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Posted on 2017-02-16 00:00:00

Nora Abd Manaf, Maybank’s Group Chief Human Capital Officer, shares a few standout traits of leadership in the workplace.

A leader is someone who enables the right results and outcomes. “It’s as simple and as powerful as that,” begins Nora Abd Manaf, Maybank’s Group Chief Human Capital Officer, as she sits down to talk about leadership in the workplace. “And, believe me, there is so much to do.”

The qualities of a worthy leader, she says, lie in learning agility. “For me, technical or specialist knowledge and skills are a given,” says Nora. “Everyone must have the expertise for their role. For a leader, what’s more important is the enabling. The key event in leadership is learning agility. If you are able to continuously learn, you will not be defensive, or feel handicapped, and never pretend to know everything. When a person is confident, he or she is usually humble. The wiser you are, the more humble you are. A leader is the one who epitomises humility.”

Nora would know. After seven years as Group Chief of human capital at Malaysia’s largest banking group, she leads a team of 300 who watch over 46,000 employees all over the world. On her table are many issues that need both micro and macro attention. “Like in many other industries, productivity is a longstanding issue,” says Nora. “Are we getting quality and quantity from each and every employee? So how do Human Resources (HR) and the leadership unlock untapped potential and then, even as we speak, the landscape is changing for employment and the workplace.”

For the first time since the first Industrial Revolution, workplaces have as many as four generations. In Nora’s own office, the oldest is over 60, the youngest 24. “It’s never been like this before,” says Nora. “Clash of context? Generational differences? I disagree. What I want and what a young 20 year-old wants is the same thing. They want results quick, so do I. They want recognition quickly. Actually, so do I. Let’s be clear, no organisation develops different programmes to cater for different age groups but just programmes that do.”

Everyone must have the expertise for his or her role. For a leader, what’s more important is the enabling.

The 21st century workplace has already morphed into a zone that has people with similar goals but very different contexts. Interactions are different, and there are many stalemates. For example, some say the 9-to-5 model is still the best for work. Others say people can be productive without the constraints of time and place because they have connectivity. Today, everyone encroaches into the 9pm to 5am routine.“There’s a lot of literature on this but no one can say for sure what the workplace will be like in five or 10 years from now,” says Nora. “More and more disruptors are entering the workplace. These are uncharted waters and we are already in a storm. But I will say this: Leaders usually emerge when there is a storm. So, there’s never been a better time for a person to show his or her ability and to innovate.”

But who is that person? “It’s hard to pick any one leader as an example,” says Nora. “The leaders I find most appealing are those who even though have had a hard life, achieved a level of success and bring positive change and inspiration to the workplace. I have the highest respect for that. It shows me drive and learning agility. You can sit around and begrudge your tough times or you can turn it into the strength that changes your circle of influence or even the world.”

In the absence of perpetual blue skies at the workplace, the next best leadership training space is mentoring. “It was a mentor who cleared my own thinking. In my early 30s, I was a very driven, tough person. I was hard on people without realising it. My mentor could have lectured me but instead he said ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. Immediately, I felt lighter. I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders although no one expected me to. I was told later I made some people miserable. So I changed.”

Nora is convinced that mentoring works in the workplace and has introduced mentor programmes or improved existing ones. “With a hoe, you can build a garden or you can destroy it,” she says. “Mentoring needs systems, ethics, and integrity. Without these, a mentoring programme can go horribly wrong. We need to choose the right person who can do it elegantly.”

In mentoring, seniority guarantees nothing because not everyone is mentor material. An individual can be an expert in his or her role and a high-value contributor, but may not like people. “And this is OK,” says Nora. “The system must allow true talent but not force people to manage or mentor people. We have set goals, a code of ethics, and an exit clause. When two individuals simply don’t have chemistry for mentoring, they separate amicably. We are not interested in becoming relationship counsellors. We just match them with others.”

At any one time, about 15 per cent of Maybank employees are being mentored at middle level, senior management and even for exco level. There’s also a Women Mentor Women programme. Mentees are women pipelined for senior positions, and some are already leaders and successors for exco positions. “People who say the world is gender-blind are quite delusional,” says Nora. “Some issues are unique to women. One of my mentees once told me that her husband was uncomfortable with her success, and that she could no longer talk to him about her work. This was a fresh and discreet outlet. We talked about it. Today, she has done really well and they are so happy together. But the truth is a woman may find it difficult to discuss this with another man.”


To be spotted as a future leader, says Nora, there are a few immediate, standout traits. Obviously, confidence but also easy for bosses to observe are the ways an employee reacts to peers and how an employee influences peers and others. Another observable trait is an employee glowing with leadership potential creating chances for others too. This, many will say, is more important than how good you are.

“I’m a chartered accountant by training and to me, the technical part is easier. Anyone can be trained to do debit and credit. The hard part is dealing with people, the interpersonal skills, and the interaction and influence. Those with humility and learning agility are a natural choice for leadership of large teams of people.”

Nora’s own leadership style is a reflection of her work style: Driven and focussed. All assessments, including those done by her subordinates, support that. “I’m disciplined and I expect that of others. I like to start meetings with a question, just to frame our thoughts. I want everyone to speak up because I want to hear better ideas than my own.”

TALENT SPOTTING: want to stand out

Nora Abd Manaf shares these tips.

  • Speak and write well.
  • An articulate person immediately stands out as leadership material. Articulate, not loud.
  • Dress presentably and look personable. Packaging is as important as content.
  • Be present, active and in the game. Not in the sidelines.
  • Be respectful. Know your place, and know that you have a place.
  • Use hardship experiences as power tools for positive change.
  • Respond humbly and confidently to comments from peers and others.
  • At meetings, speak with conviction using a polite, respectful tone.
  • Stay hungry. And show it.
  • Be a solver. The world is not short of people who can criticise and surface issues.It is short of people who solve them.
  • A sure-fail trait: Arrogance, even a whiff of it.

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