Alumni Interview - Mr. Sabir Sami

Sabi Sami

Mr. Sami is an IBA alumnus from the class of 1988 with majors in Marketing. With a career spread over 30 years, he has diverse international senior management experience in marketing, operations and general management with global consumer goods companies including P&G, Cocoa-Cola, Reckitt Benckiser and Yum! Brands. His areas of expertise are strategy development, organizational change management and people development.

1. As the Managing Director – Mena, Pakistan, Turkey & Asia at Yum! Brands, what does your job title entails?
My responsibility is to determine and drive the strategy for the business across the regions I look after, partnering with our regional General Managers who form my team as well as with our franchise partners in each of the 40 odd countries I am responsible for. While the core responsibility is to deliver the financial and business targets, another key responsibility I have is to lead and build the positive culture of our workplace and grow the talent needed for future leadership.

2. Of all the places you have worked in, which is the most memorable for you?
The most memorable location I have worked in has to be Vietnam where I worked at Coca-Cola in 1996. It was a unique experience to be living in a part of the world that was rapidly changing and embracing international brands and lifestyle. The best location that my family and I have enjoyed has to be Istanbul, a city with rich history, great food, easy location to travel to and from and wonderful people.

Sabi Sami

3. In terms of cultural sensibilities, how does one adapt to a new culture and environment?
Since I have lived and/or worked in over 10 countries including Singapore, Canada, Australia and many more, I have learnt that people in every country and culture have more in common than different. I love listening to people's life stories, the history of nations, evolution of culture and enjoying different cuisines. Simply showing respect, sharing your own experiences and learning some basic language terms goes a long way to adjust to a new culture and environment.

4. What are/ should be the traits of a successful leader? Did the IBA help you in developing them or making them better?
Many successful leaders have differing traits and in my opinion there is no one approach. In my personal opinion the traits I look for are humility, compassion, passion and intelligence. The one feature I loved about the IBA was that the students there came from every different background; faith, ethnicity, language and socio-economic strata. Building relationships and learning to relate to every person taught one the value of EQ, respect and deep relationships. I am blessed to still be very close friends with all my friends at IBA, 30 years later!

5. Under the current scenario of marketing industry where big data and information security are some of the hotly debated topics, how does one maneuver their brands in such conditions?
I agree that these topics are becoming critically important. However, with big data more and more companies are investing in capturing and leveraging consumer data to build brand relationships, connect across categories and engage with consumers across their lifestyle. However, it is equally critical that consumer data is protected, that misuse of data without permission is restricted and consumers have the choice to be targeted or not. There is more and more government regulatory enforcement coming into play to ensure these rules are respected and followed. On the other hand, consumers are deluged with messages and it is important that brands figure out how to be differentiated and relevant or risk getting lost in all the clutter.

6. Is it easier to revive dead-beat brands or launch a new one?
There is no simple answer to this. It depends on the category, level of competition and investment level. However, assuming all else being equal, I would say that reviving a dead brand would be my choice as there is usually some brand equity and awareness to leverage.

Sabi Sami

7. Lately, there has been a debate on whether the MBA degree is becoming redundant; with your travel exposure and engagement with large number of employees, what is your view on this? If yes, what degree should one pursue?
In this age of deep specialization there is valid debate as to the value of an MBA. My opinion is that an MBA may not be for every person. Instead I would recommend that after a Bachelor's degree one should work and after some experience depending on the career path, then determine which advance education to pursue. It might be an MBA but it could equally be a specialist degree in another field.

8. Some of the renowned companies like Google, Amazon and Ali Baba are preferring skills over degrees, do you agree? Is this the way forward?
There is no doubt that the value of experience is immense. Logically, for middle and senior management roles having someone with unique and relevant skills that can hit the ground running is invaluable. But there is always a need for entry level talent so as a society it is also important to have a pipeline of talented, educated young people. The insight here is that even after one's degree is complete it is critical to keep learning new skills through new and challenging experiences. Far too many people seek and follow the safe path, continuing to do the same tasks and jobs for years, which while might be the secure solution but leads to stagnation and lack of growth making one redundant. No risk, no return!

9. How does a graduate from Pakistan sell himself or herself as a global commodity?
Instead I would recommend that after a Bachelor's degree one should work and after some experience depending on the career path, while there is sometimes an element of luck involved, in my experience it is usually down to hard work, delivering results and collaborating with others. There isn't a short cut and generally in most multinationals talent usually wins over any bias. Also, speaking for myself personally I was willing to relocate internationally (Australia, Vietnam, Turkey, etc) to continue my growth which always helps to establish one as an international executive whilst others refused to accept some such opportunities.

10. Any advice for the current students of IBA?
Appreciate that every person has their own path and you need to create your own, know what is important to you and how you define success and always stand up for your values. The best advice I ever received from a boss was, "Do The Right Thing, Always".