Managing your life & career: An interview with Dr Nahla Khaddage
Change Management and Organisational Resilience expert Dr. Nahla Khaddage Bou-Diab is the COO of AM Bank s.a.l in her native Lebanon, having joined the organisation in 2000.
Prior to that she was responsible for launching Ernst & Young Lebanon’s Management Consulting Services, and also led the restructuring of Central Bank of Canada.
Noted internationally as an inspirational leader, Dr. Khaddage has broken new ground in integrating spiritual values within the corporate structure, and as Head of Women Empowerment for the World Union of Arab Bankers she introduced the first charter for gender diversity in the Arab world.
She has achieved all this despite severe hardships while growing up, being deprived of a university education as well as encountering prejudice and workplace harassment. Instead of letting these obstacles defeat her, she instead identified and followed a set of guiding principles that have allowed her to succeed, and as summed up in her new self-help guide, become ‘untamable’. As revealed in this interview, by following author Dr. Nahla Bou-Diab’s expert guidance you, too, can break out of your confines and become untamable.
Can you describe a typical day in your job?
I start my day looking at financial and operational ratios. There are two angles to this.
One, regular stats and reports that give me peace of mind that all ratios are in line with our forecasted plans. My objective here is to ensure there are no abnormalities that I need to address. Two, ratios linked with new strategies, and I have to say that our normal day-to-day life includes unleashing new creative solutions. I give a lot of attention to these ratios as I analyse the results. This is important so that I can define my intervention to assist, motivate or remove obstacles and enable the success of these strategies. The results of my assessment will trigger other activities, such as brainstorming and ideation, which may become new innovative or agility-related projects.
I spend a lot of time managing the culture by activating people. I do what is necessary to keep people passionate about what they do. I ignite the bond between people and one of my top priorities is to keep people dreaming of a better tomorrow. I bring all efforts together to create the organisational dream.
I spend time talking to customers, understanding their needs and strengthening their bond with the organisation.
Regardless of how busy I am, people know that if they have a critical personal issue, I will make time for them and the organisation will support them.
You overcame numerous personal hardships growing up to break into the financial industry. Can you, briefly, tell us about this?
I can categorize my life into two parts. The first part is dominated by experiencing events, most of which can be labelled under ‘hardship’ and learning from these events. This first part would cover my childhood, immigrating to Canada from Lebanon and experiencing the hardship of rejection and bullying, then starting my professional life and facing harassment and discrimination. In this phase of my life I was experiencing, feeling and learning.
The second part of my life is when my learnings came together to define who I am. This is the phase when I depicted a consistent pattern of events and outcomes that materialised through my life. The dominant moment in this phase was when I realised that there is a relationship between my thoughts, my perspective, my actions and the outcome of my experiences. This second part of my life is where I harvested the knowledge and the emotions I endured in part one. In this part of my life I realised that the hardship I lived through was actually a rich experience that ignited my ‘powers’. It is in this part of my life when I started documenting and researching, then decided that it is time to share and contribute to people’s growth.
You accelerated up the career ladder within the financial industry. What was the secret of your success?
There are two secrets and I share them in my book. The first one lies in the principles I live by—these principles that enabled me to effectively implement the step I share in my book, Untamable: ‘Connect, Trust and Accept’. It is these principles that guided my every decision and triggered my positive outlook on life, which led to my hard work and my perseverance.
The second one is my sense of purpose. I believe that I am here to experience life, to learn, to share, to love and make the world a better place by sharing the knowledge I have acquired so that others can reproduce the same successful cycle.
In your early career, you encountered harassment in the workplace. Can you briefly explain more, and how you handled it?
I was 18 years old, waking up from the realisation that as a result of my family’s traditional values I would not be allowed to pursue a university education because I was a girl. Although I was sad and broken, I accepted my circumstances. I saw this job as an opportunity to work hard and excel hoping that the company would support my night studies. With this state of mind, I got harassed by my manager. I felt invaded and scared, and my ambitions of having my work recognised were reduced to holding the job without giving into the manager’s advances. I could not tell anyone about this because I was worried that if I spoke up I would lose my job—which would place me in an even more difficult situation, especially as I was the main financial provider for my family. I felt helpless, and so I had to decide to pull myself out of the details and observe the situation from the outside. I used my thoughts to see more positive perspectives and decided that I am the master of my life and the manager was just a test to see if I would be distracted. It was my opportunity to validate my connection to my universe and to trust it. I applied my principles, and pulled myself out of the details and rejected all the negative noise. I focused on doing the work and nothing else, giving no mind to the distractions that would lead me astray of the path I chose for myself. Applying my principles in these circumstances resulted in nothing less than a miracle.
You are the author of a new self-help guide, Untamable, which sets out the guiding principles you have adhered to in your life. What are these, and what do you think professionals will gain from learning them?
My book invites the reader to implement one core step: ‘Connect, Trust and Accept’. Connect to the greater power that created us, trust it and accept that it will have your best interest at its core.
Associated with this are five principles that I live by to help me adopt this core step. If people can learn to feel gratitude; if they can learn to observe the details of their life instead of becoming a detail; if they can care for not only their physical bodies but also for their emotional and spiritual selves; if they can allow themselves to dream and release all expectations, they will be able to ‘Connect, Trust and Accept’. My book teaches the reader how to adopt these principles and implement this step by illustrating how I did it and using my life events as examples.
As the COO of a Lebanese bank you have taken active steps to integrate a spiritual dimension within the workplace. Can you explain what this has entailed, and why it has benefitted the company?
There are multiple decisions that were made in order to ensure that the integration of the spiritual dimension in the organisation was possible. I would like to highlight that the ‘spirituality’ I am referring to is a non-religious spirituality. It is a spirituality characterised by the need to have a sense of purpose and sense of belonging, not only to the organisation but also to the greater universe. The objective of integrating feelings of spirituality in the organisation was to make the organisation a place where one can integrate the whole parts of themselves into their workplace. It is a place where people and the organisation become one, bringing all energies of the people towards a higher purpose where both people and organisation can benefit. The intention is to make the organisation feel like home, becoming a place where there will be oneness that triggers a common purpose for both the organisation and its people. The organisation became the place where people are able to express themselves and unleash their passion. This objective dictates a redefinition of the organisation’s structure, its processes, its evaluation systems, and its decision-making processes. What we did is embed feelings that enable spirituality within the organisation, its the hierarchy and its processes. The result was magnificent on all levels—so magnificent that the organisation received multiple awards over the last few years and, in 2020, an award for achieving the highest level of resilience, at a time when the country was managing violence and total economic collapse. The organisation’s ratios exceeded the market and its culture is a benchmark.
You have also overseen a move towards a more gender-equal balance within the company. Aside from the fundamental issue of equality, why does greater gender diversity strengthen a business?
Gender diversity provides the company with the diversity of skills and competencies it needs to succeed in today’s high-pressure economic environment. The fact that men and women can bring to the company different skills will ensure that the skill set in the company is complete. Men and women bring different perspectives to the table and strengthen the company’s ability to create products and services that appeal to a wider population. More importantly, if gender diversity is supported by a healthy culture then we will see men and women reach out to each other to benefit from each other’s skills, in a way they operate as one perfect ‘body’.
You have earned a reputation as an inspirational leader. What are the key qualities business leaders need to get the most out of their teams?
Freeing themselves from the ‘ego disease’ is crucial to institute effective decision-making processes. Leaders also need strong analytical abilities to tie all financial and operational ratios to the macro view of the company strategy, empathy and compassion to retain talent, an expertise in managing change to institute change readiness in the culture, and strong interpersonal skills to trigger collaboration.
Your guidance comprises a distinct type of mindfulness. While some companies have incorporated mindfulness programmes, it is by no means across the board. What do you think companies are missing if they do not initiate such programmes for staff?
The mindfulness programs I have seen focus on supporting employees through a set of activities that the company finances. This means that the company pays for the program but it keeps its distance from its employees. The spirituality or mindfulness that I am talking about is, by contrast, founded on integrating the ability to trigger feelings of spirituality and/or mindfulness within the organisation. Whether we are defining the number of layers of an organisation’s structure, defining the company’s decision-making process, its recruiting process or its performance evaluation process, objectives related to triggering mindfulness within the culture must be integrated into the processes themselves. I believe that enabling feelings of spirituality, or as you call it ‘mindfulness’, inside the organisational environment will optimize the performance of the organisation.
What is the best piece of professional advice you have received, and why?
I always remember this statement made by one of the partners in a firm I worked with in Canada: “Not everything is black and white. Sometimes you have to manage the grey”. It’s easier to see everything in black or white, but it’s exhilarating to live in the unknown and strive to continuously understand. It’s even more exhilarating to evolve and see more shades of the grey.