Whether out of arrogance or ignorance, bankers are renowned for taking a dim view of their human resources colleagues. But what happens when a banker unexpectedly becomes an HR professional? Sehr Ahmed is a rare case in point.
Back in 2001, Ahmed, now a Hong Kong-based executive coach, had reached the senior ranks in front-office banking. She’d worked in Asia and Canada since 1989 at Deutsche Bank, ANZ and HSBC, and had recently returned to her native Pakistan to manage structured finance for ABN AMRO.
“When the local HR head at ABN was picked up by a competitor, the CEO called me out of the blue and asked me whether I'd consider a move into HR,” Ahmed told eFinancialCareers at the recent CFA Institute Annual Conference in Hong Kong. “He said he thought I was strategic, good with people, understood the business, and would be a great match for the role.”
Ahmed hesitated at first, having never considered HR as a career and being well aware of the negative stereotypes surrounding the function. “But then I thought, coming from the front-office, perhaps I could help reverse some of these unfair perceptions. I got instant credibility with the business because I spoke their language and understood their problems,” she says.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ahmed also saw HR as a way of further progressing her career within her bank. “I spotted an opportunity to build a niche HR skill set and add this to my existing knowledge of the business. This combination has been my unique differentiator over the long term,” she explains.
Her initial assumptions proved correct. Little more than two years after taking the Pakistan HR job, ABN AMRO installed the former banker as head of HR for Greater China. And by 2005, Ahmed was running the team for all of Asia Pacific. “One of my first tasks in HR was to re-align the bank’s local pay structure to the market, and doing this gave me a lot of credibility. As an ex-banker, I was also able to really understand our business strategy and what it meant for our people and culture.”
Ahmed joined BNY Mellon in 2009 as head of human resources for Greater China and Korea. Two years later, she moved to Singapore and took over the HR reins for Asia Pacific at Chartis Insurance, which employed 5,500 people across the region at the time.
Moving to McDonald’s
In early 2012, however, Ahmed found herself spending plenty of time in…McDonald’s. She’d just been headhunted to apply for the Singapore-based job of senior HR director (a key succession role to the chief people officer) at the fast-food chain, responsible for Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.. “To get to know the company better ahead of my interviews, I sat and watched how everything ran in their restaurants,” says Ahmed.
She got the McDonald’s job, her first role outside the finance sector, and soon returned to the restaurants – but on the other side of the counter. “As part of my induction, I spent three months in the kitchen, flipping burgers, shaking fries and hitting every crew station,” she says. “It was brutal being on my feet for nine hours a day, but it gave me total respect and empathy for our staff. In banking, top leaders are a bit removed from employees and customers; it was the opposite in McDonald's.”
Ahmed is now trying to impart some of the McDonald’s leadership style to her clients – including senior managers in the finance sector – in her new role as CEO of Hong Kong-based coaching and consulting practice Executive Edge.
“Many banks are experiencing high growth rates in Asia, but their leaders are typically younger and less experienced than their counterparts in the West, and are less likely to stay with their employers. This has created a shortage of leadership skills in Asian banking,” says Ahmed. “In this region, becoming a better leader is just as crucial to career success as your technical banking skills, especially when you consider that you’ll probably be managing people remotely across countries with vastly different cultures.”