Muhammad Ali Bhikhan blends communication and cultural awareness for optimum performance

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Absa’s CIO says his position requires a love of people and an understanding of many cultures.

Muhammad Ali Bhikhan is the CIO for retail and business banking (RBB) – Africa regional operations (ARO) at Absa Group. He is a seasoned IT executive with more than 21 years of IT experience, the bulk of it having been spent at Absa.

Muhammad works across 10 different markets in sub-Saharan Africa, where he is responsible for overseeing the provision of technology services in those countries where Absa runs its retail and business systems. He is also responsible for overseeing vendor managed services and support teams operating out of Dubai, India and the UK.

Travel is part of the portfolio entailing face to face engagements with our country teams and vendors. “I travel quite often, especially within Africa, and to countries like India, where a large contingent of our technology support services are based,” he says.

Culturally astute

Muhammad highlights that working in 10 different markets and overseeing the supporting functions in those regions demands a strong understanding of the local culture and the differences among them.

“South Africans tend to have a more direct approach to dealing with issues related to work performance,” he says. “For example, I can have a very frank conversation with most of my South African colleagues about their expected work-related outcomes and the quality thereof. If performance is not aligned to expectations, I can be reasonably upfront about it knowing that the manner in which the feedback is received will be taken constructively, whereas with a colleague in India, I would have to take a very different approach,” Muhammad explains.

“This is because I have come to realise that our support colleagues in India respond more positively if you engage in a moderate style and tone. This cultural sensitivity and adjustment in dealing with stakeholders is continuous and I therefore remind myself to engage in the appropriate manner whenever I deal with colleagues from across the continent – it’s not a one-size-fits all approach,” he adds.

Muhammad’s personal experience has been that, if you get the approach and engagement right, your team will often go above and beyond the call of duty to deliver. “First, understand the culture, work with strengths and not weaknesses, and keep a close eye on measures and delivery: what you asked for and when you need it,” he says. “When dealing with services provided by partners and vendors the above, tightly coupled with a robust service level agreement and penalties mechanism, can be a very effective method in ensuring service delivery is achieved via managed services support agreements.”

Muhammad notes that how we engage cross-culturally affects the response and subsequent actions from the people we interact with, and therefore we need to be keenly aware of our style and approach. Leading with empathy, gratitude and an open honest engagement style has an exponential effect on getting the most out of your team. “Always remember to thank your teams for their great work. Even in something as simple as an email or WhatsApp. I always remember to address people accordingly and to sign it off with a thank you – trust me, people notice those kinds of things.”

The effective communicator

Muhammad has observed that positive acknowledgement goes a long way, especially with younger professionals. It inspires confidence and drive to deliver the best for the organisation. “However, leaders also need to be able to speak out when they are not happy with the work or expected outcomes and in these instances, I prefer to provide private feedback, but acknowledge publicly,” he says.

Muhammad says his communication skills have become one of his greatest strengths. He has witnessed the benefits of good communication, and what it can achieve individually and for your team. His other strengths, he says, lie in building strong capable teams.

“I have developed the ability to bring teams together during difficult times – that’s been a great highlight of my career,” he says. “It’s how you pull people together. It shouldn’t sit well with you, as a leader, to sleep comfortably while your team is dealing with a serious issue the entire night, and to make matters worse, call them up early in the morning asking them why they weren’t already up working on it again.”

“What you should be doing is thanking them for their efforts, checking in on their progress, and seeing how you can help them as a leader.”

Muhammad’s biggest career challenge and subsequent highlight goes back to when he initially joined Absa’s ARO division. He explains that during that period, basic system stability was a serious concern, requiring long hours of dedicated focus to change the negative narrative, but is pleased to be in a situation where they are now able to deliver services at the highest levels across the markets.

“I’m very proud of how we have enabled the business to stabilise and adapt, but now I’m focused on implementing strategies that can help transform the business, and we have some really exciting projects in the pipeline that’ll help make that ambition a reality,” he notes.

He was very careful not to let the cat out of the bag in terms of what these ’exciting projects’ are but shares how technologies such as AI have the ability to further enhance the way we interact with and serve our customers and colleagues. It is quite a powerful and effective tool in the business and has already helped in solving certain issues. “AI, digital transformation and cloud computing are just some of the necessary technology tools required to position – or at the very least assist – businesses in becoming successful in today’s world.”

Muhammad’s sense of humour is very noticeable, especially in the way he shared his experiences with AI, namely ChatGPT. He has a few tips on how to get the most out of the AI tool. “Ask ChatGPT to produce a romantic message for your significant other and see what it produces. My friend! It will make you an instant poet, I tell you,” he jokes.

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