05 Mar 2019

Fill up the room. Claim your space.

Investec’s head of payments Rufaida Ismail studied medicine before switching to law until her instincts led her to business. Here are her leadership learnings.

Education

BA LLB BComm Honours; Harvard business school alumna; Directorship certification underway for completion June 2019

Current position

Head of payments

Joined Investec

2006

Rufaida is a single mother of three boys, who studied various disciplines before following her instincts and going into business. She got her first job by very boldly applying to a Sunday Times advertisement and cut her teeth in banking at FNB Corporate Banking, where they were looking for innovative thinkers and non-bankers to fast track through the business. There she worked in different businesses, including electronic banking, which created a foundation for her current role as Head of payments.

 

What do you do at Investec?

 

I love what I do. I am responsible for payments at Investec, which essentially holds responsibility for our internal payment processing, or the movement of value from our clients to other banks on behalf of our clients, and then the receipt of these payments to Investec from other banks. We need to meet various regulatory and compliance requirements and a large part of my focus is what the regulatory and legislative framework is, for these payment capabilities.

 

It is a wide portfolio, which requires an operational and strategic understanding of electronic payments, card payments, our cash and cheque payments. I spend a large part of my day representing Investec within the industry as all the banks come together in various interbank contexts around payment processing. I also sit on the Payments Association of South Africa Council [PASA Council], where I actually serve this board to look after the interests of the National Payments System (or the myriad of systems and standards through which payments flow in SA).

 

What did you study?

 

I have this beleaguered history of studying complex degrees and then deciding I actually don’t want to pursue that! When I finished school I did a year of medicine, because that was the done thing coming from parents who were children of an Indian Muslim immigrant family. I quickly realised that medicine didn’t resonate with me, so I changed to a law degree (both my siblings are lawyers).

 

Then, in my final year of law school I realised that I didn’t want to be a lawyer either! It’s confusing because although there’s a strong drive in my community for achieving academically and being independent, there’s also this mixed messaging that as a woman you must choose a job which enables you to be at home to bring up a family, like a career in academia. I had an instinct I wanted to go into business, so I began studying for a commerce degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Rufaida Ismail
Rufaida Ismail, head of payments

My leadership style is empowering, consultative and respectful, with an underlying base of integrity. Women need to be increasingly unapologetic about how they take up their positions in business.

What was your first role at Investec?

 

I was Head of HR IT systems - I had traversed that line between business and IT for quite a long time, so it seemed a good fit.  My entry to Investec being HR, allowed me to really understand the culture of Investec, the smell of it and what makes it so distinctive.  I also learned about the chemistry of how people come together, how relationships are formed and the currency that those relationships hold.

 

How has Investec supported your journey?

 

I’ve had really great leaders and colleagues, and my female friendships have been transformational in terms of my thinking and my growth, especially when it came to moving out of HR into the business. I was assisting the Head of IT - who happened to be a woman at the time - on a project, and she mentioned that there was a gap in the role of Head of Payments. I took that job, focusing on managing our IT systems, raising our profile in the industry, and establishing a strong payments strategic and operational focus.

 

What are some essential skills in your industry?

 

How to establish good relationships through collegial diplomacy and negotiate a viewpoint. There’s a structural method to it, so I really took the time to learn that skill set. Another is the currency of relationship building. Investec laid that deep foundation for me, but I had to figure out how to hone that skillset and authentically build relationships.

 

I’ve also learnt to be more assertive, and make my presence felt, which doesn’t always mean being the loudest in the room. 

How would you describe your leadership style now?

 

Unapologetic, consultative and respectful, with an underlying base of integrity. I’ve also learnt to be more assertive, and make my presence felt, which doesn’t always mean being the loudest in the room. I’m a perennial perfectionist and place high demands on myself, but I’ve had to balance out what is good enough – and how you allow others to take up the space they’re in – in a positive and supportive environment, so they operate effectively and play to their strengths and not yours or rather mine.

 

What advice would you give women wanting to follow a similar career path?

 

Never take no for an answer. In a very patriarchal society, women often play victim to that default patriarchal response, of no, and this passive acceptance helps no one. Women also tend to apologise unnecessarily. We walk into a room and say “sorry I’m late” while our male colleagues generally never apologise for their lateness. They simply fill up the room and claim their space - us women need to do more of that.

 

I’ve always had this relentless pursuit of something bigger and better, which has been fuelled by a deep underlying resilience.  Everybody has it, if you dig deep enough, and once you find it, there’s nothing that can replace the drive you get from this sort of internal dragon energy. As Audrey Hepburn said: ‘Nothing is impossible, impossible is actually, I’m possible’. 

Women on the rise

Read more inspirational stories from Investec women in business.