The MacGyver of Team Solutions

Nabil Raad, Vice President of Data Science at GM Financial

This week’s episode features a conversation with Nabil Raad, a global leader who has successfully built upon the benefits of his multicultural roots. Known as “MacGyver”, for his ability to always find a solution, Nabil shares a number of his creative approaches to increase team communication and productivity; including (i) rotating leadership, (ii) harnessing data to provide leaders with a “virtual mirror” of their communication/network, and (iii) contracting with an authored professor to serve as both an SME, and teacher to his team.


Nabil also shares his unique insight into cross-cultural communication, resilience, work/life integration, and the system he developed for himself to ‘build the habit of making habits’. This session provides both perspective and positivity!


Cummings-Krueger: Hi everyone. Welcome to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. I’m Megan Cummings-Krueger, and today our conversation is going to be focused on the power of resilience that reaches across cultures. My guest is Nabil Raad, vice president of data science at GM Financial, where he leads the development of data and analytical solutions that support strategic and operational initiatives across the globe. Throughout his career, holding a variety of leadership roles at organizations, including Ford Credit and Citibank, Nabil has gained extensive experience in leading business transformation, building globally distributed teams, and developing organizational capabilities in the digital space. Nabil holds a BS in computer science, an MBA, and a PhD in industrial and systems engineering. He enjoys teaching and speaking in areas related to data science, computer science, risk management, and leadership.


He serves as a global mentor across several organizations and serves on several advisory boards in higher education and nonprofits. Nabil and his wife currently reside in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and are the proud parents of two adult sons. I’ll also share this because it’s just so impressive to me that his wife speaks seven languages.


Nabil first joined the Menttium community as a mentor in 2012 and is currently mentoring his fifth mentee. We are delighted to have him as our mentoring partner, and we’re delighted to have him here as a guest today. Welcome, Nabil.


Raad: Thank you, Megan. Thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. My first question for you, I want to zero in on what I know is one of the many unique things about you as a person and as a leader, and that is that you were fortunate to have a global upbringing. You lived in a number of cultures and countries during your childhood, which I suppose is probably more likely when you have a mother from Connecticut and a father from Lebanon. How do you feel that early multicultural exposure has benefited you?


Raad: Sometimes it’s tough to describe because what came normal to me from an early age stuck with me, and that is I never saw differences at the people level growing up. In many ways, differences were invisible to me, and I didn’t feel that others around me were different. I saw people are like me in the sense that they have different experiences. I guess I’ve learned from an early age that I need to look for those different perspectives and it became a source of enrichment and a source of challenge to how I can continue to expand my understanding of situations, peoples, and cultures around me.


I’ve learned to accept that my thinking is never final. What I know today isn’t final, it’s not absolute and that always needs to evolve and adjust my thinking as I interact with others. To me, right or wrong or good or bad or terrible absolutes, that’s not how we should be thinking. At some level, and this might sound strange Megan, but I feel it gave me from an early age a peace of mind in the sense that being in different situations you feel comfortable in those situations that seem even foreign to me. I could have been exposed to many different cultures, but not all of them. So, you’re always exposed to something new, and you feel there’s this peace in you that this is not threatening as an experience, even though I might feel completely unprepared. So, you welcome that.


Professionally, what this did for me is that it helped me focus on hiring people that compliment me, people that are comfortable with who they are and who are curious. Feeling comfortable with not knowing all the answers, suspending judgment and balancing understanding with promoting my own views. That to me is a key habit that I really focused on. Also, part of this experience is balancing or managing problem solving with creating. To me, problem solving is about making the status quo better and creating is breaking away from the status quo and replacing it with something entirely different.


I’ve always been conscious about when I hire, when I work with people, are they problem solvers or are they creators? Not that I want to bend them in specific buckets but try to understand their perspectives around those two elements. It’s been a fascinating journey. I can tell you every time I lived in a foreign country and then come back to the U.S., the downside is that you come back with a lot of stories, things you want to share with people, and you come back almost as a stranger in that sense. Because you change so quickly through those experiences, and so you learn as well how to reconnect with those people that you left behind.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. That was such a rich conversation and there are several things that it made me think of. There’s a great Rumi quote that talks about out beyond the fields, there is a place beyond right and wrong, and I will meet you there. I kept thinking of that quote, even though I’m butchering it, when you were talking about all of that. But it also reminded me of, I read a really interesting article about Barack Obama years ago, and it talked about how when you grow up in more than two cultures, I don’t know if it’s tri-culture or if I’m making a word up here, but when you are able to have more than, and perhaps it is kind of that black and white, one versus the other, but when you have a multitude of cultures, it does impact you in that you are always more thoughtful and you are looking at it from different angles, as you say, before making any kind of decision. That sounds like at least that was part of your experience.


Raad: Absolutely. I think sometimes you feel like you’re taking longer than you should in making decisions and to others it might seem this way. I’m very careful to make sure I understand the urgency of certain situations and the need for quick decision making. Most situations afford you that luxury, if I could call it this, to understand other perspectives, to enrich your thinking with the presence and perspectives of others. I think it makes you a better decision maker, right? You can still in a situation where you hold the final decision-making authority, you can still hold that, but suspend your own judgment and influence so that others are not swayed by what they think you’re going to say or what your view is. I think that’s another critical element of that process.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. For the benefit of the audience, I do want to continue to broaden your biography, because after your childhood, you continue to build upon all your cultural experiences throughout your professional career. I know you’ve lived in among other places France and Australia where you were leading teams, and in Africa and the Asia Pacific region. You were living and leading teams in India, and then of course you were living in a number of regions in the United States. I think anyone listening would appreciate hearing any story or learning that comes to your mind when you think about communicating or working across cultures.


Raad: I’ll share a few experiences with you, but also want to make sure I mention that there is no one size fits all, right? There is no recipe for how you deal with different cultural experiences. Obviously, the very nature of culture is that it’s buried and diverse and enriching. One of the assignments that I had was in Australia where I was managing management for Asia Pacific and Africa. One interesting experience that I went through, and I will not mention the country in this case, but it was a country where I led the implementation of a credit company, and I was responsible for establishing the risk function. Then after a few months, one of the credit analysts who was approving auto loans discovered that one of the applications had a fraudulent bank statement.


Typically, anytime you have a situation like this, you’re supposed to escalate it to headquarters in the U.S. and there’s a special executive communication you must put in place, so it is a big deal when that happens. I was talking with the risk manager in that country, and I hired that risk manager, so I played a role in setting up that risk function. She was telling me that this is not a big deal and that all they were doing was beautifying their financial position. During my conversation with her, I had with me the director of operations for the region as well. He was responsible for operations, and I was responsible for risk management. He was very upset and afterwards he told me we should fire that risk manager because she’s not fit for that role. He was also a bit unhappy with me because I was so patient with her in terms of trying to understand her thinking.


That’s really what I needed to understand is it has captured her thought process before rendering in any kind of conclusion. Over the next few weeks, I worked with her to help her understand the impact of us making wrong decisions. I separated that incident and talked about in general what happens if we make wrong credit decisions. Gradually she began to understand where I was coming from and I said obviously in this case, we could end up making the wrong decision. Maybe that person can afford that vehicle, maybe they can’t. But how do we know? I said, I’d like to put on you the challenge of helping us understand how we assess people. In your country, what should be the measure by which we should assess credit?


This was an emerging market, so one of the things she recommended was to conduct a home visit for certain individuals. We implemented that practice and I think we turned something that individuals in headquarters looked at as a serious violation, as a firing offense, we turned it into a positive situation where she was proactive from that point on in terms of finding ways to help us manage credit risk. That’s just one example that stuck with me that could have turned entirely different from the way it ended up unfolding.


Cummings-Krueger: I love that example because it illustrates so well how important it is to try and understand, and not to have that judgment, good or bad, as you were saying earlier, immediate, but to look for all the gray area that exists between and understanding, especially across cultures, what the purpose was, what the traditions are, and then understanding and then working with her and getting her insight. That’s such a great example.


Raad: It’s all about, being patient. People accuse me, as I mentioned, of being too patient sometimes, but you must use time to your advantage in those cases when you do have time. That probably was one of the most enriching periods of my life working in that region because I had responsibility for over, I think it was about 18 countries and each one was unique. One of the things that I needed to do as well was to help. We had a location risk manager in every country, and I made it a point to send them on assignments, so I would rotate them. Someone who is in China, I would send them to India to work there for a year. These were six months to one-year assignments where they swapped chairs with their counterparts in that country. I think it worked beautifully in terms of helping them understand what others are doing, why things are done the way they are. That’s another story in terms of how you can look at a region and try to make it better in the sense that you’re not necessarily optimizing the parts, but you’re optimizing the whole system that works in that region.


Cummings-Krueger: It reminds me of the essence of mentoring, in that it comes down to seeing in another person’s eyes, seeing through their culture, seeing through their daily experience. It seems like it’s getting at that same essence. Another piece I wanted to touch on, because I remember you talking about this earlier, is I know that you also, along with patience, have been very intentional about showing great respect for difference. I can’t remember which country you’re in, it might have been India, but I remember you shared with me that you began to learn the language out of respect for the culture or perhaps keeping up with your wife, I’m not sure. But I imagine that effort was greatly appreciated.


Raad: It really was. I give the credit to the team who not only welcomed my gesture but encouraged me to get better and better at it. It’s tough to lead without connecting first and language is such a powerful way of connecting. It’s a window into any culture. I had a tutor come to my office three days a week and they would love it. The team would love it when they saw the tutor come and it was a visible process to them.


It was a young team. It just happens to be those are the demographics at that time in India. But I learned Tamil and I would kickoff meetings in Tamil, and they would play games and hold posters and ask me to read them. I had great support from my wife. I think I’ve mentioned to you one time I came home, and she had the dinner menu in Tamil, and she said, if you can read it, you have dinner. It’s good to have that support system around you. I’m very grateful for that experience.


In fact, even yesterday, one of them reached out to me. It’s been five years, and there’s probably not a week that I don’t hear from them. It shows you the power of connecting and respecting. What’s amazing is that it encourages them to share more stories with you. It encourages them to share their own culture and experiences. I went to over 60 weddings when I was on assignment there. It was amazing and I’ve learned so much through that.


Cummings-Krueger: You said something at the beginning of your response, you said you can’t lead until you connect. As I’ve worked with you over the years, there are a number of phrases you say that I find so interesting that I want to follow up with you. One of the observations you shared is that it is easier to develop individuals, it is tougher to develop teams. Can you speak a little more about that?


Raad: I’ve seen many cases throughout my career with very smart individuals who make very bad decisions. It’s not an automatic outcome to have good decisions from smart people. There is that element of collective intelligence that comes into play, and obviously that’s at many levels including cultural. I found throughout my career that yes, you do need to invest in developing individuals, but also you need to focus on developing teams and how individuals make decisions together as teams.


One of the interesting observations that I came across, let me stick with India for just a minute, was that the business center that I was running in India was originally based on a model of cost arbitrage. Basically, the messaging was that we’ve done the thinking for you, you go ahead and execute. As you can imagine, as the business center matured, we started realizing that there’s really a lot more potential here beyond cost arbitrage. You can be more efficient, you can provide better customer experience, so I suspect that some of it was cultural in terms of following directions.


I wanted to make sure that I left the business center with individuals who could do their own thinking, who were able to take the business forward, and I wanted a local to replace me. We did several things. One of them was that we established what we called an operating map, and that map basically had three tenants to it. The first tenant we called operational excellence, which focused on how you deliver a quality product. The next focused on change and how you identify the next evolution of the business center. The third focused on understanding the business and the environment.


These were thinking connections if you want to call them that. And we developed a course that every member of the team would go through. Then we had these small circles where we discussed them. But the unique thing about these circles was that any member of the team was able to and was asked to modify the content of that course to evolve it over time so that the content is not static, and it reflects the awakening, and their contributions and how they want to evolve that business center.


It was an amazing experience. We could see people come out of their shells, and they had wonderful ideas. Oftentimes they would hear someone from the U.S. say, you know what? Do it this way. I have 30 years of experience in doing this process. They had wonderful suggestions, but they started holding back. And so that’s one of the processes we put in place to help them unlock their potential as a team, not only as individuals.


Cummings-Krueger: It’s such a win-win. It helps develop individuals, the team, but also the organization gets that full benefit of that unique diversity of thought.


Raad: Absolutely, you said it best. It is a win-win for everyone and in fact, that business center continued to grow after I left and they’re thriving today. They’ve added more processes that the company and the executives felt that business center could never do in terms of decision making and interacting with customers. It really has been a success story. Oftentimes they call me, and simply say thank you for believing in us. But it’s them. It’s shining a light on what they could potentially do.


Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. The other expression you’ve shared with me that I’d love to hear a little bit more about is apparently you are known as the MacGyver of finding solutions. I wonder if you could explain why you think that is the case that you have become the MacGyver for finding solutions.


Raad: Some people accuse me of not taking no for an answer. I tend to take no as no, not now, but under the right circumstances that could be yes. I also believe that to learn you need to make progress. You need to continue to take these baby steps. It’s based on a simple premise of progress over perfection. Staying on the theme of that business center in India, think about that business center as individuals supporting processes from all the countries where we had business. If someone bought a vehicle in Brazil or in China or in France, that team was processing a lot of that work.


We also had a team that did analytics to help us run the business center. They were strong in statistics, but they were not strong in optimizing and optimization techniques. In this case, we needed to understand if you have demand from different countries that is variable, how do you organize the teams? How do you train someone to be able to handle four different processes from different countries and what are those processes and what are those countries? So, it’s an optimization problem.


I had one open manager position. Instead of hiring a manager, I went to a local university, I was lucky I must admit, I hired a leading professor who was an author in optimizations and operations research. I hired him for one year to come on board while on sabbatical as an employee and help us build the capabilities while teaching that group. When I first ran this by HR they said, we never do anything like this. But I said there’s a first time for everything. We did that and it was an incredible success.


At some point, in fact it was here in the U.S. we were building a pricing system and we were working with a vendor. It was costing us a few million dollars, and it was supposed to take two to three years to build it. I put together a team of two who could work as a startup. I said, you’re a startup, go and develop this functionality. You’re competing against this vendor. Let’s see what you can do. In three months, they developed not a perfect solution, but a workable solution that helped us implement it and learn and establish a feedback loop to the main project. You can always make progress and you don’t have to wait for the big bank solutions to take place. So, that’s where that MacGyver nickname came from.


Cummings-Krueger: It reminds me of a friend of mine who had been working and living in Germany for three years. She was originally from the States, but when she came back, I asked her, what is one cultural difference that you didn’t anticipate, again tendencies, because each person is different. But what she said always fascinated me, and it reminds me of what you are talking about as well. She said in the States, my sense is that when we’re asked something, our inclination is to say yes, but then we back away. She said her experience of Germany overall was that the first inclination was to say no, but then you could work towards yes. It sounds so much to me like you’re not necessarily accepting no as a final answer, but maybe a temporary answer.


Raad: That’s such a great example.


Cummings-Krueger: It really does impact how you’re hearing things again, and it’s getting out of that kind of black and white, yes/no mentality.


Raad: You reminded me a little bit of Japan. When I first started working with Japan, we had one office there and again, this was in the context of running risk management. I would travel to Japan, and we would talk about strategies for improving risk management. Everyone at the table would shake their heads in the affirmative, but nothing would happen. I learned that no, they’re not agreeing with you, they’re basically acknowledging what you’re saying. The hard work was afterwards, so I had to develop a different approach for working with the Japanese office. It was successful once they agreed, the execution was incredible, but it took some work to get them to change direction. But it was not in the open, not like Germany.


Cummings-Krueger: Yes. So, this leads me to my next question, which I know we’ve discussed briefly before. On the topic of resilience, and certainly you have been resilient across your career, with not ever taking no as the final, but I know it’s been a real passionate focus of yours. In today’s world where these are uniquely challenging times, resilience has become a relevant topic for many of us. I’d love you to share what you’ve come to believe and observe about resilience.


Raad: Resilience can obviously operate at the individual level and at the team level. But let me focus on the team level because that’s probably where we have the most leverage. To me, the whole topic of resilience in a way touches on the example I gave as it related to India and getting them to think on their own. But I truly believe through my own experience that resilience and teams can be designed, so you can help design teams for resilience. There was one interesting experiment I did, and you might think of me a little bit of a mad scientist, but this was a case where there was a new global analytics team. We needed to ensure that they adapted to changing business situations and that through their own resilience, they’re able to help the overall business be resilient because they have a focus on analytics.


One of the factors of resilience that I believe works well is how we connect with others, so connections in a team are an indicator of resilience. In that case, we conducted this experiment where we took Outlook data in terms of your email, and this can be applied to any tool, and we developed a dashboard of your own communication network. Basically, we gave you a tool that would grab your email data and give you a network with some metrics about who you connect with. You can see that for this node, the average response time is, let’s say two minutes. For another node, its two hours or maybe three weeks. We called it virtual mirrors. If you think about it, sports teams view videos of their own games, but we don’t view videos of our own communication.


As you know, reflection is a powerful mechanism. This was a case where we captured their network before this experiment. We applied some virtual mirror treatments, and they were different types of virtual mirrors. We applied and then we measured their connections about 1-1½ years after those interventions. It was amazing when people could see their own biases from a communication point of view. There was one virtual mirror where it gave them a what if analysis in the sense that if I were to lose these connections, what would happen to my network. So basically, the vulnerability of my ability to influence. That was one experiment we did, and it was successful and then replicated in other areas as well. So, connectivity is critical.


Broad participation of individuals is essential and leadership. No one can be good at everything, right? I’m a big fan of leadership that rotates. Take leadership roles in areas where you can play that role. In many teams that I’ve managed, I’ve implemented this concept of rotating leadership so that people have a chance to demonstrate what they’re capable of.


Cummings-Krueger: That was so resilient. I must ask, I’m putting you on the spot, do any of those mirror practices or exercises come to mind?


Raad: One example, and this was as I mentioned, the global team. It was interesting when we looked at the connections between the team in India and the team in the U.S. What we found is that roughly 2% of the people in India were engaged in about 80% or 85% of the communication with the U.S. So, the question is why, right? This was before I went to India, so I did not have the benefit of the experience of having worked in India. What we realized is that the U.S. team was sending simple requests or analytical projects to India and not sending them more modeling projects that required heavier interaction.


We also realized that the managers in that team were the ones who were controlling the communication; they were acting as a broker. We changed things and we started connecting with people. We started putting teams that were made up of a mix of people from India and from the U.S. We had a team in Germany and a team in China. It’s harder to manage, but if you can do it right, the power of such a team is ten times the power of a homogeneous team that doesn’t have the perspectives that you get from a global team.


Cummings-Krueger: One other topic I want to touch on, because number one, I know it’s an area that you have had a lot of experience with and because it’s a challenge for so many of us with this global pandemic and blurred boundaries between work and life. Could you share your perspective, your experience around that quest to balance work and life?


Raad: It’s evolving, and we live in very interesting times right now. Hearing you mention this, I’m reminded of Colette, the French author who basically said, “what a wonderful life I’ve had. I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” I’m going to add another line that’s not part what she said, also what a miserable life I’ve had, I only wish I knew it sooner. To me, that describes the essence of what you need to do to have that. It’s not about balance as such. To me, it’s about managing yourself.


If we think about it as work versus life, it makes it sound almost like good versus bad. We get into these absolutes, which I don’t like to get into, but I can tell you that early in my career, I struggled to overcome my own tendency to work long hours and push. I’ve always taken pleasure in finding a new horizon for my limits. You’re limited by your own expectations of yourself, and you see a limit, but then once you exceed it, another limit opens. I’ve enjoyed that, but very quickly I’ve come to realize that I was like that frog in the boiling water. You gradually become numb, gradually become disconnected, and then suddenly you find yourself a stranger to your family. You find yourself maybe on edge and it’s not a good place to be.


I’ve taught myself the habit of paying attention to small changes in my life and making small corrections versus having to make these big corrections. At the end of the day, I think about this in those terms. I want to contribute professionally. I want to develop. I need to be with my family. I want to watch my kids; I want to be there for them. I want to build memories and I want to have fun. So those are the four key items that I’ve thought about and I’ve tried to manage, but you must draw boundaries. Everything that comes to work tends to be an emergency when it is not, so you must learn to say no.


You must learn to push back and recognize that your productivity will decline if you don’t take a break if you’re working long hours. That’s how I thought about this. I know what I said is very simple, but to me this is a case where what’s needed is simple. What’s hard is how to do it, how to make it stick, how to develop the habit of managing yourself. I’ve worked hard at establishing my own habit development system over the years, and I think that has been a key factor in my ability to manage and learn from my own mistakes.


Cummings-Krueger: I am sure habits are pivotal in the ability to be intentional, but also, I love that perspective of doing it in bite size. We overwhelm ourselves with these shoulds, but when you make note of those small changes and make those bite size, that’s a lot more reachable. Before I ask the final questions, I do want to ask you what else you might want to share with the audience. I know I’ve been asking you a lot of questions, but overall, is there any additional advice that you would like to share to upcoming leaders, habits that you feel contributed to your overall success like what you were just sharing? What final thoughts would you like to share?


Raad: Back to habits, the best advice I can give anyone is develop the habit of making habits. I remember Megan when many years ago, I worked at Citibank and we would go to training, whether it was technical or leadership type of training. I would take the learning and try to change how I think, change what I do. I’ve noticed that not many people are doing that. It’s like you go to training and most of it is gone. You get excited for a few days, for a few weeks, but then you go back to yourself. So, I said I want to establish a process or a system where I’m more intentional about how I change.


I created a spreadsheet and started putting the habits I wanted to develop. I had a description of that habit so I’m clear as to what it is and some evidence for me to confirm that I’m establishing this habit. At the end of every day, I would give myself the score from one to five, and you are going to think this is crazy, but I still do that today. Today I have a spreadsheet with over 30 years of data on my habits. I’ve learned to tweak it and being an analytics professional, I’ve enjoyed mining that data to understand my own behavior over time, but it’s amazing to help you reflect. It’s a question of whatever works for you, right? But I would highly recommend that anyone develops a system for developing habits. That’s fundamental because we all tend to revert to the means so to speak.


After that, it’s knowing yourself. Be honest with yourself in terms of who you are, what your weaknesses are, opportunities. Don’t protect your image because that’s going to impact your learning, right? If you try to sound smart in every situation, you’re not going to ask questions, you’re not going to be vulnerable. Those are key elements for learning and growth.


Keep things in perspective; not every situation is life and death. I’ve seen leaders react to circumstances that don’t require such an overreaction. It influences from the top down how others behave and think around you. Embracing change and adaptability, you must do that. And then serving others and making others better through your words and actions. That’s probably one of my main objectives, my North Star.


Cummings-Krueger: Wonderful. It’s such a mentoring mentality. I appreciate that insight. Before I close out, what is one favorite quote of yours?


Raad: There are so many, Megan, but if I had to choose one, I would give you a quote from Gandhi, which is “live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever”. This can be interpreted in many ways, and you can bring your own perspective to how to interpret it. But living as if you were to die tomorrow, to me means treating others with respect, focusing on what matters, right? If I knew I was going to die a month from now, I would focus on some priorities. It’s about how you work with people. It’s about decency in many ways. And then learning as if you were to live forever, I would add to that not only learning, but giving and planting seeds, for example like trees. You’re not going to see someone else enjoy them, but to me that’s what this means. It means giving beyond. You need to see those results. It means continuing to grow and develop because every moment is an opportunity to contribute. Every moment is an opportunity to grow and help someone else. When you stop doing that because you feel that you’ve reached an age where you need to relax or whatever, to me, I would stop living if I had that mentality.


Cummings-Krueger: That is wonderful, very fitting.


Nabil, I would love to spend about five more hours talking with you, but I know I must bring this to a close. I want to thank you for sharing your experiences and your insight and all the wisdom that you’ve accrued through your experiences, whether it’s culture or individual connections. So, thank you so much for your time today.


I want to thank all of you as well who are listening to this Menttium Matters podcast. We have a number of excellent guests like Nabil coming your way, so do make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any episodes. You can also refer to the show notes on the team website for additional resources.


We look forward to having you join us next time.