Tahir Ahmed

MD, Jubilee General Insurance

By Wali Zahid 12.02.2011

Your one-sentence description of yourself?

Like to lead by example.

Your first leadership opportunity? When? What was it?

This was in 1983 when I was ‘pushed’ to become Deputy Manager at Adamjee Insurance.

As a matter of background, I was an all-rounder at school: played all sports, squash being my favourite; was a debator. In engineering, received a gold medal. This made me a believer in meritocracy.

This is a coincidence that in our class of 1971, 13 out of 40 classmates are CEOs!

Those days, read Henry Mintzberg’s Corridors of Indifference. Initially, I joined training department, which proved to be a thankless job.

Leadership transcends from all leaders. Our MD Noorani’s enabling environment before his retirement helped many qualified people to learn the ropes of leadership.

We then had the legendary Muhammad Chowdhry as our new MD. He used to give a lot of positive strokes to people, even on occasions when they would wear a new jacket. He would make decisions at a lightning speed.

Were you ready for it? (H, M, L, no)

H. Took it in stride.

What was your readiness factor? (luck, will, skill, network)

A combination of hard work and luck. (Adamjee Insurance advert asking for engineers!)

How did you perform then? On a 1-5 scale?

5.

Your all-time most significant leadership opportunity so far (if different from this)?

In 2001, when I said yes to a Dubai posting. Adamjee was in a chaos there, a war-like situation. A Kirk Douglas movie, Run on the Bank-like scene. We had more claims money than we had in premiums.

My first task was to make office a physically safe place for staff so they could deal with aggressive and demanding claimants. My second task was to deal with demoralized and demotivated workforce and infuse pride in them. The third was money to be arranged from Pakistan office.

Over the next few month I met every claimant and assured them that every liability will be paid off. I agreed with them an arrangement of delayed payments over a 24-month period.

Within 18 months, Adamjee office became normal and we gained our trust back. My next task was to look after key account management.

Your ideal, future leadership opportunity?

That people consider and recognize as the leader in insurance industry.

Is it likely to happen in your remaining work years?

Yes, content. I am already chairman of IIP.

Today in your current role: Where are you on Wali’s Will-Skill Matrix (high, medium, low)?

High will. High skill. We have been bullish. Our market share has risen from 6% to 14% over these years. Our business plan envisages market share to rise to 17-18% by 2014.

What drives you? (one-word driver)

Achievement.

Candidly speaking, have you been happy about growth numbers in the past decade?

Yes. We have been fastest-growing insurance firm.

In an uncertain and ambiguous world, how can you make sure that your plans are achievable?

Intelligence is doing things in an ambiguous world.

How easy or difficult is it to manage the Gen Y/Millennials (people born after 1982)?

Our transition strategy visualizes this. Our second line successors are in 30-40 age bracket. We are traditional; they are tradition-breakers. They are all-in-one package: far more intelligent, brighter and ready to face the demanding clients.

Your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? In your industry? In your organisation?

‘The leader’

What would you want to see in your leader (i.e. your leader to do)?

Integrity. Fair-minded.

Your learning: Where do you turn to for learning – both daily routine, and time-off for courses?

I read history, particularly Ottoman era and Muslim Spain. Recent reads: The Grand Turk (on Sultan Mohammad), and Lanepur’s Spain. I read biographies (like Tuzk-e-Babri and Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad – The Prophet of Our Time). I do not attend courses.

Are there sufficient opportunities for C-level learning here in Pakistan or in the region?

No formal classroom opportunities. I use peer mentoring as a learning tool. People like Asad Umar (Engro), Ehsan Malik (Unilever) and Qazi Sajid (BASF) are my source of inspiration.

Learning and development of your team – what opportunities are available here? Your rating of these programmes? (1-5 scale)

Technical training? No. We need to send our people to Switzerland, Singapore, Malaysia, UK and Middle East to receive insurance-related training. Training in soft skills? Yes. My rating: 2 or 2.5.

What would you want different about these programmes?

I want case studies and leadership games to be added.

What are three core competencies or skill areas you would want your team to develop for this year? Next three years?

Information about self, products, competitors. Innovate new products. Welcome change (and not resist).

What is your biggest time eater at work?

Getting unnecessary issues resolved, which involve fighting the system. Issues with the SECP, income tax, CCP. This also increases our stress levels.

Information overload: What is your coping mechanism?

I pass on 99% information to teams. I come early. Read all emails.

Do you have a stop-to-do list?

No interference in financial reporting.

How can we give up control (and do more empowering)?

Give them space. They will talk to you if they face a problem or roadblock.

What kind of personal or social networks do you use to enhance your presence and the chances for success?

I am a member of several clubs. My 11 direct reports and I usually go to lunch or dinner which helps in learning. I also use peer mentoring with other like-minded CEOs.

Wali showed his surprise on Tahir having too many direct reports.

Tahir’s reply: No worries, Fiat CEO used to have 22 direct reports!

Faith? Is faith an inspiration for you?

Very much so. Faith teaches us everything.

Ever thought that how could the Prophet (saw)’s personality be a guiding factor for you in doing business, making decisions, empowering others? If yes, in what ways?

The Prophet (saw) maintained principles under all pressures.

When he came to Madinah, he neutralized three powerful Jew tribes and established his leadership.

He led by example; digged khandaq himself.

Kept a balance among wives (a lesson for us CEOs to keep balance in teams).

When he appointed the companions on an expedition, he gave comprehensive briefing that did not require any follow-up. In today’s parlance, would mean that you provide role clarity.

Michael Hart quotes a Hadith: ‘My companions are equal to the prophets of Bani Israel’.

CEO derailment? Have you seen colleagues derailing/going down? What was the cause?

I know senior executives who bended rules to give fast-track promotion to a dear one. This clouded their stated meritocracy and eroded standards of transparency.

Any other cause of CEO derailment in our part of the world?

Lack of integrity. Lack of decision making.

Your messages to new generation of leaders: What leads to success?

Positive-mindedness: that you can achieve. Picture your future. Then live life in reverse.

Your messages to new generation of leaders: Can you create your own luck? How?

Yes. To a great extent. Gladwell says: Luck is a combination of time and place. If you accept opportunities that come your way. My father taught us the ability to question.