure that work doesn't interfere with personal life.

It's important to recognise that personal and professional growth is not always a linear process. There may be times when individuals feel stagnant in their careers and lack motivation to grow. In these instances, it's crucial to reassess priorities, goals, and interests. Being open to new opportunities, taking on new challenges, and pursuing new interests can help reignite motivation and drive.

Who are the people that inspired you most and what are the leadership lessons you think are important to effect change? 

I have been greatly inspired by Steve Jobs due to my strong belief in the power of innovation. In my opinion, sustainable growth is impossible without innovation as it is an essential element of sustainability. Without innovation, growth is likely to remain stagnant.

Bangladesh's banking industry has been going through many challenges and uncertainties. Maintaining growth and keeping NPLs to an appreciably lower level is commendable. What has your leadership approach been throughout these trying times? 

The banking industry in Bangladesh continues to grapple with corporate governance challenges, which have led to an increase in non-performing loans (NPLs). To mitigate this issue and keep NPLs at a minimum, it is essential to prioritise due diligence and corporate governance practices. Therefore, corporate governance has emerged as a crucial factor in driving the performance of the banking industry in Bangladesh.

EBL is corporate and retail heavy. You never really wanted to be a major player in the SME or agricultural sector. Was that part of your growth strategy? 

Yes, it is true that we are focused on corporate and retail banking. I acknowledge the need for diversification and are considering expanding our portfolio. Despite our focus remaining on our established skillset, we are actively planning to diversify.

Where would you like to see EBL in the next five years? 

Bangladesh is growing and is on course to become a trillion dollar economy by 2040, driven by consumer optimism, innovation in emerging economic sectors, and a young engaged workforce. We would like to be the country's growth partner and contribute significantly to this journey of a trillion dollar economy.