There’s nothing like learning first hand

IN this week’s Success: The Insight Story column, Pertama Digital Berhad CEO Saify Akhtar (pic) shares with SunBiz his journey in the corporate world.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I experienced both success and failure very early on in life, starting from my early 20s. There is nothing like learning first hand, especially when it comes to building and scaling businesses. I was fortunate enough to be accorded freedom to pursue opportunities that others weren’t, especially by my parents and later on my spouse.
As a leader, I seek to apply the same patience I received and allow my people freedom in their pursuit of becoming great leaders, for the benefit of Pertama Digital and beyond.

Wouldn’t it be a great thing if we generated thousands of excellent corporate leaders for Malaysia?

What traits do you look for in your talent or how do you decide who is right for a job?

There are only a handful of traits that truly matter and none of them are about raw, technical capabilities. What matters first and foremost is ethics. Does the person have a moral compass? Do they answer to a higher purpose? Could they sleep at night if they wronged others?

Beyond ethics, is a desire to fix things, including themselves. Anyone who is too comfortable and isn’t looking for a challenge is very difficult to motivate and drive at a fast-paced organisation like Pertama Digital.

Deciding who is right is more complicated; there is very little we can tell from documents and interviews. That’s what the six-month probation is for; both employee and employer will know if there’s a real fit within the first six months. If there isn’t, then we part ways. And if there is, maybe we conquer the world together.

How do you think the industry you are in will evolve?

The people of Malaysia and beyond are going to become more discerning and raise their expectations of technology companies. Specifically when it comes to accountability.

Incumbents that have built businesses based on avoiding accountability will be disrupted by those that offer heightened transparency to those they serve. People want to know. Who has access to my information? What do they do with it? Is this company the best service provider for me? Do I have freedom of choice?

Every great business is built based upon the needs of the people. And what the people want, they will get and so, our industry will transform in this direction over the next 10 years. Maturing technologies like blockchain and tokenisation will play an important role in the delivery of this future.

What advice can you offer those looking to start their career/own business?

Take risks and do it early; start in your early 20s. You do not need a lot of money but you need energy, a support network and good health; physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health.

Go out and try as many things as possible; you’ll only know exactly what you’re great at once you’re in your 30s. It will take a lot of effort and it will all be worth it if and only if... You start with a great purpose in the first place.

We all have just a few years on Earth; what are you going to do with them? Have that in clear view when you start and use it as your North Star when the going gets tough. Nothing great comes from comfort. Seek discomfort for as long as you can.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional life?

Yes. Mentorship is the link between the past and the future. History repeats itself; we can’t escape it. We can gain a macro perspective from books and a micro perspective from people.

I’ve benefited from a host of mentors in my life, from family members like my father to business leaders and thinkers from different countries and backgrounds.

A great mentor is one you look up to, has time to spend with you constructively and has nothing to gain from mentoring you other than helping to develop another human being.

In my opinion, mentorship in our part of the world needs to become more accessible. I’m thinking of ways to unlock the benefits of mentorship for more of us.

What do you want to accomplish in the next five years?

I want to build one of the world’s fastest growing shariah-compliant internet software companies, right here from Malaysia.

My team and I will put Malaysia on the map by exporting an impactful, sustainable public sector digitalisation model that will benefit not just our rakyat, but those in other emerging economies like Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nigeria.

That is something I would be proud of.

Best piece of advice you ever received on your career.

When things are going well, you are at your most vulnerable; the curse of comfort. Keep seeking discomfort so you stay hungry.
When things go badly, don’t beat yourself up – the curse of self-pity. It’s an opportunity to learn and be prepared for bigger things in your future.

If you could have an hour with any thought leader in the world, whom would it be and why?

It would be with the great Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, banker, economist and civil society leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance. Grameen Bank gives loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans.

There is so much that he started in the 1970s and 1980s that is still so relevant today. He’s now 82; I want to know what he wishes he could still do for the next 50 years, so I could perhaps pick up the baton.

What man-made innovation confounds you? Why?

Buy Now, Pay Later. I cannot fathom any circumstance where making consumer credit more accessible to vulnerable customers could be construed as financial inclusion. I’ve asked this question on various platforms; I still don’t have an answer. This is in contrast to what Muhammad Yunus has done; which is to extend microfinancing for productive purposes and not consumption.

I have, however, been encouraged to see a fintech company going into Care Now, Pay Later; which is short-term financing for healthcare. That, I can get behind... At least until we make affordable, high quality healthcare universally accessible.

A must-read for every business owner/manager is ...

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. A great summary of advice put into context using real historical examples. A resource I refer to often as I grow; laws detailed in the book change relevance over time.

What are the top three factors you would attribute your success to?

1. This success is only possible by permission from God; it is therefore my duty to do good with this platform.

2. I had the privilege of great parents. They provided me with the foundation, freedoms, principles and most importantly, unconditional love within a safe home environment that allowed me to explore a range of experiences at each stage of my life.

3. My wife and I have absolute alignment in our careers, ambitions and principles. This affords us an unusual level of productivity with minimal friction.

Tell us a joke.

Inflation is really getting out of hand, but that’s just my five cents.

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