UPDATED: Abubakar was promoted to CEO at Sterling Bank three months after this interview. Congrats to him.
Abubakar Suleiman is an Executive Director and the Chief Financial Officer of Sterling Bank Plc. He became the CFO of the banking giant at 40. In this interview with JarusHub Editor, the 1995 Economics graduate of the University of Abuja shares insights on his career.
Kindly tell us about your background, including your academic and professional background.
I have a B.Sc. in Economics from the University of Abuja, a Masters degree in Major Program Management from the University of Oxford, and have attended various executive education programs at INSEAD, Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Said Business Schools.
I began my career as an Experienced Staff Assistant at Arthur Andersen (now KPMG Nigeria), before moving to MBC International Bank (now First Bank) as a Management Associate and later worked in Citibank Nigeria in roles spanning Treasury and Asset & Liability Management.
From there, I joined Trust Bank of Africa in 2003 as the Head of Treasury and Finance before it merged with other banks to become Sterling Bank in 2006. Following the merger in 2006, I was appointed Group Treasurer; a position I held until 2011 when I assumed the role of Integration Director – tasked with managing and integrating Equitorial Trust Bank (ETB) into Sterling.
In 2012, I was named the Chief Financial Officer and was appointed to the Board in April 2014 with responsibility for the financial performance of the Company; and directly overseeing the Finance and Performance Management, Strategy and Innovation, Brand Management and Communication, and Human Resource Management Department.
You started your career in Arthur Andersen (now KPMG), before joining the banking system. At JarusHub here, we generally advocate that consulting or professional services firms are a good place to start career given the quality of training. Do you agree? How helpful was your training in Arthur Andersen to your subsequent career progression?
Your counsel to young graduates to start their career in consulting and with professional services firms is a sound one. I started my career with Arthur Andersen and without doubt it made the difference in my career in many ways.
Apart from being some of the most prestigious firms around, consulting and professional services firms in the class of the Big Five are the equivalent of going to Harvard because they have best-in-class learning environments which help employees build knowledge, expertise and professional network fast. They transform smart and intelligent young professionals into knowledge workers who no longer have to market themselves as hard as most of their peers. In my opinion, they provide the best on-the-job education any young professional can get because of the sophisticated and thorough internal trainings open to all employees.
My training in Arthur Andersen made it possible for me to work across multi-disciplinary teams; it has helped me to be more analytical, build my network and has granted me the opportunity to meet with some of the brightest minds I have ever met in my career life. Even though Arthur Andersen was largely about accounting, we were all trained to be experts in financial performance. We all had expanding roles, working across teams, projects and corporations in roles that include risk, compliance, HR, and IT. Combining all of these skills and competence gives a competitive edge.
As much as consulting firms are a good place to start, not everyone will get their first job at one. Regardless of what your first job is, find out the requisite skills you need to grow in your chosen career path and do your best to acquire those skills or get mentored by those who have done what you want to do. That said, my training at Arthur Andersen
You started your banking career in 1998 at 25, and by 2014, just 16 years after, you had risen to become an Executive Director in a top bank. That’s a rapid rise. Did you get double promotions?
As earlier stated, I started my banking career as a Management Associate in MBC International Bank (now First Bank Plc). The Management Associate programme is what you would call a fast-track programme which was targeted at identifying and developing young talents, with the required passion to build and make valuable contributions to the growth of the Bank, for leadership positions in the Bank.
It might sound like pure luck but in the real world you have to deserve success before you can be given a chance to succeed and it is not really just about the being as much as it is about the doing. Luck is simply opportunity meeting preparation and preparation on my side meant a lot of hard work. I really loved what I was doing and gained expertise through much practice and sacrifice. Like a friend of mine once said, “Nobody grants you autonomy without vetting your expertise.”
People generally believe that career progression in bank is slow, you stay in one position for 2-4 years, and the career ladder is too tall (too many positions to go through), do you agree? How did you grow so fast?
This is a myth. Career progression in banking is not slow, steady and stable. It is quite dynamic and can be a different experience from one employee to another. People do not necessarily have to stay in one position for 2-4 years before they get promoted. Top talents rise fast which explains why the banking profession remains one of the top career choices for new graduates.
The job of the banker is no longer slow, steady and stable. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, it is fraught with uncertainties and requires solid professional training and certification. However, rising to the top and chances of promotion are based on performance on the job. This diminishes the argument about the industry’s tall career ladder.
I had the right qualifications and had gained some experience before deciding on a career in banking. I had clarity about the future I was setting up and also acquired the requisite soft skills that include emotional and executive intelligence. All of these play a big part in determining how far one will go.
From your profile, your career path shows that you have always worked in Head Office-based functions (Treasury, Business Integration, Financial Control etc). Do you agree with the general notion that Head Office-based functions tend to promote faster career rise than field or branch-based banking roles?
Employees’ promotion is for business purposes and are tied to performance. It is not whimsical or discretionary. Promotions are based on performance appraisals and not the proximity of employees to business leadership as many would want to infer.
Banking career is no longer as exciting and prestigious as it used to be. What do you think is responsible, if you agree?
Do you mean investment banking? I think it is investment banking that temporarily lost its allure following the recurrent cycle of boom and decline experienced in the last 10 years. In fact, investment banking prides itself offering the most prestigious positions in all of finance.
Investment banking suffered major reputation damage after its soft underbelly was revealed by the 2008 global financial crisis with roots in the US subprime mortgage crisis. With global economy still in turmoil, investment bankers no longer earn the perks and fat bonuses which makes a jet set life of luxury their hallmark. It is investment banking that has taken the hit.
On the other hand, commercial and retail banking, the segment in which we have the numbers is becoming more exciting with the disruption and innovation technology is bringing to bear on the ways transactions are being done.
Fintechs are transforming banking, back-office operations and the way people and corporations connect with their banks. So technology is providing banks that are agile with a new world of exciting possibilities.
As an executive, you must have interviewed many candidates seeking employment in Sterling Bank (or elsewhere in your previous employments), do you agree that the quality of graduates Nigerian educational system produces is low as people say? What qualities do you look for in recruiting candidates for jobs?
Well, the Nigerian educational system is challenged and we all know that the topline issue is inadequate funding of the public school system. The public school system from primary to the tertiary levels which are supposed to cater to the masses – majority of Nigerians – are not faring well compared to privately owned schools.
In no small measure, this has affected the quality of graduates being produced by our universities.
That said, the recruitment process for an institution such as ours ensures that only the best pass through HR. In part, this insulates some of us from engaging with those we might want to describe as half-baked graduates.
In hiring candidates, I look out for passion and a can-do spirit because you must be competent and skilled to have passed through HR. Having the right attitude is always a deal maker.
What’s your typical day like?
A typical day for me starts and ends with work as I spend most of my time at the office except when I am on a training programme, business trip or on vacation during which work still finds its way in somehow. I am an early riser and my average resumption time is 7:30 am. I begin with planning my day with the help of my assistant, looking through my notes from the previous day for any important outstanding tasks, check up on the ‘health’ of the Bank and catch up on news around the world. Recurring keywords during my typical day at work include meetings, e-mail, coffee, notes, balance sheet, strategy and planning. As much as I love work, I also make time for physical, mental, social and family activities.
On a lighter note, many Nigerian executives are social media-shy. You are relatively active on social media. Don’t you think more Nigerian executives need to connect with the people through informal channels like Twitter and Facebook so that young people in particular can learn from their experience and knowledge?
I do not completely agree with your assertion that many Nigerian executives are media-shy. I only think that our areas of interests differ. On mentoring the young ones, what we, as Nigerian executives, should all have in common is using our platforms to share our experiences, observations, lessons learnt and proffer solutions to national issues so that they can learn from us and avoid the mistakes that we made. One of the things that the older generation of Nigerians are not doing well is telling our individual stories and that of our country in a true and fair manner. To plan well for the future, we need to well informed about the past and duly document the present which will form tomorrow’s past.
Finally, what advice do you have for young graduates willing to become a successful professional like you?
First, build skill and capacity. Do what you love or love what you do. Work harder than your peers and seek guidance through mentorship programs, reading and listening.
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