A desire to try new things and constantly improve herself is in Khalijah Ismail’s DNA. Thankfully, it’s an ambition she has been able to realise as group CFO of Maybank. She has worked in the frontline business of the bank, including treasury operations, managed clients in corporate as well as investment banking, and enjoyed a stint at the forefront of a group-wide transformation programme.
As Malaysia’s largest financial services group with a presence in 18 countries, including all 10 ASEAN nations, and more than 16 million customers, it’s easy to see why Khalijah considers it the best place for her to learn and experience new things.
‘My experience in Maybank has been quite varied, and it’s by choice,’ she says.
‘There are many ways we can give back collectively to the community’
Khalijah’s three decades of diverse roles in Maybank include 16 years in frontline business, starting as a client relationship manager covering large companies. Khalijah subsequently led agency and loan syndication under debt markets at Maybank Investment Bank, then known as Aseambankers Malaysia.
When she was among the leaders of the group transformation programme, she had a hand in the creation of Maybank’s Global Banking (GB), which today provides a wide range of financing, investment and capital market solutions to corporate and institutional clients.
Group CFO, Maybank
Group financial controller, Maybank
First Maybank role in treasury operations. Subsequent positions include:
- Head, corporate banking, debt markets, Maybank Investment Bank (2004)
- Transformation programme – LEAP 30 initiative lead for global banking (2008)
- Director, finance and business operations, global banking and international operations (2010)
Junior audit assistant, EY
Given the opportunity to move into finance, she set up the governance framework and systems implementation of the finance and business operations units for GB and the bank’s international operations sector.
From there, she was made the group financial controller. In 2021, she was appointed the group CFO.
Khalijah is convinced that her versatility and broad experience have eased the transition to her current role and elevated her effectiveness in carrying out the job.
As the group CFO, her core priority is to provide executive leadership in developing strategic financial objectives, offering insights to enhance the group’s performance and business opportunities, and supporting the execution of Maybank’s M25+ corporate strategy.
Maybank’s push beyond Malaysia is another priority for Khalijah. For example, she co-chairs a strategic programme that aims to refocus Maybank’s global footprint, redesign the target operating model for select markets, and optimise the bank’s investment portfolio.
One of the five strategic thrusts of M25+ is accelerating digitalisation and technological modernisation. Khalijah considers this a priority for the finance function as well.
‘Finance leaders could lend their expertise in establishing governance for sustainability reporting’
Given the increasing focus on ESG and sustainability, she works closely with the CEO, the chief sustainability officer and executive committee members to ensure that the bank’s business strategies are in line with its sustainability ambitions.
A key task is facilitating the movement of capital towards sustainable financing and investments.
Maybank in numbers
Number of customers
Number of countries in which Maybank operates
Maybank becomes first listed company in Malaysia with market capitalisation over RM100bn
Number of investment banking branches worldwide
Number of retail branches worldwide
It is important to Khalijah that she gives back to the bank and the communities it serves. ‘It’s not about what I can do on my own. There are many ways we can give back collectively to the community, such as nurturing talent by motivating and coaching our teams,’ she says.
She acknowledges that she would not have got to where she is now without the support and guidance from her immediate bosses and mentors.
The bank’s emphasis on DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) has also been a significant factor in Khalijah’s career.
‘Developing women leaders and placing them in key positions has to be a conscious effort’
When announcing her appointment as group CFO, Maybank’s then group president and CEO, Tan Sri Abdul Farid Alias, said: ‘Khalijah’s appointment demonstrates Maybank’s strong internal succession pipeline. It also bodes well for our commitment to diversity and equity.’
She believes in putting in time and effort to help advance the DEI agenda. As co-chair of the bank’s Women Mentor Women Council, she met weekly with members to look at how they could boost the career growth of high-potential aspiring women leaders.
‘Developing women leaders and placing them in key positions has to be a conscious effort,’ she says.
At the same time, she adds, women who aspire to be corporate leaders should be ready to take on additional responsibilities, and to seek assistance when necessary. ‘My advice to them is do not limit your capabilities, do not inhibit your growth, and be comfortable with the uncomfortable,’ she adds.
In early 2023, with the help of Maybank’s Group Human Capital, Khalijah initiated a CFO Accelerator Lab programme designed to cultivate the next generation of CFOs and finance leaders. ‘In the past, when searching for suitable candidates I realised that we could do more to ensure we have a big enough talent pool to fill CFO vacancies. We started the programme to supplement the learning of our high-potential talent,’ she explains.
‘The CFO’s duties are broader than they used to be; business acumen is critical’
She rates professional accountancy qualifications as very important. ‘The experience and thorough learning that people go through to acquire such qualifications is applied in their day-to-day work in finance,’ she adds.
‘It allows them to develop a strategic mindset and to be open and agile in responding to the changing needs of the world. They are also better equipped to manage stakeholders.’
While the professional qualifications lay a sturdy foundation, Khalijah points out that for an accountant to progress to the CFO role, a lot more must be built upon that foundation. ‘The CFO’s duties have evolved and are broader than they used to be. Business acumen is critical. It’s of the utmost importance to understand the business and how it changes and to be able to align with the organisation’s business strategies,’ she says.
‘In the course of my work, I’m involved in a lot of committees, working with the other C-suite officers simply because in our management conversations, all roads ultimately lead to finance.’