In April 2016, Dato’ Khairussaleh Ramli found himself at a sharp bend on his personal learning curve. As the Group Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of the RHB Banking Group, he suddenly found himself participating in a 78km cycling ride sponsored by the bank. Trouble was, he was somewhat new to cycling.
So, for a sporting event, he dived straight into work mode. For Khairussaleh, the art of working is a mirror image of the art of learning.
“I made a commitment, trained hard, studied the rules, familiarised myself with road conditions and got ready for competition,”
It’s an analogy he applies to work. “That is what’s expected of a new recruit.
“Everyone arrives new to the job. If you make an effort, you can do well. Everyone has something to learn. I’m still learning. Learning is a two-way thing. As you learn, you also teach. Even if you’re very young, your knowledge and experience are valuable to others. That’s how organisations grow.”
GO WITH THE FLOW
And young people are crucial for the bank’s future. As more and more industries are disrupted by new technologies, change is imminent.
“The digitalisation of the industry is disrupting everything we know,” he says.
“If we don’t go with the flow, we will become obsolete. I think the new generation has a big role to play. Today’s grads are tech-savvy and resultsoriented. It means we have a good shot at managing such disruptions. I feel ready to transform.”
The one thing that won’t change is integrity. In banking, employees are expected to demonstrate and practise integrity 24/7.
“Integrity is an asset that no one can take away from you,” says Khairussaleh.
“Integrity is about abiding by the rules and the laws. Over and above that, there are also ethical standards. In finance, we are naturally deal-oriented. That’s how things work. What’s also important is that we give the best advice possible to customers, knowing that every customer is different.”
This is why he wants every new recruit to try everything. In a large group like RHB, a management trainee can taste different facets of banking although typically, new graduates ask to be placed in investment banking.
“Everyone must spend time learning. Have an open mind and grow into a well-rounded person. Later, you can choose a specialisation. I started my career in the 1990s at a branch office in JB (Johor Bahru).
“Today, I can tell you that that experience trained me for the job I have now. It showed me the nuts and bolts of banking.
“I learned what it’s like at the branch level, from simple things like answering the phone to helping a customer open an account. I understand what the staff go through every day. That prepares you for a management role.”
Working abroad helps, too. Khairussaleh hopes to make the overseas experience a prerequisite to climbing the ladder. He knows from experience that different work cultures and regulatory environments sharpen professional skills. And sometimes, it’s just about people.
As the newly appointed CEO of a bank in Jakarta, Khairussaleh held his first meeting with senior execs to finalise key performance indicators.
The post-lunch meeting seemed to go on and on and he was due to fly back to Kuala Lumpur that evening. One of the direct reports disagreed on a point.
“He then suggested that a vote be taken to decide on the KPIs and further reminded me of my flight. That took me by surprise. I had never encountered such a thing before.”
Khairussaleh continued the meeting until he got an alignment. “The lesson was to persevere diplomatically. I don’t like to force people into anything. I prefer a genuine buy-in. It took longer but I still caught the flight.
“Well, there’s nothing to gain from making people unhappy. So, I took a different approach to reach the same goal.”
Khairussaleh also hopes to send young Malaysians abroad to work with their contemporaries and foreign bosses. RHB has offices in Asean countries and in Hong Kong.
The assignment can be in any part of the banking system – investment, corporate, risk, and even technology. Already, young executives from those countries are being posted in Malaysia and vice versa.
“We want a genuine cross-border exchange of people. It’s a self-fulfilling thing. If this is successful, others will want to do it, too.”
As adventurous as all this is, Khairussaleh also knows that the brass tacks of his job are getting people to stay and grow with the bank.
“It’s about listening to our people. We introduced flexi hours initially for women with small children. But soon, men began asking for flexi hours, too, and we learned that many men are taking care of elderly parents.”
A telecommuting programme also enables employees – mainly back-office workers – to work from home and coordinate with a supervisor at office.
“We have some privileges for women, like special parking for pregnant women and a lactation room,” says Khairussaleh. “But from a work point of view, men and women are equals.”
Nearly 58 percent of RHB’s workforce is female and there are women at every level, including on the board.
So, what does it take to make that trip to the top?
“When I started, I was like everyone else, a regular guy, enjoyed life, went for movies, had many friends, got a salary and gave money to parents,” says Khairussaleh.
“I never expected to be CEO. Now, 26 years later, I can say this. You must understand your mandate. You will be recognised by the quality of your work. As I moved up the ladder, I became more conscious of this.
Here’s a tip. Be results-oriented. Do the job as fast as possible. Instil urgency in the work you do. You will be noticed.”
And to stay at the top?
“Sometimes you won’t get what you want,” he says, “but you must pick yourself up. Reflect on what happened, what you did wrong or why others were better. You must move on. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. Be patient. You need a few scars. It means you’ve learned.”