Dubai Islamic Bank’s Chilwan: “Employees will continue to stay relevant in this new digital age”

By Foo Boon Ping

In a straightforward interview with The Asian Banker, Adnan Chilwan shares his views on digitalisation and its impact on banking and talks about what drives him to continuously move forward.

  • Chilwan aims for DIB to become an integral part of customers’ lives
  • Clarifies the misconception that technology will replace people
  • DIB sees itself as a ‘Digitally Intelligent Bank’

Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB) group CEO Adnan Chilwan received the CEO Leadership Achievement award with DIB being named as the Best Managed Bank in UAE during the The Asian Banker Innovation Leadership Achievement Awards 2019.

Chilwan joined DIB 10 years ago and under his leadership, DIB underwent a financial transformation and a change in mindset. With his decade-long vision, he converted the oldest Islamic bank in the world into the most successful one in the region.

His targets for himself and the bank have been ambitious, but his detail-oriented and scientific approach to execution has made delivery appear easy. He broke his ultimate vision down into manageable steps and kept providing input and guidance to steer and direct.

He then led the bank to expand to several other markets including Kenya with plans to further expand the bank’s footprint in East Africa.

Chilwan further elaborates about his thoughts on leadership, success and lessons he learned along the way in his short conversation with The Asian Banker.

Foo Boon Ping (BP): What are your vision, leadership and management beliefs or style, in relations to the business, and dealing with stakeholders, most importantly the customers?

Adnan Chilwan (AC): Success and leadership, as we all probably know, are two sides of the same coin. I’ve always believed that as a leader of one of the largest organisations in the country, it is my key responsibility and role to guide and set paths for my team to follow and execute. Success to me is defined by consistency, perseverance, collective adherence to the paths laid out in our strategies, and then most importantly, robust execution of them. And at DIB, I am fortunate to lead a strong team of professionals who have been doing exactly that. Consistently.

Customers are at the very core of all we do. And the current set of customers are more connected than ever before. From products and services that we have launched over the years to the recent launch of our Digital Lab, we have set very clear objectives in terms of where and how we need to reach our customers, and more importantly, how to meet, manage and finally, exceed their expectations. That is one of the key business mantras that I, and the team at DIB, are collectively aligned to.

BP: What are the personal and bank achievements that stood out for you, and why?

AC: I shall not go into the literal numbers and achievements here, for they have been well-documented in the past few years in the public domain. What I would like to touch upon are the achievements which I really treasure, the ones that mean a lot more to me than any other.

A leader, in my humble opinion, is defined by the team he leads. From the very outset, I’ve been clear about not pursuing awards or accolades. I’ve laid emphasis on my team to work as per our strong strategic plans and continue to push ourselves to deliver on all that we have promised ourselves and to our stakeholders, and not worry about what accolades will come our way in the process. It is the business that has been the ultimate winner. The organisation has been spoken about in depth, in the media, in the digital space and on social platforms. It’s the market and the industry that has done the talking for us. And that, in my opinion, qualifies right up there as one of our greatest achievements.

My aim personally has also always been to be open to learning, from my peers and from other industry giants, and it’s that thirst for knowledge and to be just a little bit better than yesterday that continuously drives me forward.

BP: What did you learn from major adversities about yourself and the organisation? And what of the lessons surprised you?

AC: Lessons don’t surprise me – they always inspire me. They inspire me to learn from them, and always give me a new sense of retrospection. Every lesson that I have learnt in life has been the answer to some challenge, either by providing me with an insight on how to tackle it differently than how I had done it in the past, or by opening up a new door or opportunity to explore.

I often tell people: The one thing a simple game like Tetris has taught me is that if you try to fit in, you will disappear. It’s the only constant, and the ability for a leader to embrace change and adapt at every step of the way is critical for his success and the success of his organisation.

I firmly believe that the ability to adapt to situations and circumstances, and anticipate and identify the challenges well in advance and carve out my own path through them is what I’ve greatly benefitted from, over the years.

BP: What are your views and strategies around digital transformation and “future proofing” the organisation?

AC: Digital transformation is here, and here to stay. It is safe to say that with digital transformation, strategies have changed, mindsets have changed, and with that, priorities have changed. We have now moved into the world of more engaged customers, where the number of customers is not as important. Clearly, it’s now more about engagement. And the more engaged the customer, the better our business relationship is likely to develop further.

Financial services and institutions now reside in an ecosystem which is technologically driven. We need to subscribe to it and embrace it, rather than try to own it. For me, the definition of digital is simple: to use appropriate technology that’s relevant to our business, to enhance customers’ experience, increase revenue and reduce costs. We at DIB would like to see ourselves as a Digitally Intelligent Bank. But it’s important to note here that for us at DIB, being a digitally intelligent bank, is NOT about fancy AI gizmos and gadgets. It’s about how we invest in and use digital platforms and channels that are appropriate to us, to reach out to our consumers and help make their lives better. The more seamless we make it for our customers, the more integral we will be to their lives. We will cease to be just another bank, but become a partner instead. That’s the role we as DIB would like to play, moving forward.

Now clearly, digital transformation comes with its own set of challenges and risks. Along with the more obvious ones of cyber security and technological risks, I see another critical challenge in the digital space today – the misconception that technology will replace people. This, in my opinion, is perhaps the biggest impediment to organisations embracing the digital transformation. We, at DIB however, feel otherwise. Organisations that continue to train, develop and upskill their employee base will enjoy greater acceptance of the digital revolution as employees will continue to stay relevant in this new digital age.

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