CFO Alkarim Jiwa lives life with gratitude and no regrets

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Alkarim Jiwa is the group finance and strategy director at Diamond Trust Bank (DTB). He took time off his busy schedule to chat with CFO East Africa about himself, his role at the bank and his advice for fellow finance professionals.

Alkarim Jiwa is the group finance and strategy director at Diamond Trust Bank (DTB). He took time off his busy schedule to chat with CFO East Africa about himself, his role at the bank and his advice for fellow finance professionals.

What do you consider the highs and lows of your career?
Well, when I look back at my career, I have been pretty fortunate as I can only think of it being characterised by a series of highs. My personal anthem is to always look at life as a glass that is always part full rather than part empty. Consequently, I can, by the grace of God, think of very many highs and virtually no lows, over my professional career which, incidentally, this year will cross another milestone – 35 years!

I started working pretty early, at 19, at what is now PKF, the audit and consultancy firm. Prior to that, I was always one of the youngest in my school years. Given my entry point, whether in school, college or in the world of work has always been a tender age, relative to my peers, I am sure my school and work colleagues took kindly to me and gave me a good start to life.

At age 28, I figured auditing wasn’t for me and I went looking for an opportunity in financial services. That is how I got into DTB and was appointed CFO three years later, making me one of the youngest CFOs of a listed entity in Kenya at the time.

So, indeed, it has been a career of highs thanks in large part to being lucky and also due to the opportunities and support provided to me by my seniors and my peers. I am also very grateful to the people who have reported to me over the years because they held the ladder in place as I took the steps from one rung to the other.

How do you define success in both your personal and professional life?
I define it in one word as contentment. There are different manifestations and definitions of success; in my view, if you are happy and satisfied in your personal and professional trajectory as you move along and look forward to what lies ahead, then you are successful.

Personally, I feel more blessed than successful. There are contributors to success such as discipline, hard work, diligence, working smart and having leadership and people skills. For me, these are important hygiene factors if one wants to pursue personal and professional growth. What makes the difference though is being blessed with luck to convert opportunities and experiences into satisfaction and contentment. On the whole, I have a deep sense of gratitude and thank God and the people who I have worked with along the way for the role played in getting me to where I am.

Paint us a picture of your family environment growing up.
I was an only child and when I tell people that, they assume that I was spoilt. I really don’t think I was. I was not a perfect child but was filled with love and freedom. My parents were elderly and always gave me the space to make choices, which led me to mature quite quickly as I developed an early sense of responsibility. This is a life lesson, giving people empowerment even in the workplace can help them achieve more, much faster and be filled with contentment.

What do you get up to outside of work?
At home, I read books and watch movies. I am very selective about what I consume; usually it is historical and nature-related documentaries, autobiographies and, occasionally thrillers.

Being an ambivert, I like to spend time with our small circle of close friends and family. I also have a travel bug and am a foodie so, together with my wife, Azmina, and our two daughters, we love to discover new places and try different cuisines. Currently, both daughters are at university in Canada. So, we have an empty nest at the moment.

I tried to take up golf a couple of years ago, after our daughters went to study abroad, but I am yet to finish the lessons and I am not convinced that it is the thing for me, much to the dismay of some of my friends and colleagues at work.

What is your leadership style?
In my current position, I am responsible for several areas – finance, obviously, and also strategy, sustainability, corporate communications and our new custodial business unit, which I am incubating.

In terms of my management style, well a few days ago, I asked one of my reports to collect views from her other colleagues – my other reports - on what they thought about my leadership style. They submitted their responses anonymously. I have to say that they were quite complimentary in their responses, describing me as empowering, level-headed, a good communicator and coach.

One thing I know they didn’t mention is that I am quite the task master who can be very demanding to ensure we get the work done to quality and on time. Our culture at DTB is all about doing the right thing, the right way and therefore I also think that I bring a strong compliance mindset to my leadership style.

When did you determine that you would become an accountant?
I figured this out quite early; at the age of 14. My teachers encouraged me to pursue sciences but I had a stronger love for numbers and analysis. I have no regrets about not going into the sciences.

What life event and book would you say has changed your outlook on life?
The Covid-19 pandemic shook my perspective on life as I am sure it has for many people. It made me reflect on the importance of living in the present and not leave the things that matter for tomorrow. If there are places to visit, people to meet, relationships to build or repair, I believe you should make plans to do it as soon as you can and not put off stuff for tomorrow. We shouldn’t wait for a tomorrow that may never come.

The book that was life-changing for me is Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. It is a great allegorical fable which I have read several times. My key take-away from this gem of a book continues to be that we should not seek to live by societal norms only, but also should be courageous enough to break out and fulfil our own passions and do things, of course responsibly and ethically, outside conventional boundaries and comfort zones.

If you had a time machine, what would you change about your younger self and what advice do you have for younger finance professionals?
Because of my glass part-full outlook, I live life with gratitude and no regrets and would not change a thing if I had the opportunity to rewind the clock and get into a reset mode.

I would advise young professionals to live life in a way that fulfils their purpose. It is quite sad if young people today go about their professions and vocations simply to earn a pay cheque. Money is important but because we spend the bulk of our quality waking hours at work, I think it is important to seek work that is aligned to your personal purpose.

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