Thursday 13, July 2017 by Nabilah Annuar

Corporate Palestine harnesses individual expertise

Nisreen Musleh, Board Member of Arab Islamic Bank (April 2016 – April 2017), provides an insight into her experience operating in a turbulent market.

I have recently completed serving a full term on the Board of Directors of the Arab Islamic Bank (AIB), the first Islamic bank to be established in Palestine following the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority. A publicly traded, $75 million business that is rapidly approaching a one-billion-dollar asset base, with nearly 300 professional staff members in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The bank represents all that corporate Palestine has to offer. Reflecting on this experience, some insights gained from this valuable opportunity are worthy to share.

Although intrigued to engage in this new role, I wondered if my experience would add the envisaged value not being a banker myself. It only took a few board meetings to prove my doubt was misplaced.

I founded my own business 15 years ago where I aligned all my know-how in people management and organisational design with a total emphasis on the operational side. My line of business is in professional training and language services, two highly competitive sectors. Despite my diverse experience as a business owner and consultant having to deal with various sectors and having profit and loss responsibility, meeting these same business challenges from inside a large corporate structure was enriching in many ways.

I was first introduced to Islamic banking over ten years ago in a seminar at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Like so much else in business, being exposed to something in an academic setting is very different to fully understanding how concepts are practised in the marketplace.  During AIB board meetings and committee discussions, especially when the Islamic Shari'ah representative joined these meetings, I could see the practicality of Islamic financing modalities. In these board committees, Shari'ah-compliant products are aligned to daily financing needs and totally in line with our modern lifestyles. My involvement in Islamic financing has motivated me to learn more about this rapidly growing sector.

Islamic financing is not only growing in Palestine, which stands at 12-13 per cent of the banking sector, but is currently growing its market share globally too. This growth can be seen not only in Islamic countries, but in non-Islamic countries all over the world. Globally, Islamic banking claims $2.5 trillion in assets and operates through 700 banking institutions located in 60 countries. Yet this impressive presence in the market comprises only one per cent of the global banking sector and 20 per cent of the banking sectors in Arab and Islamic countries, clearly indicating significant room for future growth in Palestine and globally.

Once sitting in the AIB boardroom, I understood the deep value of bringing diverse individual experiences to the corporate envionemnt. When corporate boards bring together a healthy mix of corporate professionals representing equity interests and professionals from the marketplace, firms become well positioned to maximise their potential combining operational and leadership approaches, while remaining grounded in the communities being served is the backbone of any successful business.

At AIB, discussions always revolved around clients, be it internal discussions between departments or talks with external customers. Challenges were addressed in the most professional manner while always being aligned with customers’ needs. I admired this, as concerns for people-oriented approaches is assumed to be less common in the corporate world and more prevailing in SME settings.

Having had this valuable corporate board experience, I now carry the responsibility of passing this knowledge on to business circles, especially family-owned businesses, in order to combine proper structure, group thinking and collective decision-making. Many Palestinian small and medium sized firms are locked into individual and centralised management styles, missing out on all that good governance has to offer. The simple proven idea is that collaborative work is the key driver towards growth.

I served as a member in the Audit Committee and the Risk, Compliance and Governance Committee. Board committees are where the nuts and bolts of corporate governance takes place. Rigorous efforts are vested in these committees to ensure that the backbone of governance is in place. My engagement in these committees brought to life my conceptualised understanding of corporate governance. I have seen various models of governance throughout my education, the first being at the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, USA, when I was there on a fellowship programme for five months. The issue of governance is thrown around in our culture as if it is a side issue, but is rarely taken seriously.

Following my US experiences, I brought all I observed on governance into my business which manages over 50 people, between staffers and outsourced professionals. However, having served in a corporate governance position in Palestine and seeing its significance from the inside of the boardroom, I feel further equipped with new knowledge to act on and share with others. The amount of attention paid to governance at AIB is impressive.

The way policies, standard operating procedures, job descriptions and employee evaluations, just to name a few, are all handled under enlightened leadership to create a room for best practises in our business community. Striving at every turn to reduce decision making based on personal whims and replace this with sound business analytics must become the norm if we are to succeed.  We can excel, even under the occupation in which we live.

The personal value I gained from serving on the Arab Islamic Bank board was significant. I had the chance to meet and work with thought leaders, operational leaders, action-oriented leaders and conservative leaders as well. This dynamic experience has driven my eagerness to seek further growth through diversity and highlighting the unique positives every person possesses.

I have truly enjoyed being the first female voice at the AIB board table. It was refreshing to be able to comfortably occupy my professional space, rather than having to fight for a seat at the table as is the case in so many venues in our community. Seamlessly, being able to freely share my opinions and thoughts, while remaining a full member of the team is a takeaway from this experience that I will pass on to many others. Young professionals seeking to climb the corporate ladder need to embrace diversity of opinion and drive the constructive mindset into each and every discussion.

 

Nisreen Musleh is currently the Founder and Managing Director of RITAJ Managerial Solutions in Ramallah. She is a board member of the Palestinian Trainer’s Association (PTA) and Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy (AVPE).