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Robert Walters Leadership Podcast E8: Conversation with Muazzam Mohamed, Bank Islam Malaysia Berhad

How is the world of Islamic finance transforming and digitalising itself to meet the needs of modern businesses and consumers? What does this mean for employees and professionals interested in being part of the Islamic Finance sector?

Episode eight of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters podcast in South East Asia sees Mr. Muazzam Mohamed, Chief Executive Officer of Bank Islam Malaysia Berhad, share Bank Islam Malaysia’s digitalisation journey and new five-year strategy, efforts to embed a digital-first mindset among all levels of its employees, his outlook on joining Islamic Finance as a career path, and looking ahead, his commitment and contribution to Bank Islam Malaysia, its Bitizen workforce and the Islamic Finance industry as a whole.

Our Robert Walters Leadership Podcast is part of our Powering Potential series, where we feature leaders from diverse industries and the sharing of their experience, advice, and insights into the world of work. Watch the videocast of this episode here.

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Raja Ahmad Muzamir: 
Hi, I'm Raja Ahmad Muzamir, Director at Robert Walters Malaysia, where I cover the fields of Financial Services, Legal and Human Resources. I'm your host for this episode of our Powering Potential with Robert Walters. This episode is part of the leadership interview series, where business leaders, recruitment experts, and career growth specialists share their insights on careers, leadership lessons, and the latest talent trends.

Today, I'm honoured to have Mr. Muazzam Mohamed, the Chief Executive Officer of Bank Islam Malaysia Berhad, to be with us. Welcome Mr. Muazzam.

Muazzam Mohamed: Thank you for having me.

Muzamir: And thank you for making time for us today. Okay. Let's get started. Looking at your career history, Muazzam, you started off doing financial audit at KPMG, where you stayed for over 18 years, became a partner of the firm before joining Bank Islam Malaysia in 2015 as the Chief Financial Officer, and was subsequently appointed as the CEO.

That's a very solid career path that you've had. How has the experience been like for you, and what were the most memorable highlights of your career so far?

Muazzam: Okay. So thank you again for having me here. Like you mentioned, I mean I've spent quite a considerable amount of time in the consulting and advisory areas prior to joining Bank Islam. I spent a good 18 years there, and definitely, being a fresh graduate working in that kind of consulting, advisory environment in different sectors and all that, it has given me a lot of valuable experience in terms of my competency, hard skillsets that I acquired, knowledge, as well as in terms of shaping the development of myself into who I am today. So, in a way I was blessed to be allowed to be part of the firm immediately after my graduation.

But then again, while there is a lot that I've learned during that period, I'm someone who cannot sit still and be comfortable - I love challenges. And that's also the reason why I stayed that long in the firm because we work on projects and different things and all that. But it came to a stage whereby I was looking for different types of challenges. I would like to contribute more to the country and Islamic finance especially, as I see many potentials to be tapped into.

So, with the skills, knowledge and experience that I’ve gained during my time earlier, I joined Bank Islam in 2015. And even when I joined back in 2015 as the CFO - so, I've been here for more than six years already actually - even from day one, I aim to make Bank Islam achieve a greater height, and Alhamdulillah, the bank continues on steady growth, and now I'm happy to share that we are embarking on being a new Bank Islam. Soon, we will be the first public-listed and pure-play Islamic bank in Malaysia through the ongoing restructuring exercise of our holding company, which is BIMB Holdings Berhad. So, we target that by September this year Insya-Allah, we will be able to transfer that listing status from BIMB Holdings to Bank Islam, so that Bank Islam will become the apex and listed Islamic Bank and first one in Malaysia.

And I've been the CEO for two and a half, almost coming to three years now. You would say that half of the tenure of my leadership as a CEO of the bank is marked by the COVID challenges actually. And in a way, COVID has also impacted in terms of the way of how I lead. It has forced us to be agile in facing the challenges and also the various restrictions that are imposed on us during COVID with the SOPs and all that.

At the same time, it has also accelerated our Bank Islam's digital journey and the need for new and innovative products and services in the market. We also realised that we, especially in times like this, need to be super agile. We need to be nimble to make adjustments to address the different needs because we see that needs are changing moving forward.

Like they say, COVID is like a catalyst that changes a lot of things that we do moving forward. So, Insya-Allah, we have put in our strategy, and late last year, we came up with a new five-year strategy, which we call LEAP25, something that we want to achieve by 2025 to ensure that Bank Islam continue to stamp our mark in the industry.

Muzamir: Okay, thank you for that! And first of all, thank you for really sharing the snippet of your successful career, Muazzam. And most importantly, the plans going forward for Bank Islam, which leads me to my next question on this present-day topic that you just mentioned of the pandemic and the new normal.

So, my next question is leading towards that. The ongoing global pandemic has brought about the winds of change. To many of us, to our aspects of work, from remote or hybrid working, to increase emphasis on employees' mental health, Encik Muazzam, to an industry acceleration towards all things digital like you mentioned, how is Bank Islam evolving to thrive in this new normal?

Muazzam: Yeah, okay. Another good question Muz. Actually, we see this current pandemic in the last 15 months as a window of opportunity for us to grow and move forward in a sustainable way. Especially in this trying time, where there's a lot of challenges affecting not just us but our communities and all that. A lot of our initiatives that we have rolled out and we're planning to roll out will further reflect our commitment towards financial inclusivity. To ensure that there is development for all, as we seek to support the recovery of the economy post-pandemic. We also have to ensure that we safeguard livelihoods for everybody basically.

A good example is that currently, we are offering another round of moratorium to our customers. And I'm happy to mention that in the last three or four days that we have launched the new ones, more than 110,000 customers have already applied and will be given a further moratorium to ease their pain.

So, this is one example and various efforts have been made to ensure that not just our customers, but like you mentioned, also, even our employees are firstly, well-briefed and equipped to be able to assist our customers in need, and also in our pursuit of our agenda, which is to pursue our digitalisation journey basically. So, on this score, the bank is proactive in introducing various support channels. Firstly, to safeguard the wellbeing of our staff, whether it's physical or mental wellness, through introduction of our Bank Islam’s, what we call as Live Well Programme, because we understand that the effects of the pandemic affect people physically, mentally, and all that.

So, we were conscious of rolling that out, and share it with our staff. And towards realising our vision. Our vision states that we want to become the bank that advances prosperity for all. And our mission is actually to provide solutions that deliver value. So, like I mentioned just now, we have set up a five-year roadmap to deliver the promise of technology. Redefine our growth and also redefine our work in new ways specifically, so that by 2025, Bank Islam - we aspire to be a champion in offering Shariah ESG total financial solution, with leadership in digital banking and also social finance, which is important to us.

And maybe if I can share a bit of snippets about this, under LEAP25, we'll continuously pursue our growth within various business lines that we have and also the channels. And this will be delivered through our five business drivers basically - our wealth management, our social finance, our digital banking, our what we call enterprises, and also wholesale banking. And this will be premised on our key lines of businesses that we have currently - we've got consumer banking, SME banking, commercial banking, corporate banking, and all that, including our asset management arm, which is BIMB Investment.

And to further enable us on this journey, we have also launched our Sadaqa House back in 2018 with the aim to increase the impactful beneficiaries. Sadaqa House basically is a crowd-funding platform championed by Bank Islam. And so, that is the pursuit of our social finance basically, Sadaqa House.

And digitalisation that we are pursuing, we expect that to help to change the way we do work at the end of the day. When talking about digitalisation, it's not just about the hard infrastructure, it's about the way of thinking, the way of working. We are adopting currently, or trying to embed this mindset of adopting digital-first approach across the bank, in whatever that we do, whether from business proposition, whether from service delivery, whether from channels and all that, it will be digital-first in terms of how we want to do it.

Now, to adopt this, we intend to apply next-generation technology, such as cloud-native digital banking, we are embarking on our Electronic Know Your Customer or EKYC, so that customers doesn't have to come to our physical branches if they want to do transactions with us. They can do it remotely, all the time, anytime that they want, depending on what suits them.

So, for that, what we've done is in 2019, we have created the Center of Digital Experience or CDX as we call it. And CDX has been actively laying the foundation if I'll say, to set up a 100 per cent digital bank that will be built on a flexible platform I would say that will allow these Fintechs, digital marketplaces, and other strategic partners to plug in directly with us under the digital bank. And for our digital product outside of that digital bank, Bank Islam itself, we're offering our customers new mobile banking; our internet banking.

We rolled out our goal, a mobile app back in November 2019. And basically, what we have seen is that not long after that, because we launched in November 2019, then the pandemic came in. We saw that there was a boom during the pandemic, in terms of the usage of these applications, meaning that our customers doing transaction online and all that have gone up substantially during this period. And then we expect that this kind of growth - because this is something that changes people's behavior and certain things happened. Before this, we had our digital channels and all that, but the take up rate was quite slow because people tend to want to use the channels that they are familiar with. So, if for example before this year, they were familiar with going to our branches, they want to continue that. But the pandemic has resulted in some kind of movement restriction, and that's where we see the changing in behavior - people are a lot more comfortable using our digital channels and all that. And that's why we're putting in a lot of investment in improving that. And we will continue to innovate and upgrade our goal and our other digital channels by introducing more services going forward.

Muzamir: Thank you for sharing that. And I guess that covers the next question that I was going to ask you, and you already answered that in terms of Bank Islam already gearing itself on the new landscape where people are talking about it.

Now people are talking about in the financial services sector, the new digital banking license - this is the current topic. My question to that was how are you and Bank Islam seeking to be the number one player with the inclusion of all these new banking licenses, but you already answered that question for me, Encik Muazzam. Anything to add on the topic of these several new kids on the block vying for this new digital banking licenses? To ensure that Banking Islam continues to be number one in the Islamic banking landscape?

Muazzam: Yeah, okay I think what is important, like I said, there're a few components actually that we have to build and we have to strengthen to ensure that we remain relevant. And we are not here just to remain relevant; we want to be leaders in Islamic finance especially. And digitalisation is definitely one important component to it. So, we are building the building blocks in several ways. Like I mentioned just now on the infrastructure perspective, we are embarking on next generation technology in terms of our critical infrastructure platforms and all that; using cloud and all that. But what is more important, and what we have acknowledged, and substantial investment and planning have been put into it, will be in terms of our talent - our people and our culture. Because at the end of the day, for me, digital is the mindset.

I mean, you can put all these nice infrastructure and all that, but if the people do not want to embrace it, do not want to look at how can we use technology to create a competitive advantage to give superior services to the customers, it will not work. So, people and culture is very important for us to undertake our digital transformation, apart from technology itself.

And for me, this is important to stave off, not just the digital banking players, the new players that's coming in like you mentioned, but even the existing competitors I would say such as the traditional banks existing now, right? So that's why in nurturing digital culture across our people, or what we, our people would call it now as Bank Islam Citizen or Bitizen in short, in embedding this digital culture among our Bitizen, our commitment is to build basically a digital-savvy workforce, and this kind of commitment, Alhamdulillah, we got it even with solid support from our Board of Directors. Because we understand we are a workforce of 4,600 people, and we need a lot of commitment for us to be able to move forward on this kind of transformational journey, especially when you talk about people and culture. I'm sure you can appreciate that.

And to empower our workforce for our digital transformation journey like I mentioned, we worked hard to shift the mindset of our Bitizen, to find new ways of thinking and ways of working, to be data-driven, to be user-driven, customer-first kind of mindset that kind of thing.

And our vision is to have a workforce that is ready to embrace change, dare to shake things up and take the leap, while being prepared to accept some failures, as long as we can learn from it and be able to move forward quicker. And to address our talent pool overall, I'll say the learning and development needs; the L&D needs, we established our own Bank Islam Digital Academy actually recently, and this Digital Academy will offer digital upskilling programme for all Bank Islam employees across all job levels, from the senior management, the EXCO level to the normal staff, whether they are technical or non-technical staff. So, this digital upskilling programme, we have done it for everybody. But basically, this digital upskilling programme is basically an in-house initiative led by our internal expertise. But obviously we are augmented, we are supported by some external expertise for the different areas that we need to build in terms of capability.

And the target is that we can equip our people with digital skills and capabilities through different types of channels of learning and upskilling programme. It begins with driving digital literacy and then moving towards sustaining it. So, what we do is that we start with digital literacy and then we move towards another stage whereby we try to sustain this digital adoption and enable this experimentation of digitalisation as part of building an innovative culture.

So that's why with that we offer various programme to achieve this. So, we've got data analytics champion initiative, we've got robotic process automation and developers’ programme, we've got cloud fluency programme and all that. So, at the end of the programme, these participants will apply what they learned to develop prototypes based on the actual use cases in their work situation itself, for a showcase at our BI activators programme, some people call it hackathon and all that. So that is a programme that we have, so that whatever that they learn, they can apply it in their actual situation by existing use cases and all that. And then being able to obviously pitch for this and that; we will put it into production as a new process going forward.

So, I believe that it is something a long time coming, and this is something that we need to accelerate, and we are taking various initiatives and programmes to get our workforce to be able to embrace it.

Muzamir: I really thank you for that - very insightful thing. For us on the outside, we might not see that - how so much that you've invested in the Bitizens that you've mentioned; creating this innovative culture, which I think is amazing. So that brings me to my next question - let's look at external professionals, external talent, who might be thinking about joining Bank Islam in the near future. What's your advice for them in terms of skill sets that these new professionals today need to succeed in this post-pandemic world? What would your advice be to them, Mr. Muazzam?

Muazzam: Okay. I mean, obviously the first and most important thing is their attitude; attitude is key, right? Experience and skills would come close second, I would say. Specifically in our hiring process, we established an assessment as part of the process to measure talent/cultural fit to our own shared values, and our shared values we call it TAAT, (T) Think Customer, (A) Advance Beyond, (A) Act with Integrity and (T) Take Charge.

And so that is at the point of us attracting talent but at the same time, when we are nurturing these talent and promoting them, we ensure that those who have potential among the top performers and are ready to assume higher roles, by evaluating them on the various aspects of their development - technical or functional aspects, and we measure it against our eight competency behaviours or what we call as our eight conducts.

So, these behavioural competencies will drive the right behaviours towards achieving our bank’s strategic goal of our TAAT values that I mentioned just now. So, this is in terms of how we shape our people.

And then for future leaders in the industry, we'll need these essential core attributes like I mentioned just now. Obviously, they need to have the aptitude to be able to balance between business knowledge with tech fluency, be able to manage complexity, will need strong interpersonal skills, must be able to facilitate change with an inspiring and forward-looking vision, and have the ability to empower a diverse and inclusive workforce across different environments. So that's the one – attitude.

Secondly, also equally important will be in terms of personality traits. That's very important. Traits such as empathy, compassion, passion to pursue your work, ability to listen and give feedback, mentoring, coaching, and all that. That's also important. So, I would say these are the two key ingredients.

Muzamir: Thank you Muazzam for that. My next question is on career choice for talent out there who's in the audience listening. What advice would you give them if they're still contemplating what's next for them upon graduation, for example? What advice would you give them in terms of going into Islamic banking in this current era? What would your advice be for these up-and-coming professionals in the Islamic banking industry?

Muazzam: I mean, the opportunity within the industry is strong, I would say. Yeah, because Islamic finance is mainstream now, basically in Malaysia. And it will continue to grow because there's plenty of opportunities in the future in Islamic Finance. What makes us, Islamic Finance further unique compared to non-Islamic Finance is that we operate based on principles of Shariah, focusing on balancing between the individual and social needs, and also supporting the economic activities that promote justice, as well as responsibility to our society and planet.

So, this is the unique differentiation I would say. And then don't be worried because in Islamic Finance, we do have people with diverse backgrounds. And you don't need to be a banker to be able to work in Islamic Finance now and into the future because we do take in people with non-banking work experience to complement, or even disrupt our existing talent. So, if they are able to bring in and establish new ways of working, to change the way how we do things now. Because these are very important for us to remain competitive and relevant.

So, we will prioritise our people's growth by providing learning opportunities and exposure for re-skilling and upskilling. We'll ensure that there're good career growth opportunities within Islamic finance. So, whether someone out there who's thinking about it, whether you're a fresh graduate or an experienced professional, it doesn't matter whether you're Muslim or non-Muslim and all that, it doesn't matter that you do not have much information about Islamic finance - you will always have a clear opportunity to join a Islamic financial institution, or even Bank Islam for that matter. So as long as the candidate come in with, like I mentioned just now, the right kind of attitude, with a growth mindset, I think there is plenty of opportunities to grow.

Muzamir: I'm sure for the listeners who have just listened to that, they will find that very insightful and useful in making their decisions going forward, in terms of going into Islamic banking. Mr. Muazzam, let's go back to yourself. Looking back at your illustrious career, what would you say has been the key to your own success leading you to where you are today? And has that changed you as a person personally and professionally?

Muazzam: Yeah. Like I mentioned just now, prior to Bank Islam, I've been working 18 years before in an environment whereby it enabled me to work on projects across different industries and different disciplines and all that. So, I think from a technical skills perspective, there's a lot that I've learned. But at the same time on personal development - dealing with people, resolving problems, resolving conflicts and all that - that has also helped me to prepare myself for the new challenge, if I could say that, that I embarked on when I joined Bank Islam back in 2015 as the CFO. And I was hopeful that so far in terms of what I have been able to contribute, because when I joined Bank Islam, the bank itself is already quite a mature organisation that have gone through almost four decades of journey and with different levels of transformation journey already.

And I'm glad the last six years that I've been here, I've been privileged to be part of the team to chart a new growth strategy, a new growth journey for Bank Islam. So even though I was not always a banker, I'm not a thoroughbred banker I admit that. But Islamic Bank, Islamic finance is a subject which is close to my heart. I studied about it in university, I understand it sufficiently in my consulting career, I've given advisory to a lot of banks and financial institutions, especially Islamic financial institutions. So, I understand it enough. But I come in with slightly different perspective in a way because I grew up in a consulting kind of environment. So, when I came in, I can look at things here from a slightly different perspective in terms of how can the bank move forward and grow from here.

But being in Bank Islam is fine and basically Islamic finance industry as a whole, it is not about profit maximisation. We need to show the value of Islamic finance and the impact that it has towards the betterment of our society without harming our environment, we need to be sure that we uphold good governance and sustainability, and we need to look from perspectives of fair and equal distribution; how do we share our prosperity with others and all that. And Alhamdulillah, all these things are important agenda for Bank Islam. And as the bank move forward, we want to spearhead our business transformation, and be able to show the beauty of Islamic finance.

At the end of the day, from the first day that I joined Bank Islam, I always set my aim that later on, I will leave Bank Islam one day, I don't know when that is, but I will leave. But my commitment is that when I leave, I must make sure that the Bank is in a much much better position than when I joined. That is when we know that we have made a contribution to the organisation and for myself, for the bank itself. And obviously, the COVID as a challenge also presented an opportunity for us to accelerate our transformation journey. And as the CEO, the impact of this pandemic has kept me on my toes to make sure that I'm aware of the current needs and all that - devising strategy, how do we move forward sustainably like I mentioned just now. But at the same time, I also know that for us to embark on this journey, I must get the buy-in and support from all our key stakeholders because we alone cannot realise all these targets and goals that we want to achieve.

And especially the most important stakeholder will be our workforce, will be our Bitizens.  So, there's a lot of engagements that we do with them, to get them to buy-in and to believe that this is something not just the bank's agenda but their own personal agenda as well. I've also basically, always have dialogue with industry experts, just to get ideas and views as well, so that I can get different perspectives of things as well that will help us to broaden in terms of our options and all that going forward. So, at the end of the day, hopefully by the time I leave, the bank will be in a better position, like I mentioned. So, in terms of contribution, that will be my aspiration and my personal goal. And I always believe that what the bank has done and will do, will benefit our community and our country as well Insya-Allah.

Muzamir: Insya-Allah Encik Muazzam and I really appreciate that very honest sharing of your aspirations, your successful journey, legacy and passion in the subject matter. Thank you for that. And with that, I think we have come to the end of our session today. Thank you so much again, Mr. Muazzam for taking the time to do this interview with us. I find it very insightful. I'm sure the listeners will find it very insightful and inspiring as well. And I'm sure we all have gained many takeaways on career growth and the world of Islamic banking through your sharing today.

Thank you.

Muazzam: And thank you for having me.

Muzamir: Thank you, Encik Muazzam. And to our listeners and viewers, stay tuned for the next episode of our Robert Walters Powering Potential. Goodbye and stay safe.

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