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A personal leadership conversation with Avinash Singh, the head of Absa Private Bank, is about entering the sophisticated world of banking and financial risk management, but is mainly exposure to the personal leadership journey of a remarkable young man.
Over many years of leadership research, we have come across many examples of remarkable people who worked themselves up from impoverished backgrounds into prominent leadership positions.
Avinash grew up in the marginalised Phoenix suburb of Durban, and from an early age was exposed to a variety of pressure situations that built his character and drive to succeed.
Prominent to him among all the trials of his background is the influence of his father, who endowed in his son a passion for education and hard word as the key to economic upliftment.
Despite political activism, Avinash obtained excellent grades at school in Phoenix. He forged ahead in a highly politicised period of our history to obtain a degree in pharmacy, and some years later a life-changing MBA degree at Wits.
Avinash went through several defining experiences along his journey that may well have broken the spirit of a lesser man. In his case, it bred character and leadership confidence.
He left with the Wits MBA a changed man, with great confidence that he was now able to achieve anything that he put his mind to.
This confidence was a great asset to him, yet it also generated an arrogance that was subsequently painfully bruised by the realities of career and leadership.
He became far more teachable as a result, and his passion to learn from mentors and others have become a dominant pattern in his life. Avinash is now in the position of sharing his hard-won experience with others around him.
Two of his mentors with whom he worked closely were Steve Booysen, the previous CEO, as well as the existing CEO of Absa, Maria Ramos. These are powerful leaders to learn from.
Before he entered the banking world, Avinash served stints with large multinational organisations, Adcock Ingram and Bristol-Myers Squibb, where he gained invaluable training and experience in marketing and leadership, both locally and internationally.
The international corporates have a great deal to offer in the way of business and leadership development. It was also during this time that Avinash was exposed to the committed work ethic of Eastern countries.
As a result he resents the feeling of entitlement that often permeates our society and can easily become our “Achilles heel” in our drive to become a globally competitive nation. His personal career is a reflection of a positive attitude of making things happen.
Every time Avinash was given a new posting and responsibility, he defaults to a pattern that has served him well.
He studies the new job with passion and commitment, often after normal working hours. This habit and dedication explains to some extent how he has been able to achieve so much in his young life. He goes the extra mile in preparation. He believes every situation is a learning experience.
The leadership journey is about perseverance and tenacity. After qualifying with a degree in pharmacy, Avinash wanted to join an international company. He sent his CV to 50 large pharmaceutical companies. He received 50 refusals. He still keeps them on file to remind him of that period in his life.
Later on, after he made the crucial decision to move into a financial services career, he was one of 700 applicants for a strategy consultant position at Absa.
He went through a confusing process of several meetings where he was required to “fill in form after form”, without really knowing what the job was about until the final stages when he was getting close to selection.
He persevered and was selected, and is now a senior executive in a large bank.
Many factors in his background had a profound influence on developing his own leadership style.
One of these “wow” experiences was an internal leadership development programme of Absa Bank called the Absa Development Initiative. The initiative was based on self-exploration and the systemic role of business. He benefited considerably from this programme.
Avinash believes that one of the key lessons he learnt is to get to know yourself – only then can we really lead others.
A “silo” mentality is a serious bottleneck to excellence in many organisations. The desire to be independent often stands in the way of an attitude of interdependence that Avinash strives for around him.
He believes in the imperative of remaining relevant, and to constantly benchmark against customer expectations and peers, against competition and to remain globally relevant.
Avinash believes (along with a multitude of seamless leaders worldwide) that a positive attitude is an imperative of good leadership. He believes everybody has value to add and that we should always strive to find the right fit between who we are and what we do.
Avinash considers the following to be major leadership challenges:
1. Continually reminding our self what is within our control and what is not as we focus our efforts in trying to influence reality.
2. Change remains a big challenge for people and organisations. Ensuring that energy is spent to create the right context for change is often lacking and can be destructive to people and productivity.
3. Making the right people choices and being able to spot the right talent.
Studying seamless leaders who manage to perform against great odds is a thrilling experience. After hundreds of personal leadership conversations all over the country and with international icons, a pattern emerges that may surprise some of us.
This pattern indicates that a person who grows up in a privileged environment who is not taught the value of his or her background, and is denied the right to earn self-respect and live up to high values, is in fact very often the person that is really deprived.
Avinash, I am sure, appreciates the heritage of his Phoenix and family background that motivated him to embark on a lifestyle of study and hard work. He is an example for many others to follow.