Sonny Zulu is at the helm of Standard Chartered Bank Zambia, the oldest and arguably the most prestigious bank in Zambia. It takes excellence to reach the pinnacle of a global bank, and doing it with character, authenticity, and values adds another layer to Sonny Zulu’s achievements.
My conversation with Sonny took place at the picturesque Latitude 15 in Lusaka’s Kabulonga area. Latitude 15 is set amidst the beautiful and tranquil tree-lined avenues of Lusaka’s Kabulonga suburb. The boutique hotel blends modern African designs with cosmopolitan flair and provides the perfect setting for our conversation, complemented by a tantalizing meal. We sat in the garden next to the restaurant and enjoyed the cool breeze and lush greenery as we settled into the conversation. Sonny ordered a nutrition-packed salmon salad with a latte, and I got crocodile skewers, something one doesn’t see on your average restaurant menu, served with a side of potato wedges.
Sonny Zulu has been with Standard Chartered for 19 years after joining the bank on a graduate management programme in 2003. He describes his journey as exciting and filled with growth opportunities, contributing to his long stint with the bank. “In my time with Standard Chartered, I have been exposed to working in different countries, departments, and also with mentors from around the world,” he comments on his journey. One such opportunity is his previous role as Managing Director of Consumer, Private, and Business Banking at Standard Chartered Bank UAE, where he worked out of Dubai.
“At the end of the day, when we are seated at the boardroom table, we are all the same regardless of where we come from or have been…Once you break through and demonstrate your capabilities, you earn respect and have the freedom to experiment.”
Working in Dubai has made Sonny more open-minded and impacted how he views the world. Dubai is a melting pot attracting people of different nationalities, religions, and cultures. According to Sonny, living in Dubai requires one to “train themselves to remove all unconscious biases and embrace the fact that everyone has one brain. At the end of the day, when we are seated at the boardroom table, we are all the same regardless of where we come from or have been. We can all have an equal voice at the table and confidently share our views. Once you break through and demonstrate your capabilities, you earn respect and have the freedom to experiment.” After more than four years in Dubai, Sonny has returned home armed with knowledge and ideas of the modern world, which he hopes to bring to Standard Chartered Zambia.
Sonny’s return to Zambia has coincided with the country’s economic resurgence. Zambia is firmly on the road to recovery following years of slow growth, and Standard Chartered is a crucial partner for this push. As Sonny settles in, he is getting up to speed with the changes that happened while he was away. He spends significant time engaging with regulators, customers, competitors, government officials, and staff.
His number one priority is to transform the client experience at the bank. He wants Standard Chartered to deliver the best client experience in the industry. The bank will be rolling out new client-centric offers in the coming months to support this. At the center of the client experience is digitization, which will provide customers with a seamless experience inside and outside the branch. Standard Chartered at the group level is guided by the purpose of driving commerce and prosperity through unique diversity, and this vision carries through to the Zambian business.
Furthermore, banking continues to face disruption from all angles with the rise of cryptocurrency and the neobanks, also called challenger banks. This is something Sonny Zulu is familiar with from his time in Dubai. Standard Chartered has already responded to this threat at the group level with the launch of Mox, a neobank in Hong Kong. In Zambia, Standard Chartered has also accelerated the push toward offering tailored digital banking products. “Here in Zambia, before the digital offering, we opened 700 accounts per month with 24 branches. Today, with only three branches nationwide, we are opening an average of 2,500 accounts per month. We have also signed an MoU with Smart Zambia to ensure that unbanked people enter the banking system,” says Sonny commenting on the disruption.
Standard Chartered consumers are exposed to the bank’s international capabilities and products. “Most consumers in Zambia think real estate is the best investment channel. Our clients can choose from more than 123 investment options and asset classes at Standard Chartered. We are also helping our clients to investigate cryptocurrency and giving them information about how the world is changing. International institutions have rated us as the best digital offering in the country, and we are proud of how well our systems work. We always put the client’s needs first and customize based on their needs.”
With a bachelor’s degree in mineral sciences (metallurgy) from the University of Zambia, Sonny Zulu is an outlier in the business world. He combines his engineering background with exceptional business acumen to create a unique blend of capabilities. Over the years, he has evolved as a leader and shares part of his leadership philosophy: “As leaders, we are leading people, and people have emotions. So, you must acknowledge your title and know how to use it. Relationships are also essential to lead people. We must create real relationships and understand the outside lives of our people. When you build real relationships, you never have to ask people to work overtime. They do it independently because they understand your vision and agenda.”
Sonny also preaches hard work to his people in a time when the ‘work smarter, not harder mantra is common. Hard work means giving 110% to the work that needs to be done. It is about going the extra length to deliver work even through challenges. He gives the analogy of an athlete that wants to win a medal and the regimented training that goes into winning the gold. Success requires real effort, one of Sonny’s key pillars to getting where he is today—doing more than what is necessary.
“As leaders, we are leading people, and people have emotions. So, you must acknowledge your title and know how to use it. Relationships are also essential to lead people. We have to create real relationships and understand the outside lives of our people.”
Apart from his work, Sonny has other interests that keep him sharp and help him maintain his zest for life. He is fascinated by and has a love for astronomy and space science. His faith is also an essential pillar in his life and a significant key to his success. Recently, he began serving as pastor at Grace City Church in Lusaka, a church he helped to found. “I have been involved in church work for a long time. And when we came back from Dubai, we felt called to reach out to people and open a center located in the heart of the city,” he says about the church.
Sonny measures his success by fulfilling his purpose, which is to help unlock people’s potential and help them see that nothing is impossible. “Everywhere I go, I fulfill my purpose. I have done that in Zambia, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Thailand, the US, and the UK. My goal is to help people break that shell. And I will still serve my purpose wherever I am and in whatever role I’m in.”
Looking forward, Sonny continues to stretch himself. He is pursuing a PhD in Business Administration and an undergraduate degree in Biblical and Theological studies simultaneously. He has also written a book that will be hitting the shelves soon. Sonny is a reminder that success is not one-dimensional or linear. People can be more than their work, and they owe it to themselves to explore their full potential in all spheres of life. As he settles into his new role, Sonny is excited to be back home and to continue bringing his purpose to fruition.
The Latitude 15 restaurant situated right next to the lounge offers a large selection of eclectic local and international dishes and an extensive drinks menu for all palates and diets. The front of house lounge bar overlooking the pool and garden offers ideal relaxing spots for networking or unwinding.
Images by Kalichi Pictures