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Asian Executive Presence Interview: Shahzad Ishaq

Shahzad Ishaq, Head of Consumer Finance at Bank Alfalah Limited (Pakistan), built his Presence the hard way. As a young business graduate 21 years ago, he stepped out into the working world expecting things to work for him. Instead, he found himself swallowing his pride, having to accept a difficult job of selling products, walking from marketplaces to offices under the hot Lahore sun.

However, as they say, it is not what happens to you, it is how you respond to what happens to you that makes a difference. Shahzad did respond in a big way. He focused on the possibilities of the future and walked his career path holding steadfast to his values, rising up to the demands in each role he found himself in and making a difference.

Today he understands that leadership and building an executive presence is about the power of influence and not the power of authority. Shahzad is responsible for the largest consumer asset business in Pakistan. He manages a staff of 1400 professionals.


At the beginning of my work career back in 1998, I did not have a clear concept of what leadership was and what it meant to be a leader. The little idea I had was viewing leaders in the traditional way – someone at a senior position, running a power-driven organisation, getting things done by giving directions by having a vision for the future. Now with a career spanning 20 plus years I have gone through an evolution in the idea of leadership.

Today I lead with a trilogy of competencies, (a) leading by personal example, (b) viewing things from multiple perspectives, (c) being adaptable to change. It underscores my work ethic and work style.

Here’s my story:

As I moved up the ranks at the company I first started working at (Citibank) I realised that you had to make the people factor work.

My journey from a Sales Officer to a Sales Manager then to a Regional Sales Manager made me realise that leadership is all about setting examples for your team.

Take the example of Waseem John, a loan sales associate of mine back in 2001. Waseem was about to quit his job from sheer hopelessness. He wasn't able to sell our products. His supervisor was also about to let him go.

I stepped in and suggested to the latter that we should give Waseem one more chance. I decided to mentor him for two days. I worked with him on sales calls and met prospects. I posed as his senior sales officer.

In two days, we met about seven prospects in the hot sunny days of Lahore, Pakistan. I showed him the ropes of engaging prospects and closing the deal. In just one month, Waseem was already ranked as an above average sales rep. This was a huge lesson on leadership for me.

It convinced me that investing in individuals, mentoring them pays. Takes a lot of effort but pays huge dividends. Since then, this principle has been etched into my work DNA – demonstrate how to get things done better, whenever a team member is challenged rather than just writing him off as hopeless.

Fast forward to 2006. I was privileged to get into a formal mentoring relationship that helped me develop an ability to view things from multiple vantage points, especially through another person's lens. This particular synthesis of setting a personal example and, at the same time, being able to see from multiple perspectives influenced the way I envisage vital opportunities and resolve everyday issues.

Between 2008 and 2012, I had an opportunity to work in Central and Eastern Europe with individuals with very different experiences and hence thinking styles. It was a dynamic experience where I had to take my prior competencies to the next level. I was used to the brash and aggressive style of a South Asian working in an American MNC. I have never been exposed to the European work culture.

I had to learn greater cultural acumen, unlearn and relearn with humility, and show more respect to cultural differences that were very different to mine. This developed the third strategic driver in me – an enormous capacity to adapt to any given situation.

I was back in Pakistan by the end of 2012 at a new company and was put in charge of a team of 1,500 members. I had to call upon all the competencies I acquired thus far.

At the interview for the new role, I was asked, "How would I manage a large team when the highest number of people I had ever supervised was 250?" My response was short and crisp, "This is a matter of honour. I am more worried about failing as a leader in this role than failing at the business, whose success I need to sustain".


I see presence as an outcome of personal leadership. It is the realisation that the story is not about you. It is about everyone else.

I have long realised that the best ideas and thoughts don't come from me. They come from the people around me. I just had to listen, appreciate and synthesise their input.

To develop this fundamental capacity one requires an orientation on the following:

a) willingness to peek into the future: As the saying goes, the best way to predict future is to create it.

b) daring to be different, and at times be willing to deal with the isolation that comes with it.

c) showing tremendous compassion. Even if it means being cruel to be kind in order to drive people and the organisation forward.

d) personal integrity: being true to self and all others at all times.

Presence is more than confidence and charisma. It is the sum of the four qualities that provide a foundation for presence – vision, courage, compassion and integrity.


If my “presence” can be ascribed to one statement it would be that of Sir Isaac Newton’s. “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

In my early days of field sales, I drew plenty of inspiration from Umar Khan, a senior banking leader now based in Canada and advises an Egyptian bank.

My mentor, John Denhof, taught me how to see things from multiple perspectives. He would never give me a straight yes or no answer. Instead, he always gives me a set of what-if scenarios on a decision point and let me decide the best way forward.

Critical strokes of brush came from Harald Schneider, who put the necessary granularity and analytical focus in me. He taught me that financial decisions were certainly served better were they data driven.


I once read that “eloquence is the child of knowledge”. My journey of setting the character right for my future executive self begun from the cradle. My upbringing was all about integrity, hard work, consistency, patience and forgiveness. These values were instilled into my savvy-lawyer father by my grandfather, himself a world war one veteran of the Royal British Army. I inherited them in abundance.

From my school days, I developed a knack for reading on general knowledge and encyclopaedia (internet wasn’t common in those days). This evolved into a passion for reading non-fiction, especially biographies, business, and economics.


Graduating from the business school in 1997, a harsh reality dawned on me. Employers were not knocking on my door for an ideal job.

It took me seven months to land a rather humble field sales officer job with a financial institution. I absolutely abhorred the fact that being a business graduate, I was being recruited to visit markets, offices, business centres and clinics for almost 12 hours a day.

With the values instilled in me, I made up my mind to succeed in this tough role with precision. I’d rather climb to the next rung of the corporate ladder, than relegating myself into just another indoor clerical role. This goal propelled me to be a top salesperson in the country for several months.

After a hardship of about two years, I was appointed as a first line Sales Manager. In a hindsight, this hardship taught business lessons of immense value, which are,

(i) reaching out to customers and selling to them.

(ii) the importance of relationships in the marketplace.

Later on, I learnt that in business a person who owns the customer(s) is the person who owns the business.


At the age of 26, I was lucky enough to have written my life charter on how I will live this one life that I have. One of the points was, to live with parents when they reach an advanced age.

In summer of 2012, I was well placed with a multinational financial institution in Bucharest, Romania. When I visited my hometown, Lahore, I saw signs of ageing on my parents. That’s when I made up my mind to return home to Pakistan and contribute my next wave of work there.

As luck would have it, I was given an opportunity to return to the home market in a prestigious role with a large financial institution. This, in turn, enabled me to effectively contribute my expertise, thereby fulfilling my passion for developing banking talent within the home market, and live close to my family.

I consider this a significant achievement towards what had been written in my life charter.

(his other achievements)


My advice to aspiring executives and entrepreneurs would be to have a purpose or a cause that is worth going after. Drive it with personal commitment, spirit to serve, hard work and an active learning mindset. The forces of nature will help you achieve it.

My personal and philosophical development journey is based on the question, ‘What return can I make?’

I wish I had started receiving structured mentoring much earlier in my career. I could have contributed even more.

I wish all the very best and success to students of leadership, on their journeys.

- edited by Dean Shams -


The Asian Executive Presence movement is started by Dean Shams to bring an Asian perspective and voice to the topic of developing Executive Presence.

The blog features Asian executives, entrepreneurs and leaders who exude presence. They are either hand picked by Dean or nominated by someone.

The interviews are meant to gain a deeper understanding of how these individuals think about leadership and build a strong presence.

You don't have to be a top executive to exude presence.

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