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The life of a CEO

  • Published at 11:00 pm September 3rd, 2018
What keeps a CEO up at night? BIGSTOCK

Life can be tough for CEOs in local firms too

What should keep a CEO awake in the night? Is it revenue, deteriorating margin, dearth of good people, political uncertainty, obsolete technology, or tension in the family?

A friend, a CEO with a local research firm was telling me, hunting for large and multi-year projects is the biggest challenge for her. Possibly, this is the first time for an otherwise distinguished economist to hunt for juicy projects to keep the organization going. 

It was the same for a CEO friend in a health NGO working in the reproductive sector. He was panicked regarding survival beyond 2027, once Bangladesh starts its journey as a developing country with its aid pipeline dried.

Revenue has been the “centre of the plate” issue for CEOs across the globe. Now the list will also include ensuring a good work environment, diversity at workplace, workplace safety, managing climate change impact, ensuring career growth, and more importantly, brand image and behaviour in the community.

I was only 40, possibly too young to become CEO of a global company here in Bangladesh, that too, in a bank. According to the Bank Company Act, one has to have at least 15 years worth of relevant experience to become the CEO of a banking company in Bangladesh. Credit goes to my seniors in South Asia at Citigroup -- they wanted a local to be at the helm of affairs in the local franchise and drive growth.

I have reasons to be grateful to a few persons at Bangladesh Bank, who not only approved my appointment in little time, but also wanted me to migrate the best practices from the advanced Citi franchises to the Bangladesh financial markets.

To be frank, I didn’t have a clue about what to do and what not to do as the head of the franchise in an emerging market like Bangladesh. Client booking, client relationship management, and trade finance or project finance were not much of a problem, but maintaining global standards, compliance standards, world-class management style, and more importantly, to be able to stay away from controversies, were difficult.

My risk senior in London, who also interviewed me, himself being a country manager in one of the Southeast Asian countries, whispered into my ears: “As a local CEO in a global corporation, you should first stay away from any recruitment, and let HR and the functional heads do their jobs. Second, stay away from recommending any client for credit facilities, despite knowing them. And third, stay away from making any procurement decision or recommending any supply vendors.”

I also received a lot of guidance from my peers and a few other local CEOs in European pharmaceuticals and one or two FMCG giants. They were, of course, few in number. We didn’t have many to consult or follow.

I am much happier today, seeing British American Tobacco hire their first local CEO in the 100 years they’ve been in Bangladesh. I am very proud of one of my long-time colleagues and comrades, for taking over the command at Standard Chartered Bank, Bangladesh.

We have a few more notables, and according to reports, there are many others who have begun flexing their muscles. 

The Bangladesh market has been very tough for locally-grown CEOs. Pressure from the government, hostility from peers, inefficiency of juniors, managing upwards, managing downwards -- there are all sorts of challenges that can drive one crazy. 

The regional office would doubt you, HR would suspect you of recruiting your friends and kin, finance would suspect you of nepotism, and the regional office would curse you for failing to implement the “foreign corrupt practice act.” 

The local market even seems to be ready to accept an O-level or high-school graduate European CEO over a blue chip North American business-school graduate from Bangladesh.

Life can be tough for CEOs in local firms too. Seniors showing hostility -- if you are not apple-polishing them, or unnecessarily soliciting their “blessings,” directors being angry for your failing to treat all of them equally, colleagues frustrated for not being able to promote each of them every two years, there could be so many more reasons.

There are challenges, and you can rest assured that there will be even more once this market becomes more attractive and less of a trouble to govern. Yet, our men and women will be occupying larger, increasingly seniors roles, both locally and regionally, if not globally.

For that, they have to be groomed well, speak the global language, accept the best global practices as their way of life, and embed technology in their day-to-day activities. 

They have to be held by the hand by their seniors and local regulators too. For women, life could be even tougher than their male counterparts. Especially for those who didn’t inherit their paternal business, or do not come from wealthy backgrounds. 

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