Navigating Transformation Through Excellence

Providing value to the client requires the transformation of input. Therefore, Fatima is committed to navigating transformation through excellence. Through the implementation of world-class technology, consulting, and outsourcing solutions, and the development of global strategic partnerships, she achieves outstanding results.

Fatima is an integral member of the top leadership at Abacus Consulting, a leading international professional services firm committed to transforming clients by delivering world-class technology, consulting, and outsourcing solutions through high-performing people and global strategic partnerships. Over more than 24 years, Fatima’s professional experience embodies thought leadership and delivering progressive solutions in Corporate Governance, Digital Transformation, Strategic Change, Human Capital Management, Enterprise Technology Solutions, and project leadership across multiple sectors and industries. An MBA graduate from LUMS, she started her career with Coopers & Lybrand International and then PricewaterhouseCoopers. Her leadership journey includes serving on various Boards as an independent director such as Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Faysal Bank, Kashf Foundation, Bata Pakistan, and Kaarvan Crafts Foundation. She holds a Corporate Director Certification from Harvard Business School and is a member of the Harvard Corporate Directors, Diversity and Inclusion Hub Leadership Council, and Women Executives on Boards forums. 

Startup Insider magazine aims to highlight Pakistan’s best leaders, businessmen, businesswomen, small business owners, and entrepreneur interviews from all across the country. It aims to make young entrepreneurs’ voices heard by providing them with a platform where they can learn, grow, and innovate. For this very reason, Start-up Insider magazine approached Fatima Asad-said to share her life story and talk about the business challenges faced by CEOs and young entrepreneurs every day. This interview is based on a personal profile, her business scale, challenges, and success factors. Organizations seeking to adapt during turbulent times like now can’t force change through purely technical approaches such as restructuring and reengineering. They need a new kind of leadership capability to reframe dilemmas, reinterpret options, and reform operations, and to do so continuously Fatima was appointed as CEO of Abacus Consulting. 

Transforming an organization remains very difficult, and serious change demands serious people. Fatima believes that for an organizational transformation one should experience a significant personal transformation before initiating any change to the organization and its people. Personal Change (or changing oneself) really means to be able to comfortably demonstrate new behaviors that produce new results in your life. 

Let’s talk with Fatima and find out what strategies she has in mind while transforming Abacus Consulting. 

Every moment in life is a learning opportunity, to improve oneself and thus the world around us. That’s where excellence and transformation truly lie. But it is a challenging path, where the ability to recalibrate is important and must remain resilient, courageous, empathetic, & above all, have faith that every day brings the promise of a better tomorrow. 

We want to hear your narrative? Take us through your professional journey, what made you tilt towards HR and what made you want to start with Abacus? 

There is great power in knowledge, and what defines our journey is when that knowledge is applied to create value for others. Every moment in life is a learning opportunity, to improve oneself and thus the world around us. That’s where excellence and transformation truly lie. But it is a challenging path, where the ability to recalibrate is important and one must remain resilient, courageous, empathetic, and above all, have faith that every day brings the promise of a better tomorrow. 

My professional journey started with internships at the United Nations in Geneva, Citibank, and IFC before embarking on a career with Coopers & Lybrand International and then Price water house, Coopers. out Throughout my academic career, I had maintained a focus on the finance discipline. It was towards the end of my LUMS MBA program when I realized the recurring theme of any case study was the person(s) decisions or actions. Whether it was a strategic business plan to be approved or a conflict to be resolved, it all pointed to choices that people made and the subsequent impact on the team or organization. Fascinated, I took a leap of faith towards the HR discipline, at a time it was considered mostly a personnel function, with the concept of HR still developing in Pakistan. The best option was Coopers & Lybrand in Lahore at that time, and as they say, the rest is history. 

My professional journey, now, spans over more than 24 years, embodying thought leadership and delivering progressive solutions in Corporate Governance, Digital Transformation, Strategic Change, Human Capital Management, Enterprise Technology Solutions, and project leadership across multiple sectors and industries. My leadership journey includes the privilege of serving on various Boards as an independent director such as Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Faysal Bank, Kashf Foundation, Bata Pakistan, and Kaarvan Crafts Foundation. I hold a Corporate Director Certification from Harvard Business School and am a member of the Harvard Corporate Directors, Diversity and Inclusion Hub Leadership Council, and Women Executives on Boards forums. I have been fortunate to speak at various leadership and management conferences such as Nutshell, HR Metrics, CEO Club, etc. But I must acknowledge that these wonderful achievements would not have been possible without the strong support, guidance, and belief of my parents, my husband, my family, and countless inspirational friends and colleagues. 

Abacus consulting today is the transformation partner across 4 continents with more than 1000 enterprise clients, what is your brand’s legacy? 

Abacus is the brainchild of our Chairman, Mr. Asad Ali Khan. A man of great integrity and vision, he started his professional career as a Chartered Accountant, qualifying from Coopers & Lybrand, Australia. On returning to Pakistan in the early 1970s, he started his career with a leading chartered accountancy firm and quickly found international opportunities which took us to Saudi Arabia. But it was his passion for the management consultancy profession that drove his career shift toward advisory and consulting. On returning to Pakistan in the late 80s, despite various international options, he made the brave decision to realize his dream of leading a world-class professional services firm. We must keep in mind that the management consulting domain was far from mature in Pakistan. It was the presence and representation from the big six accounting firms that gave some awareness, though predominantly driven by the financial advisory. To operationalize an idea that required building awareness, credibility, and long terms relationships was a great challenge. Thus, started a remarkable journey that has enabled great careers for people, enabled excellence for clients and partners, and truly transformed the ecosystem in Pakistan and beyond. Over the years, Abacus became a global organization as a member firm of both Coopers & Lybrand, and subsequently PricewaterhouseCoopers. With this legacy and the re-emergence of the Abacus brand in 2004, we continue to achieve strong growth, provide transformative solutions services and geographic diversification, deliver innovative solutions and sustain long-term partnerships with our clients. 

In your opinion, what are the three essential components that make any business unique? 

At Abacus, it is imperative that we continue to add sustainable value through long-term relationships with our clients and strategic partners. Aligning with market leaders, understanding their strategic requirements and goals, and then enabling transformation to create their future remains a key focus. 

In addition, we strive to ensure the highest degree of professionalism and ethical standards throughout our journey of almost 35 years now. While there is a family representation at the Board level, there is also a balanced representation of the high-caliber and diverse professionals with significantly rich experience in their own fields. At the C-Level and below, we remain committed to partnering with the right professional leadership and talent to ensure that the right fit is achieved. 

I truly believe with a strong governance framework, clarity of vision, alignment to strategic objectives, and sustaining high growth and result-oriented culture, any business can not only sustain its leadership but continue to deliver excellence. Of course, in that, the challenge of ensuring alignment at the governance level and constant transformation through high per- forming teams must be calibrated and addressed on a continuous basis. 

Any particular career highlight you would want to talk about?

Each phase of my career has brought different challenges and at every step, there have been several achievements. But my greatest thus far is the current opportunity to lead Abacus at an unprecedented and disruptive time. I’m honored and humbled by the support and confidence of Abacus’ top leadership, our people, our clients, and our partners as Abacus navigates with greater purpose into the future. In addition, it has been truly an honor to be on the Board of Trustees of my alma mater, LUMS. 

When it comes to the growth and expansion of the business, how do you, as a CEO, decide which route is best? 

Leading and sustaining any business comes down to clarity of purpose. Once business leaders develop a deep understanding of the reasons for existence, the alignment to delivering on a well-defined vision and a focused strategic plan becomes easier. In addition, it is essential that the governance framework aptly identifies the key stakeholders and risks associated to ensure a growth-oriented approach. With the building blocks and effective scenario planning, I believe the decisions become less challenging. 

Your priorities, when you joined 24 years ago were very different from what they are now as CEO, Tell us how you have approached and embraced this change?

It is wise to adopt as we evolve, either at the individual or organizational level. Therein, lies true wisdom. At the start of my career, the focus and level of responsibility were predominantly centered on my own development and learning. As I progressed, greater leadership responsibilities meant being entrusted with the careers of colleagues, higher-value client projects, and building long-term relationships. At the same time, certain elements, I believe have remained consistent. The integrity, professionalism, transformative learning, empathy, and focus on sustaining long-term relationships that I hope I have demonstrated throughout my career. 

No business is obstacle-free, what was the biggest challenge faced by Abacus Consulting?

In any business, there are continuous obstacles and challenges that must be managed. The key is to identify the risks and develop mitigating policies aligned to key factors detrimental to business sustainability. In 2004, with the buyout of PWC Consulting worldwide, Abacus Consulting, a dormant company, reemerged, fundamentally changing its strategic focus and business model. A difficult transition for the Board, but the commitment to realizing the vision of a world-class professional services firm remained consistent. 

More recently, the 2020 pandemic crisis, alone, has taught our generation of business leaders many lessons. As we emerge from the disruption caused, at Abacus we continue to ensure that two factors drive our strategy’s well-being of our People and business continuity. In an ever-changing disruptive world, I believe we must think creatively as one team to successfully address the challenges. As the world emerges from the pandemic, business leaders must develop strategies to address cyber security, risks, new workplace norms, physical and mental well-being of a diverse workforce, other than external pressures such as climate change, involuntary migration, etc. 

In terms of “future-proofing” a business, what are the most important things for businesses to do when going through a period of expansion to preserve their roots & culture, but make space for growth and change? What makes your culture unique and how do you as an organization protect that? 

I believe ‘future proofing’ is about harnessing adaptive innovation as part of your business DNA, which should enable the business to stay relevant and sustainable. I believe real growth is driven by a broad well-defined governance framework and high-performance human capital that remains aligned to the vision and long strategic goals; but at the end of the day, as Peter Drucker states ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast. At Abacus, our culture and values have remained consistent throughout our journey so far. A culture that ensures an open, nurturing, and learning-driven environment, celebrates diversity and inclusion, demonstrates respect and dignity for all, allows collaboration as one team at all levels, and above all, reflects integrity. It all starts with the tone at the top. 

What would your Strategic Vision be for your company & your clients in the upcoming year? 

Abacus remains committed to being ‘Your Transformation Partner’. Strengthening the value proposition for our Clients and Partners, and ensuring sustainability towards 10X growth through innovative technology and digital solutions by 2025 remain our key priorities. For our People to transform other organizations and teams, the first step is changing ourselves, staying relevant, to remain world-class position in terms of knowledge, skills, and ability. That leads to creating innovative opportunities for our People, and thus enables us to create the future of business, together. 

What do you think is why do ‘excellence projects’ usually fail? Share your opinion with us. 

In my opinion, they are implemented like a trend without previous analysis of the organization and its real ability to cope with change. During the process of the company’s analysis, it is mandatory to have a proper check on multiple work areas, weak areas, non-prepared management styles, immature middle management, vague goals, etc. All these areas require rapid and continuous improvement excellence projects usually fail because of a poor management style. And at this step, we forget key processes, planning, drafting, innovation, and development. These are the main factors that an organization has to put in its efforts for the betterment of the company. For this, all you need is to have special tools to meet the needs of organizations’ transformation process. Then you will know where you are now and where you will need to be in the future. Here I would say, executing the right and effective business strategy is the key to success for the sustainable growth of the company and its stakeholders. 

What factors to keep in mind before choosing a business model for startups?

There are several factors to keep in mind prior to developing a business model for startups. Firstly, the most important factor is to define and gain clarity on the value proposition. Understanding the purpose of the business or service and the need it aims to fulfill. The next step is to identify the customer and how the start-ups’ unique value proposition would solve the customer’s problems or cater to their demand. It is essential to know your target audience, their needs and problems, their demographics, geographic presence, and their behavior as the start-up develops the business model. 

Another important factor in defining the competitor landscape which would include a structured model to identify differentiating factors. It is important to ask questions ranging from what makes the startup stand out or does the business aim to be a follower or market leader, etc. Research through an independent credible source including firms or subject matter experts provides insightful data in making informed decisions especially during the design of the business plan. This also encourages long-term thinking and focus, defining market potential, streamlining the start-up’s value proposition, governance structure, and perhaps insight on funding identification. 

In addition, developing a strategy that includes scalability and cost-efficiency as key elements ensure sustainability and would increase investor confidence. The start-up team must network to identify potential sources of funding, where required, and the process that is involved. In a disruptive landscape, where regulatory requirements are becoming more stringent, it is important to be prepared and well-documented. Last, but not least is developing a winning team. As any entrepreneur knows, the core team must possess a unique and diverse skill set individually and have shared clarity on the value proposition. 

What do you think is the best business model for aspiring and emerging entrepreneurs? 

This is dependent on the industry or sector of the entrepreneur. Of course, the simpler and leaner business model works best, but remember to check in regularly and allow for the learning adjustments along the way. However, the Lean Business Model is best for ensuring continuous improvements in any business operation. Typically, this model has nine components making it easier for new entrepreneurs to identify their challenges and enable focused problem-solving. Incorporating the following components into the start-up business plan is essential. These include the USP (value proposition), target audience, marketing channels, revenue streams, key performance metrics, cost structure, and unfair advantage, etc. 

It’s also wise to reach out to industry and subject matter experts and mentors during this process. Pakistan is fortunate to have developed a growing network of incubation centers and investor networks which are led by highly successful and inspiring entrepreneurs. 

Would you please share some best home business ideas for a woman to start?

Women’s inclusion and financial empowerment is key to furthering the economic development of a nation. It is essential that an enabling ecosystem for budding entrepreneurs especially women is sustained. During the COVID pandemic, the disruption caused Ecommerce and technology platforms to experience phenomenal growth. With business models leveraging technology to grow and sustain the business, it has provided immense possibilities to entrepreneurs. I have seen remarkable examples of women from all income categories bravely starting their own business ranging from trading over the internet, online home tuitions, designing DIY projects, selling beauty products, cookery items, event planning and management, online consultation, career counseling, photography, selling gifts, selling clothes, and baking items, etc. The starting point is identifying one’s passion and building from there. 

Share your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? 

Passion, perseverance, and determination drive success. Keep going and remember to regroup and rethink the obstacles that come your way! Starting and sustaining a business is hard work, as both the internal and external environment constantly evolve. After all, ‘there is nothing permanent except change. We must adapt and relearn if we are to remain relevant and sustainable. It all starts with faith in God, in oneself, and staying true to our values. So, make a commitment to yourself, to add value to yourself, your team, your community, and your world, at large, and then see yourself rise!