In Conversation with Hamid Rasul
“Each battle mark has its own value and story behind it.”
Hamid Rasul – COO of Al Futtaim Automotive Pakistan which are the only assemblers and manufacturers of Renault passenger vehicles in Pakistan.
Born and raised in Peshawar in a houseful of siblings, Hamid moved to the US for higher studies at the tender age of 19. Afterwards he joined the automotive industry and remained there for over 20 years before finally returning to Pakistan. He was General Manager for Indus Motor Company in Development Department. Between his tight schedule and conference calls, we sat down in his sunny drawing room and had a candid talk about his leadership challenges, dealing with change, managing conflict and competition. Edited excerpts follow.
Dealing with Change
TI: What was the most significant change you experienced in your life?
HR: It was a big change for me to come to Pakistan both professionally and personally. Karachi was not a homeland for me, I had visited it several times, but it was a new territory for me. It was an amalgamation of newness; new city, new people.
After being in the automotive for such a long time, I wanted change hence I diversified myself into construction industry. I was the CEO of a project called Dual Carriageway Road, 60 kms going from Hyderabad to Mirpurkhas – it was the first public private partnership in Pakistan for a road project. I was representing a Korean company, it was quite a different field and environment with new people..
I also had the opportunity to work in Qatar, initially I was the Business Manager, and that role grew into Country Manager. I was the first employee there who took it from the grounds up. I also established some joint ventures while I was in Qatar. It was a totally different experience as I had never worked in Gulf before. So, on the professional side, to leave automotive and go into construction side was a big leap, but I took it as a challenge, and for some reason challenges attract me.
TI: You’ve mentioned different points in your life where you went through a huge change, so how do you tackle change?
HR: I think as a person I like change. I don’t particularly get bored of one thing but I just like to push myself out of comfort zone which makes things exciting.
Moving back to Pakistan, a lot of people were opposing to the idea of us coming back after some 20 odd years as I had a very high level position over there. It seemed like there was no reason for me to move back but I think I had spent enough time outside the country all the experiences I had gained over the years I wanted to come back and apply them here. It was also a wish of my parents to eventually move back to Pakistan. So I welcome the change it my life and face it head on, despite opposition and risk.
TI: What has your experience been with leadership?
HR: Over the last few years, I have had some really good mentors and wonderful managers whose leadership styles I try to follow. What I found to be the common denominator was their superior listening skills. To me, the most important trait in leaders is listening skills rather than speaking skills.
To me, a good leader is somebody you can easily approach. It’s not that you can only tell them how high of a mountain have you climbed or how great of a job have you done but you should rather be able to have that comfort to go to a leader and say upfront that I messed up. You should be able to confide in him – that is also good leadership; when you are not afraid to be yelled at or fearing that they are going to throw you out, and they engage with you.
TI: In this approachable leadership style, how would you portray assertiveness?
HR: The best advice that I can share with you is – it is more important to be assertive than aggressive.
Being assertive means if you are going to step on somebody, do so without messing up their shoe shine. That’s a leadership style that you should aspire for. It is very easy to manage people who are below you, because you are sitting at an elevated position, and they are compelled to listen to you. But it is a lot more important to give feedback to your managers and I think that is something I have learnt over the years. In my early days I was very direct, and I would tell them you are absolutely wrong then I realized that they don’t like that style. So then I had to learn and adjust in order to make them more receptive to my feedback without feeling offended.
Anecdote on Leadership Challenge
TI: Could you share an anecdote where you faced a leadership challenge and overcame it?
HR: There were many, but very early in my career in my first automotive job in the US, I held six positions in that company in 8 years.
As I was moving up very quickly, I got along with everyone but finally when I had supervisory role, I thought it was important to have that discipline in a strong way. I ended up turning a lot of people off. Then one of my managers at that time pulled me aside and said that you gel in so well with the team, but you’re not doing so good in the supervisory role. He said you are trying to create too much discipline in too little time, you are not taking enough time to explain to people why you’re doing this. This was in the early 90’s and the company believed in 360 feedback which I began to appreciate. I think it’s important for a company to have that open environment where feedback is welcome.
So I thought about what am I doing wrong and realized I had to soften myself up a little bit, and coach people. Then I requested for my title to be changed from supervisor to coach. It was a good mindset to get into, to enter my office every morning seeing that door plate reiterating that I am a coach, not a supervisor.
TI: To change your leadership style, you amalgamated your previous role into your new role, adding the element of coaching into being a team player. How did you facilitate that change?
HR: At that point in my career, I did a lot of reading. I read a lot of self-development books such as Anthony Robbins. An open relationship with my manager really opened up a new perspective for me. He didn’t say you are failing as a supervisor; he said you are great as a team member, if you can take some of those traits, and inculcate them into this new role, you will be fine. This was a good way to give feedback.
Sometimes, what takes more time is to change yourself, it is also the hardest part. So I started investing my time into that. By strong discipline I was trying to change other people, only to realize I should first change myself. My motive was good, but my methods were wrong. I worked on my methods, while the goal remained the same.
TI: In your youth, you were very outdoorsy; do you think that helped you in any way when you took part in Training Impact’s Leadership Xpedition®?
HR: Absolutely, because I was in my element. I think for some of my colleagues it would have been the first time sleeping under the stars, but for me it came pretty natural since I am a hunter and a camper. The beauty of this program is that it takes you out of your elements, if you have done camping before, or not it takes you out of your comfort zone in a very safe environment – where you can be challenged and I can say that without doubt, we all got challenged.
Anecdote on Challenge in Training Impact Program
TI: Could you tell us an anecdote of a particular challenge you faced in that program
HR: There are a lot of memories, in my first program in 2009, we had a leadership activity and I was the leader for that activity.
I was the first person to be assigned that role as everybody took turns to be in the role. We were given GPS and we had to locate flags and so forth. We thought we did a good job but in the review session, the reality hit us. Because of the shortage of time some of my old traits surfaced, where I was pushing people to their assigned tasks. I got called very openly that what I did was wrong.
You do improve things but sometimes you need a reality check, and that served as a fairly good reality check. I was able to calibrate myself from there on.
Post program: Openness, genuineness, respect
TI: Its been close to a decade now, since you first attended a program with Training Impact, do you think in some way it had an impact in the next ten years?
HR: It did! At that time our whole company was working on a project, and although we were all working well, we had strong personalities. It’s important to have all the horses go into the same direction if you want to pursue a goal. At that time, we were not going in the same direction. So the openness and respect that got build up as before there was formality and we only saw each other in office cubicles. After the program, we had vowed to meet in informal settings. Even at work, we had interdepartmental tea parties, it helped build the bridges between people. A lot of open feedback came through during the program, our weaknesses were identified and true personalities came through not the workplace façade, but the real person underneath.
TI: You’ve mentioned different manufacturers, so the industry must be very competitive, what is your take on competition?
HR: I love competition, I think it is good because it beats complacency, you are not complacent when you are in competition. It keeps everybody on their toes. In my current company, we are manufacturing the first European vehicle in Pakistan. So far we have been exposed to Japanese and they have done a wonderful job. I think its time we bring something new to Pakistan. We are coming in, Koreans as well, Japanese are already here, hopefully someday Americans would show up as well. So yes, competition is good.
TI: What about competition within the organization?
HR: I came from the school of thought where you reward the people who are putting in more effort. I don’t have social mindset where you reward everybody. I think its important that you create a supportive environment where everybody has the chance to pick the reward. Competition should lead everybody to a common goal, as we cannot have pockets of excellence. One of the pet peeves I had in my previous organization was that when I’d see certain people being groomed but not the others. I think chance should be given to everyone, but in the end let the best man or woman win.
TI: How would you manage a conflict such as this, where certain people are groomed, or where certain people are competitive than others?
HR: Conflict will come up if you are creating pockets of excellence. Even among our children, if we give more attention to one child and not to others, there’s bound to be a reaction. So the idea is to give everybody equal footing. Rather than being reactive, my approach would be proactive. You create an environment where you give tools and support; where you make every single person in the organization believe that they are worth something.