Zaid Moola’s powerful recipe of ambition and authenticity

Standard Bank’s Zaid Moola unpacks taking on his new role as head of wholesale clients South Africa.

Zaid Moola was a newly married 21-year-old in his native Durban, doing his articles at one of the large audit firms, when he was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to New York for secondment.

At the time, in post-apartheid South Africa, most audit firms weren’t offering many international secondments and Zaid was part of the first cohort of 50 to have this amazing opportunity. Given that his dream was to go into investment banking, landing the opportunity to work in Manhattan, which is the heartbeat of the financial world, felt like the perfect match.

Zaid says, “I won’t forget the first time I walked on to Times Square. I had never travelled overseas, was awed by the place and felt that anything was possible.”
Raising the flag for South Africa

Even though the secondment was an opportunity of a lifetime, it had its hiccups. Landing from balmy Durban to frigid New York City was a shock to the system and he got sick upon arrival. He recalls receiving an icy call from the Human Capital department to remind him that if he was not up to the challenge of the work, he should go back home.

Still sick, he forced himself to go to the office and kicked off a cycle of 17- to 19-hour workdays, which continued for a gruelling four months. After weeks of getting home in the early morning and being back at my desk in a few hours, he was exhausted, but he was pushed to excel because of a bigger reason.

“I forced myself to keep going because I felt I was representing South Africans, especially those who would be coming behind me. South Africans have a great reputation for their excellence and work ethic and I didn’t want to let the team down.”

However, despite being made an offer to extend his stay in New York he declined, having made some observations that clashed with his aspirations. “In that line of work, work-life balance was skewed and most people’s relationships had deteriorated. The experience proved to me that hard work never kills anyone, but also showed that people will take advantage of you if you allow them.”

Looking back he says, “It was an amazing opportunity, and it taught me a lot so early on in my career. I came to see that the world is your oyster, nothing was out of bounds.”

Coming back to South Africa, he was ready to settle down and got an opportunity to join Standard Bank in Johannesburg, starting an almost two decades-long career with the bank.

The power of experience in crisis
The New York experience was foundational to his career growth and through the years, Zaid has occupied various positions within the bank including heading up corporate structured sales, global markets, as well as the client coverage sa business. He says the accumulation of these roles came in handy when facing the challenges of 2020.

“My previous knowledge has been valuable: living through the 2008 global financial crisis, being there when the bank underwent its largest retrenchment process in 2010, as well as being in global markets where high stakes decisions are common, were experiences I leveraged in 2020.”

The pandemic aside, he says in his line of work, there are always big decisions to be made and in many instances some people either freeze or panic. As someone who thrives under pressure, that’s something he has learned not to do. “When I’m facing a challenge, I try to keep as calm as possible. I have a few tools to clear my mind: sometimes it’s taking a walk. I also find exercise is key to coping with high-pressure situations.”

An avid swimmer, Zaid usually hits the pool five days a week for 45 minutes of solo time in the water. He spends the time thinking about whatever is on his mind with no disturbance, an escape he finds therapeutic.

Evolved competitiveness
“I love winning, I’m exceptionally competitive,” says Zaid, but explains his youthful, in-your-face version of victory has changed. “Ten to 15 years ago I showed up differently. The inner fire for competition and accomplishment hasn’t disappeared, it has just been nurtured and harnessed in a more tempered, considered way. I can still accomplish my goals, but it looks different.”

Much of his evolution is shaped by his spiritual beliefs, which he says, drive him as an individual, “The belief that there is a bigger power influences how I approach achieving my goals. It is important for me to achieve my goals with all my key values firmly intact. It’s easy to get carried away chasing success, but I don’t want it to be at the expense of someone else.”

He doesn’t separate his beliefs from work. Instead he takes an integrative approach to both facets. Driven by a belief that he is fortunate to lead and should do so with purpose, Zaid’s view is that being in an environment where his dreams, the aspirations of those around him, and the goals of the organisation he works for are aligned, is what true success looks like. “I have a passion for people,” he says. “The philosophy I work by is that what I want for myself, I also want for others.”

The values driving leadership
Passion, authenticity and empathy are the values Zaid leads with. He believes in being true to himself and says it's important to be doing work he finds engaging. “I want to thrive, and if I don’t have the hunger, drive and energy for what’s in front of me, then I have to dig a lot deeper, which isn’t sustainable.”

His authenticity and empathy show in the way he interacts with people. “The beauty of empathy and caring is that if it's authentic, people will know it.” He values trust and integrity, saying, “I am guided by human values first and I align those with the contributions I make in the world.”

Being the best
“We have two main drivers in our business – our customers and people – and they can only co-exist. We need to be obsessed with our customers and service excellence. That is the key differentiator,” he says.

Zaid is acutely aware of the responsibility he bears, leading more than 2,500 people. “If we want to achieve goals, we have to be best of breed. We need to be people who know what they are doing and are great at it.”

He admits that in a fast-changing world, the pace of disruption demands that leaders keep up with disruptions, trends and new challenges – and that creates pressure. “I keep myself up to date and current by engaging with customers, sharing ideas with colleagues, delving into issues and learning on the job.”

He also values talking to other finance leaders and says communities like the CFO South Africa community give insight into what is going on in different sectors and how others are responding. He says hearing first-hand accounts of best practices and approaches offer great insight on how to approach challenges.

Apart from annual trainings to keep his professional accreditations current, he completed an Advanced Management programme with INSEAD, a top rated course that is world recognised. He says, “Thirty years ago life was slower and we were more sheltered. Now we live in a connected world, where access to digital has made it so much easier to grow, expand and keep learning continuously.”

An insightful and grounded leader, Zaid has his feet firmly planted in his faith and family. He says his 18-year relationship with Standard Bank has been sustained because of the alignment in values and ethos he has with the bank – a privilege he doesn’t take for granted.