Raja Teh Maimunah Raja Abdul Aziz is not one to back down from a challenge. That is what she attributes to her rise in the banking sector and what she says eventually led to her being at the helm of Hong Leong Islamic Bank, assuming the title of chief executive officer (a position she held till December 2016). Though she studied Law and now holds an honorary doctorate in Law, Raja Teh concedes that she wasn’t the most conscientious while at university. Her goal then was really about getting it done. Mid-way, she realised that a career in law isn’t something she envisioned for herself. Hence, upon graduation she decided to join an audit firm.
“I took a 180 degree turn to do something that I wasn’t even trained to do,” she says. “I was just kind of going along with things but then I found my calling, enjoyed what I did and found myself in Investment Banking. I was very fortunate because I found something I enjoyed.”
Taking a different path, appears to have worked out pretty well for the banker. Apart from her position as CEO of Hong Leong Islamic Bank, she also held the role as chief operating officer for Digital Innovation & Transactional Banking at Hong Leong Bank Berhad.
Prior to that Raja Teh held numerous other positions, including global head of Islamic Markets at Bursa Malaysia, chief corporate officer and head of International Business at Kuwait Finance House Malaysia and head of Investment Banking at RHB Sakura Merchant Bank. She also served on Malaysia’s national asset management and debt recovery agency – Pengurusan Danaharta Nasional Berhad – during the Asian financial crisis in 1998.
She says initially there weren’t any long-term strategies with regards to her career development. Instead, it was simply about working hard and giving her all at any given point in her career. There was also her willingness to take on challenges, coupled with the ability to spot an opportunity that literally took her places.
“When an opportunity arose even though they were things outside my comfort zone and things that I didn’t know how to do, either I was naïve or wilfully blind, I took up the challenges as they came along,” she says.
It was a trait she displayed early on in her career when she applied for a position at an audit firm “not knowing the difference between a credit and a debit”. A lack of the technical knowledge required in Corporate Finance didn’t deter her from moving into the industry and later when the field of Islamic Banking was burgeoning, Raja Teh ventured into it, even moving to Bahrain to get the necessary experience.
“The point is what I don’t know today, doesn’t mean I can’t find out,” she explains. “That’s the path that I have always taken.”
And that is what she continues to do now with her additional portfolio that involves digital banking, which encompasses everything from products to processes.
“It is an open platform and it is also a part of nation building,” she explains
It is an example, she says, not just of how banking has changed but also of how it must change, quoting author Brett King who said, “Banking is not a place you go to, it is what you do.”
The success of these innovations have also enabled Raja Teh to present at the World Mobile Congress where she was a keynote speaker alongside the likes of Mark Zuckerberg.
“You have to read ferociously and read the market,” she says, when asked how one spots an opportunity. “As long as you are really in touch with current affairs and current trends, you would know.”
And as far as digital banking is concerned, it also helps that she is a self-professed geek.
“You must love these things,” she says. “Leadership is critical because you cannot be leading a team or changing the face of consumer banking if you cannot embrace mobile online.”
Many have acknowledged Raja Teh’s management style which she describes as “not democratic but neither autocratic.” Instead she adopts a style that is inclusive that encourages her staff to buy into ideas, a style that should come naturally to women since “a mother can’t stand and bang tables.”
“It cannot be management by consultation and you cannot abdicate decision-making,” she explains. “But I take time to listen. You cannot make decisions without listening to everyone.”
Leadership, she adds, is also about vision and setting a clear direction for the team.
While she admits that banking is a male-dominated industry, issues to do with discrimination is something that she never really faced and that perhaps it has more to do with the demands made by the banking industry.
“Banking has particularly long hours,” she says. “It is about women’s choices. It is a noble thing to care for children and society shouldn’t feel like they are losing them because they are providing a service that is nation building too.”
Having had exposure in various markets, Raja Teh can say that Malaysia poses no barriers for women in the financial sector, pointing to former Bank Negara Governor Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar Aziz and former Securities Commission chairman Tan Sri Zarinah Anwar as examples.
“Don’t look for the glass ceiling,” she advises.
“This country is actually taking proactive steps and Malaysian women cannot have that feeling of victimisation. I feel that you are doing a disservice to yourself if you do. You need to look at people as they are and their traits.”
This interview was first published in the March 2015 issue of Prestige Malaysia. Raja Teh Maimunah is now CEO of AmInvestment Bank Bhd