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7 Questions on Leadership with Agshin Mirzazada

Name: Agshin Mirzazada

Title: Executive Director, Head of Private Banking

Organisation: PASHA Bank Azerbaijan

Agshin Mirzazada was born in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1976. He graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Economics and Finance from Azerbaijan International University in 1997 when his career in local banking industry commenced. In 2004, he received a scholarship opportunity that led him to pursue a full-time MBA at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. After completing MBA program in 2006, Agshin joined Foyil Securities New Europe, investment bank in Ukraine, where he advanced to the position of Head of Research. In 2011, Agshin moved to Unicredit Bank Ukraine, a subsidiary of the Pan-European commercial banking Group Unicredit where he served as Head of Strategic Planning. In 2015, Agshin returned to Azerbaijan and joined PASHA Bank as Head of Strategy. In 2020, he was promoted to the role of Executive Director and Head of Private Banking, where he continues to lead and contribute to the bank's success.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Agshin's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

For me the most challenging aspect of being a leader has been ability to maintain the delicate balance between staying true to myself while effectively exerting the necessary leadership qualities and emotional intelligence. On one side, leadership demands authenticity, but it also requires adaptability to understand and navigate the diverse personalities and perspectives of other team members. It's a constant juggling act to maintain your core values and identity, while empathetically connecting with others, recognizing that people are inherently different. Achieving this equilibrium is necessary for creating a harmonious and productive team dynamic.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

In 2003, I recall a pivotal moment when I underwent an interview with the head of the German bank’s representative office in Azerbaijan, when I applied for the role of a senior credit officer. To my delight I managed to secure the position and spent two fruitful years in the organization. Subsequently, I received a scholarship for a full-time MBA program in the United States and as I prepared for my academic leave and departure, the head of the office handed me my documents. Among them, I found my resume with the notes he had taken during that very interview, where I saw a particular note saying "Strong leadership potential." While this note was gratifying, it got me thinking about what leadership really means – a question that has remained a cornerstone of my carrer. During my MBA studies, I delved deep into the subject and expanded my understanding of leadership. I challenged the notion of whether it is a learned skill or an inherent trait. I explored the distinctions between management and true leadership, and my perspective underwent a complete transformation. I understood that leadership goes beyond just a managerial role and it manifests from creating a vision and building strategies to guiding and supporting your colleagues on their way to common success. After the graduation, I joined one of the top investment banks in Kyiv, Ukraine as senior equity analyst. The new mindset and knowledge helped me to ascend to the position of Head of Research just two years after joining the firm. This is when my leadership journey truly began.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Typically I plan my workweek every Sunday, reviewing upcoming meeting agendas and establishing priorities for the days ahead. I try to start my day early allowing for peaceful mornings, when I contemplate regarding ongoing tasks and important decision-making. I hold regular meetings with teams and management that are dispersed throughout the week. Most of them are scheduled for the morning hours, when we are discussing strategy, assessing progress, and ensuring alignment with our department's goals. In the afternoons, my focus usually shifts towards engagement with clients and performing analytical tasks, where I review market trends and analyze client requirements. Although my work evenings often extend beyond 6 pm, I try to prioritize time for family and sports ensuring a healthy work-life balance.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

Stephen Covey, the author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” wisely said, "Strength lies in differences, not in similarities." When it comes to the hiring process, the true challenge lies in remembering this principle, staying open-minded, and having awareness of both your strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of your team. It is a common pitfall to hire individuals who resemble ourselves, but this can be a risky path to take. Effective team building involves a search for individuals whose skills and abilities complement one another, fitting together like pieces of a puzzle. Sometimes, the people you bring on board may not be the ones you'd naturally gravitate towards, but they can offer diverse perspectives and skills essential for achieving remarkable results.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

Good to Great by Jim Collins. The book provided valuable insights into what separates good companies from truly great ones. The principles described in the book, such as the importance of disciplined people, thinking and acting, resonated with me intrinsically. The concept of Fifth level leadership based on humility, commitment to a vision and ability of getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats has strongly influenced my leadership philosophy.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

Understand your strategy and your people well.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

In 2015, my country, Azerbaijan, faced a serious crisis triggered by the collapse of oil prices. This crisis led to a double devaluation of the local currency, which, in turn, had a significant impact on the financial market and resulted in a period of stagnation in the banking sector and the economy as a whole. At that time, I had recently taken on the role of Head of the bank's strategic department, and together with my team, we faced the challenging task of revising our three-year strategic plan in the midst of an economic crisis. Many members of our team, who had never encountered such a disruptive economic shock, understandably hesitated to make forecasts and predictions for the new plan, fearing the unpredictability of the situation.

To eliminate this uncertainty and build trust and confidence within the team, I took the initiative to closely collaborate with the bank's top leadership. We engaged them actively in conjunction with the strategic team, creating a shared sense of responsibility and alignment around the bank's vision. This required long hours and even weekends of collaborative work as we collectively developed a new strategic plan. The result was the rapid creation of a revised strategy that received approval from the board of directors and ultimately served as a reliable roadmap. This strategic plan allowed the bank to achieve all major targets, leading to significant growth in assets and financial results over the three-year period.

The key lesson learned from this experience was that, despite significant challenges, collaboration, setting common goals, and uniting our teams can yield remarkable results that may initially seem unattainable.

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