Interview with Najam, Malaysia | Inspiring Leaders

An old saying ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ by William Shakespeare truly depicts the responsibility and accountability the leaders at big organizations face being at the top but leadership comes so naturally to certain people that they become epitome of success. We had the honour of meeting such a dynamic leader who believes that his success lies in his team’s strength. He trusts them, empowers them and shields them in all circumstances and reaches organizational goal with a collective effort. You will certainly be inspired to know Mr. Muhammad Najam Shams Uddin, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer at Chevron Lubricants Lanka PLC through this brief interview session that may not cover his vast experience but will allow you to catch a few glimpses of what makes him a distinguished leader yet a humble person.

Q. You started your career with Chevron, and it has been over 16 years since then. Tell us about your professional journey.

Ans. My 20 years of professional journey started when I graduated from IBA which is one of the premium business schools in Pakistan. Originally I thought I would build my career in finance; during that time banking industry was booming and it was a very attractive profession but my interest in finance was shallow and could not drive me to bring out the best in me. I must acknowledge my parents here who instilled in me the importance of following my passion and to recognize what I wanted to do. Soon I realized that working with people and creating value thrived me. With this awakening, I moved into marketing and loved it because I was working with all the unknown. Media Buying was a new concept at that time , I enjoyed it greatly and it further deepened my interest in marketing field . In the first few years of my career I worked with British American Tobacco, later joined a rice company and then I was recruited by Caltex. It has been 16 years and I have never looked back since then. I started in the marketing function, moved into sales in Pakistan, and then I got the opportunity to work in other international markets in the value chain. I have been in Malaysia for two years and currently I am transitioning into my new assignment in Sri Lanka and I am looking forward to it.

Q. Tell us about Chevron culture philosophy and how does Chevron foster leadership at all levels?

Ans. Chevron is a fantastic employer and this long journey with them over these years have been rewarding for me. Potential is recognized here and professional growth opportunities are provided. The outcome of this mutual relationship is win- win situation for the company as well as the employer. Chevron takes very good care of its people and culture is what differentiates us from the rest in the field.

Q 2.Year 2020 has been a unique and very different year and experience in our life. What are your top three reflections about 2020?

Indeed it was a testing time for all of us but working from home allowed us to spend time with ourselves and our families, to be more thoughtful, contemplate and be reflective which otherwise had not been possible in the hustle and bustle of routine life. My top reflections are:

Always have a plan B in life especially in corporate life like Warren Buffett says never depend on single income. Make investment to create a second source. Have faith in god, keep calm: and be resilient. At the end of the day it is your resilience that counts and resilience comes with unity and faith Invest in yourself and sharpen your skills. Time is a resource and 2020 has given us plenty of it to use it constructively. There is always a choice to spend more of that time into non-productive things or make smart choices to invest that time into learning new skills and knowledge. I have used my time into digital learning and Artificial Intelligence.

Q. Tell us about work and living experiences you and your family have had in Malaysia

Ans. Malaysia is a fantastic place and is a very beautiful country. I had absolutely amazing time here and thoroughly enjoyed community support. I have a lot of good local friends who I treat as an asset for me. On a personal level, this is my father’s final resting place so Malaysia will always be very special to me.

Q. How do you describe your leadership style?

Ans.Well, my leadership principles are simple, based on mutual respect and Trust. I respect the individuals and empower them. I can share one recent incident from a leadership team meeting in my new assignment. The team was expecting me to talk about vision and goals and other priorities. I turned it around and asked the team to talk instead. It was different but it was a very good ice breaker as for me people are important and we as leaders have to capitalize on their strengths creating a collaborative culture where they take ownership. In my last international assignment, one of my colleagues asked me how I will gel into the new culture. My answer was straightforward that it will be based on Trust and assurance that I will stand by my team. I own my team as my family where people are not abandoned if they make mistakes but are supported and rectified.

Can you tell us about the most difficult experience you encountered as a leader?
Ans. There are quite a few. In my view, business problem is not as challenging as dealing the ones related with people. Couple of my most difficult experiences have been when I had to let go of some of my colleagues. I had to make such decisions for greater good at certain points in my career. Such decisions are necessary at times but are never pleasant and sometimes end up polarizing the organization as well. However, looking at the bigger picture one has to take the plunge and make the right choices.

Q. You have such a rich and diversified experience in Oil & Gas. As a senior leader, what is your ‘mentoring advice’ to young aspiring talent in Malaysia and Pakistan?

Ans. The first and foremost aspect for me is to follow your passion. I would like to mention the movie,’ ‘Three idiots’ the underlying message of the movie is that you do well in life if you recognize your passion. Secondly, challenge yourself coming out of your comfort zone, only then you realize your true potential. Thirdly, always enhance your knowledge and skills and never settle for ordinary. One should always improve qualifications to cope well with the competitive world.

Q. Being at the top as leader – how lonely is it up there?

Ans. Well, I don’t agree with the thought. It solely depends on you how you build relationship with your team, Master- Servant relationship or Servant-Master relationship. I believe in the latter – I would like to serve people and solve their problems. Bottleneck is always at the top that essentially means to allow growth place at the bottom.

Malaysia is such a beautiful tourist destination. Tell us about your favorite holiday place in Malaysia?
Ans. I wanted to travel more in Malaysia but pandemic situation did not allow much of it but I loved Desaru in Johor Bahru which was my last holiday trip before pandemic. I would certainly like to visit it again. In general, I am an avid golfer, so I love places with golf courses.

Q. What is your favorite Malaysian food?

Ans. I have been enjoying Malaysian Cuisine with my family and friends. Beef ridang and Satay have been my top priorities which I really relish and sometimes my family would wonder on my craving for Satay too often.

Q. What is your favorite holiday place in Pakistan that you will recommend Malaysians to visit?

Ans. Northern areas of Pakistan are my all-time favorite and recommended places. I always advise people not to limit Northern areas to Murree Hills but to explore beautiful places farther, travelling up to China Boarders. The grandeur and beauty of these areas is awe inspiring and should not be missed.

Q. How often do you take a holiday?

Ans. I must admit that I am a workaholic person. It is hard for me to stay away from my work even for three days. I would remain connected with work through emails and would not wonder if my colleagues mind me sending email and following up on work even if I am on vacation. My family understands my work commitment and has been very supportive, especially my wife has adapted herself and manages to get around my work routine.

Q. What are your top three personal and professional priorities for year 2021?

Ans. I would like to continue my learning journey getting myself educated in Artificial Intelligence and improving my digital knowledge and skills. On personal level, my daughter is starting her university so I would like to spend more time with her before she gets busy into the new routines and starts a new chapter in her life. Above all my immediate priority will be ensuring that my family settles well in Sri Lanka, my next destination.

Q. What is success for you?

Ans. For me success is about making sure that Allah is happy, I firmly believe in it and aim for it. A corporate example of success for me is to see people growing with me. I would consider myself successful if I see a smile on my team members’ face every morning and they feel excited to come to work every single day of the week. Financial result and profit is a consequence and end result.

Q. What activities you used to enjoy as a student and what advice you would give to young generation?

Ans. I was very active in co-curricular activities and loved sports. Apart from Squash, I have played almost all sports regularly. I have performed on stage and participated in dramas including a show at national TV .Such activities broaden your horizon and allow you to unleash your hidden potential. One should try new things, get out of the comfort zone and get new set of challenges. Your biggest competition for you is yourself. Instead of competing and comparing with your friends, colleagues and neighbours, you should focus on your own strengths instead of others.

Q. By holding such a high profile position, you have set very high standards for your children. Do they feel the pressure?

Ans. My children do not have a realization of my work profile. They are smart and intelligent for their age and have their own talent and passions. We have tried to teach them to keep their feet on the ground and stay humble. We tell our children that they have all these comforts and privileges they enjoy are Allah’s blessing. As parents we wish them well and pray for them. Mostly my wife plays the role of managing and controlling them while I do a bit of spoiling. We make it a point, especially during pandemic and work from home to spend quality time with children every day around dinner time and more so on weekends. We simply sit down and talk to them which is essential for children to know that their parents are by their side.

Q. What are your thoughts on Gender equality?

Ans. I strongly believe in gender equality and women empowerment. It all depends on personal choices and the roles women wish to take up for themselves. My mother was a working lady all her life and was a great support for my father. My wife is smarter and more intelligent than I am but she made choice to take a back seat and devote her time to our children and the family as a whole. It was not a forced or the only available choice for her but it was about being clear about priorities in life.

In my professional life, I make hiring and promotion decisions solely based on merit not on gender or any other external factor.

Q. What is your message to your audience in Malaysia?

Ans. People in Malaysia are going through a tough phase like many other countries due to pandemic. Malaysia is such an inclusive and diverse society which comprises of various ethnicities, beliefs system and nationalities at all levels from labour to management. This is Malaysia’s competitive edge. I would like to see this inclusion and diversity of Malaysia sustained without any discrimination and it should continue to inspire other countries. Infection rate in Malaysia is high but the good thing is that fatality rate is low. Covid-19 is a virus and it will probably mutate as per medical science. I believe in praying to Allah – COVID is an external environment factor where we have limited control; take reasonable precaution and start to resume back to normal. The authorities are trying to strike a balance between health and economy and I would like to endorse it. Public should fully support by playing a responsible role to follow SOPs so that the COVID survivors are not affected by poverty and hunger.