A conversation with Maymoona Ismail: Manager – Learnerships



Given the position you hold, many young individuals, will only see your success?  What has been your greatest failure, how did you deal with it and what did you learn from it?


In my long career I have had many setbacks, disappointments and failures. Each of them has taught me a lot about leadership, people, culture, teams, organisations, but most importantly about myself. 

My greatest failure

My greatest failure was I dealt with retrenchments in my organization in 2010. Etched in my mind was the 20 people, in my team that lost their jobs. Most painful of those memories was how I had to retrench a colleague who was 8 months pregnant and who already had a very complicated pregnancy. 

Those few weeks of that retrenchment exercise felt like years as I battled to minimize job losses whilst executing my responsibilities as a leader. The reality of a retrenchment is always collective leadership failure to either grow revenues or reduce costs. For the people who are impacted by a retrenchment, it’s usually a scar for life, it is never complete, the fear, the uncertainty and loss of confidence continues long after the retrenchment. Remember Maymoona, there is nothing that those people did to be retrenched, and there is nothing they could do not to be retrenched – it’s a no-fault termination. 

As leaders, we have to anticipate economic headwinds, take appropriate actions quite early on to ensure that we avoid retrenchment at all costs – yes, it’s true that sometimes that you can’t escape economic gravity, but there are always levers, at our disposal as leaders, to accelerate revenue growth and drive sensible cost management to avoid retrenchments. In my area of responsibility, we did a lot of this, we had a staff complement of about 13 500, and lost 22 people, whilst the rest of the Organisation lost 2000. But for me, the 22, was a 22 too much, these were 22 families, and more importantly, it also scarred those who remained behind and dented their trust in us as leaders. 


How I dealt with it?

During this period, I hardly slept, I was in constant communication with our leaders, with our teams and our staff. We tried to give them as much information as we could without undermining the process or the law. But remember, no matter how much you communicated, to everybody who is affected by the process, such information is too broad and general, people want to know – how am I affected, how is my team affected, will I lose my job, will I lose my benefits, what will I tell my friends and family? 

You also deal with lots of fear, anger, anxiety and pain, this is made worse by rumours and gossip that create new fears and anxieties. 

Then there is the process itself, you have to guide your leadership team, other leaders, and sometimes your own bosses about how the retrenchment process should be done. I spent a lot of my time advocating, persuading, coaching, cajoling and sometimes reprimanding to ensure that the process is transparent, fair, equitable, sensitive and most importantly humane. 

The process also requires a lot of listening, understanding, making judgment calls and throughout you have to be fast whilst being thorough; consultative yet being discreet; caring for people whilst being commercially astute and being responsive whilst being clear headed about the pace and direction. 

I also had to deal with my wife and my family, I had to insulate them from what was going on for two reasons; firstly, to ensure that I can focus on others rather than myself and secondly to protect them from the anxiety and pain other families were going through. 

Lessons learnt  

There are many lessons I learnt from this experience, the 5 most important are: 

  • There is no substitute to visible leadership during a crisis. Although I tried to reach out and to be visible to all our staff across the 9 Provinces, I should have done more and have done that faster. This has made me more determined to ALWAYS be visible to staff beyond what I used to do. 
  • Communicate, Connect and have regular conversations throughout a time of crisis or strife. I learnt a lot during this time, about mediums of communication, tone, body language, timing and context. I learnt a lot about the power of a combination between the written word, and the spoken word. Through all of these you can convey understanding, empathy, care and responsiveness. 
  • Leadership is about choices, sometimes hard and painful choices. A retrenchment decision is never taken lightly, it has to be well thought through, carefully planned, executed with humanity and finally ensure that those who leave do not lose their dignity while those who stay do not lose their faith in an organization and its leaders. 
  • Deliberate and conscious cost and headcount management is a discipline that escapes many leaders. Most leaders are focused on elusive revenues, but cannot pivot to work under adverse conditions where you have to use the resources allocated to you wisely and frugally to protect the jobs of your staff. 
  • Organisations are about human beings and families, each one of the 22-people retrenched in my team have families, sometimes in the same organisations, our decisions to retrench have huge consequences on those people and their families, sometimes for life. 

I do not wish those events on anyone nor on any leadership team or staff members. But should they happen, for mainly external reasons, I have written extensively about what is a retrenchment; how humanly it can be carried out, and how organisations can recover from it. I hope no organisation should have to use those lessons I gave. 


You lead a huge organization; how do you persuade people to do what needs to be done?


I would like to answer this question in an expanded way, the more seasoned a leader is and the more skilled they are, the points I am about to make can occur seamlessly and the events may overlap and may not be visible to an observer- I choose to expand on them as a guide to leaders out there: 

I have been blessed to learn from leading different teams, in different countries and across different areas in my career. My starting point in all the roles I have been given is that I am illegitimate in the eyes of those I’m expected to lead.

This is so because they may not know who I am; would not have been involved in my selection for the role and may have been very happy with my predecessor. Accepting that illegitimacy humbles you, and makes you realize you have an uphill struggle just to be accepted. 

The next challenge is for me to accept the team I find in my new role. This is one of the major failures of most leaders, they either have preconceived ideas about the teams they inherit or already have people with whom they achieved success before that they already believe should be in the new team. This causes most friction, anxiety and resentment from the team even before a leader has started to chart a new way forward. A leader has to anticipate and fully appreciate the fears and anxieties from team members when there is a new leader, so a leader has to overcome and set aside their own fears, anxieties and sometimes preconceived ideas to embrace and accept the new team and not to think about changes to the team before they have given the team a fair chance to prove themselves. 

The next stage is the learning stage for leaders, this is where a leader takes time to learn about the team, the country, the industry, the competition, the clients, the current strategy etc. A fair number of leaders are too impatient to learn or are too ego driven to accept that they have to build on what exists rather than immediately discarding any positives in the current environment. I’ve always enjoyed this part of the process as you learn about an environment through active listening and asking probing questions. The more experienced one got the more I learnt about nuance, context, history, bias, fears, interests, body language etc as being important things that may colour the things you hear, read and learn about in an environment- rushing to judgment too soon may a huge mistake. 

The most critical part is then the creation of a shared vision or new goals. All the things I described above have a huge bearing on whether people will actively participate in the process but most importantly embrace and adopt the new path as theirs. There is a delicate balance I always maintained between the level of engagement and participation of the team versus the fundamental direction you have in mind at the outset, particularly in an environment that requires change or where the performance is below par. In the end, the whole team has to embrace and champion the strategy and you, as a leader are accountable for its success. 

The strategy or new approach has to be implemented by the whole team, including those who did not participate. To paraphrase a quote by Henry Kissinger, and applying it to strategy, I would say, no strategy- no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none. So, I have always believed that it’s my duty to passionately advocate for any new strategy or approach to all our staff so that they fully embrace it. 

Execution, measurement, monitoring, and regular reviews are the last pieces of the puzzle. The efficacy of the strategy must be reflected in: 

  • changes in behaviour 
  • actions aligned to the strategy 
  • Measurements of the strategy 
  • Regular reviews of the strategy 
  • Action plans, timelines and people accountable and lastly 
  • Improved performance or a change in culture. 

I have applied these principles consistently in different settings to ensure that people do what needs to be done, sometimes it may be difficult things, or a changed behaviour that is required – but there is no substitute to this wholesome approach. 


You have had an amazing journey to success.  What are you most proud of and why?


In the words of Harvey S Firestone, “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leaders” in my own life and leadership journey, I have made the growth and development of young or aspirant leaders my personal mission. I am quite passionate about this and have dedicated most of my life and career towards the growth and success of these young leaders in their personal and professional lives. 

My proudest moments have been to see the young people that I have worked with at Standard bank grow and succeed in their personal and professional lives. Words cannot describe the feeling I get what I see or hear about or hear from a learner who is now a team leader; a teller who is now a manager; a private banker who is now a branch manager; a branch manager who is now a regional manager etc. Even more exciting has been observing these thousands of colleagues build their careers, raise families; develop themselves and finally many of them win local and international accolades. To experience this from colleagues, young and old; black and white; rural and urban; across different countries is something I treasure. 


We live on a continent of immense possibilities.  What do you believe our greatest obstacles in unearthing this potential?


One of the finest people I met in Zambia wrote a book called; “Nothing wrong with Africa, except leadership. I have observed this over a period of more than 20 years working in South Africa and across our beloved continent. 

In the words of Sam Adeyemi, Incompetence in leadership in most African countries is not only the problem of people who occupy positions in government; it is a reflection of the leadership culture. He further argued that we have had different leaders with the same results for decades. He further argues that the power distance that exists between leaders in government and citizens is also reflected in organizations and families. He concludes that in such a structure, leaders don’t serve; they are served, because occupying leadership positions make leaders superior and unaccountable to the people they lead. I would only add that these characteristics are also evident in the behaviours and attitudes of corporate leaders and some community, religious and even traditional leaders. 

As you know Maymoona, Africa is endowed with mineral riches, huge arable land, a young population, an innovative and entrepreneurial culture, amazing beauty – it is in many ways, the last investment frontier. 

There are many things that are required to make Africa reach its true potential, but in my view, the biggest impact will be from the new leaders of the future. 

In a speech I made at Bayero University, in Kano, Nigeria, I argued Africa’s time had arrived – that its people are ready to take their place among the community of nations. What we now require is new leadership across all sectors of our societies – these are need men and women of the highest calibre to lead us into a new African dawn. 

These are men and women will be drawn from the religious, cultural, academic, government, business and civil society. The vast majority of these new leaders will be young and aspiring leaders – what will distinguish them is what Songezo Zibi described as “rational, transcendent leadership.” Such leadership is “either unburdened by the dogmas of the past or able to manage them effectively.”  It is such leadership that can reach out to others, make principled compromises, build towards a greater future and always strive for broader rather than narrow interests.

I am very excited about the possibilities that lie ahead, I’ve seen some amazing African talent of selfless, leaders and I look forward to be part of those who will help them take on this responsibility. I refer to these leaders as the midwives of Africa’s rebirth, they will help Africa reach its true potential. 


How do you find the balance between success and humility?


I come from two strong influences in my life, my late father and the liberation movement of South Africa. Both these influences instilled a very strong sense of purpose and service at a very early age. At every turn of success, they grounded me; at every new opportunity for growth, they held me back and at every time of compliments and adulation, they reminded me about the greater goal. 

Through these experiences, a few fundamental building blocks became a core of who I have become, namely: 

  • Never to define yourself on the basis of material wealth; 
  • Define leadership is not a title held but an influence felt; 
  • Have no personal ambition for organizational positions, be they from being elected or selected; 
  • To share my skills, resources and knowledge with those less fortunate and lastly 
  • to treat every person with respect and dignity regardless of their status in life 

Both these influences from my past, together with my wife, Sva and children, broader family, the community I grew up with, my friends, colleagues and leaders subscribe to the same principles. They keep me grounded and that is why no organizational promotion, financial riches, change in status nor assets possessed would change who I am. 

Finally, I think the most important thing for me is what I regard as my circle of advisers, these are close friends and family who have known me most of my life. My wife is the leader of this circle, she gives regular advice, solicited and unsolicited- she and the other advisers would be the first to call out any behaviour that portrays arrogance or aloofness. 


What habits do you practice that allow you to remain relevant as a leader?


Remaining relevant in such an ongoing changing VUCA world is not easy. It’s also humbling to remember that leaders of great companies such as Nokia, Kodak, Xerox etc thought they were relevant until it was too late. There are 4 things I try and do to remain relevant and responsive: 

  • I am a ferocious reader, I am always curious about various topics and keep abreast of developments across a wide knowledge spectrum; 
  • I have cultivated and built a network of friends from across the world to always understand the different nuances; 
  • I have always been a huge believer in lifelong learning and have kept up with both learning and development in both formal and informal ways; 
  • I try to be visible, approachable and accessible to a huge range of staff members and customers across different countries, the conversations I have with them always broaden my own knowledge; 
  • I also am very passionate about engagements with young people, their perspectives are quite unique and help me stay in touch with their thinking and lastly 
  • I always love to be a student and not an expert on anything, this allows me to challenge my own paradigms, test my assumptions and question my own biases. 


What keeps you sane?


I think my wife and three children keep me sane, they are so different, yet all so much alike. They take me away from the entire wide world to a very narrow world called “husband and fatherhood” – in that world your passport for entry is Love, care, lots of fun, lots of fun, integrity, honesty and a little bit of spending money. I know I always have to re-enter this world, every day, and what keeps me sane is that my passport must always be valid and up to date. This is the most important world, it gives me so much power and courages me to go to the broader world to try and make a difference. My need to always have a valid passport to enter this small world is what truly matters to me more than anything in the world. 


You have achieved so much in your life, what is the one thing you want to be remembered for and why?


I was thought never to worry about how I will be remembered, this is so for two reasons; firstly, it’s important to live a life of purpose and to make a difference without regard to sentiment or accolades and secondly you have no control about how people will remember you and there will always be different memories of each one of us. 

My focus between now and the end of my life is to respond to a challenge set by Prof Clay Christensen, which was, “How will you measure your life “I therefore am focused on those things that will make me respond to that question. All those things or those actions or programmes are about making a difference in my family, my broader family, my community, my country, continent and the world through helping young leaders to grow and succeed. 

In the end, it will be up to others to conclude how they would remember me, for now I live everyday as if it’s my last, there is so much to do in all my spheres of influence. As for how I will Be remembered, I am remembered at all, I can only take comfort in the ever-green words of President Theodore Roosevelt, in his famous “The man in the arena “speech in France in 1910. He said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

All I can do between now and the day I leave this earth is to be in the Arena trying to make a difference 


What about the future keeps you awake at night?


There are 3 key things that keep me awake at night: 

Firstly, the future of my children, I hope and pray that they will grow up to be upstanding citizens of this country and contribute towards a better society. 

Secondly, the level of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment is a huge risk to this country’s future. How do we work even harder to create a much more humane and equitable society – where more people than less benefit?

  • The huge advantages of the new technologies are making other nations advance at a rapid pace, how can we as Africans, utilize these technologies and innovations to tackle our societal challenges. 


What is the greatest advice you received?


Treat everyone with respect and dignity regardless of their station in life. I try and live by that advice, this means you must see the people who are invisible, to hear those who have no voice, to defend those who are powerless and never judge people based on either their appearance, race, culture, age or social status. 

Thank you Maymoona for these soul-searching questions, I hope you will find them useful.