I was about to speak with Rami Makhzoumi on the telephone.
It was a warm London autumn in 2001.
In front of me on the desk was his application form for a place on the Emerging Leaders Programme at London Business School.
And it presented me with a small problem.
On paper Rami looked an accomplished young man of just 23.
He had a business degree from the University of Buckingham, so I knew he wouldn’t be adrift in conversations with faculty or the more experienced participants already selected to attend.
He was involved in business development, so he knew the value of sales.
But I couldn’t really tell from the form – what was he looking for from the programme?
And that troubled me.
A question of commitment
Alarm bells were ringing in my head. And I didn’t know why.
To me, if you’re going to commit six weeks to a leadership development programme you need to know what you’re hoping to get out of it.
Or, at the very least, you should have an answer for why you want to put yourself through the gauntlet.
An executive development course is physically and intellectually demanding.
I picked up the phone and dialled.
The voice at the end was polite and deferential, almost to the point of being cool.
And I just couldn’t shake the impression that this young man was going through the motions.
So after about 40 minutes I took a gamble and asked the question that was uppermost in my mind.
‘Look, I’m not sure your heart’s in this. Do you really want to do this programme?’
And there was a pause.
‘No, on balance I don’t think I do.’
Then Rami sighed and he appeared to relax.
Free to speak openly, we began a fantastic and wide-ranging conversation about his life ahead as he saw it.
He was friendly and excited, the words now came tumbling over themselves.
He knew that at some point in the future he’d become a senior executive in his father’s business, Future Pipe Industries.
And he believed that when the time was right he would become the Chief Executive Officer.
This worried him a little, in prospect, but he loved the business.
He told me how he’d played around the factories since he was a toddler. His passion for the company was obvious.
And he finally revealed that it was his father Fouad’s idea that Rami should take the course.
To my mind his father was clearly paving the way for succession.
Rami, though, was sceptical about executive education and couldn’t see the point.
He didn’t know many of his friends or colleagues who had had a really great experience, or got much of value, from undertaking short executive programmes.
And it was this, combined with the fact that he would almost certainly become CEO at some point, that meant he really wasn’t sure of the value of his taking the time out from the business.
Not when there were important sales negotiations at hand.
Nor considering the expense of undertaking the course.
All the best, then
I looked at my watch – the last 30 minutes had flashed past.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘It’s been great talking with you and I wish you all the best. Let me know when you finally make CEO.’
And then suddenly stopped.
‘You’re serious aren’t you?’
There was surprise in his voice.
He realised I was actually refusing him a place on the programme.
It was clear to me that although Rami had the intellectual capacity and the business experience to match any other participant, he had no real desire to take the programme and this was important to me.
Over the next few minutes he worked hard to persuade me that he and – more importantly – the business would benefit from his attendance.
He realised the impact he would have on his people and suggested that any idea he gleaned from the programme, no matter how small, could be of immense value given the scale of the business.
‘Just one big idea,’ he said. ‘And we could change the world.’
I’ll remember that line, I thought to myself.
What finally won me over was his argument that ‘a CEO-in-Waiting should use his time to soak up every possible idea and insight that he can.’
If there was a turning point in the conversation this was it.
But rather than just offer Rami a place on the programme there and then, I suggested he take a week to think about this.
I pointed out that if he attended I would expect him to use the course as an opportunity to explore not just the faculty contribution, but also the opinions and ideas of his fellow participants.
They, after all, could offer him the insights of his customers or his employees.
In other words, there were insights to be had on a programme beyond the academic knowledge he could expect.
Rami liked this new idea. That he could learn from his fellows on the programme.
I gave a warning, too. I felt it only fair to emphasise that if he wasn’t contributing to the programme then I’d take him aside and ask him to leave. This would not be an easy ride.
A week later Rami called and said he was ready to take his place on the programme.
I asked him why?
He realised the importance, he said, of preparing for the next phase of his leadership career.
I believed him.
A phenomenal student
I need not have worried. Rami was a phenomenal student.
Wise beyond his years, quick to learn, generous of his time and experience.
Interestingly, Rami was questioning and challenging of the faculty, but supportive of his colleagues on the programme. Exactly the way it should be.
And I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Rami was also pleased. ‘I had been sceptical about executive education, but your programme proved me wrong,’ he wrote shortly afterwards.
Some months later we sat together, drinking coffee in the quad at London Business School.
I was delighted to hear Rami was going to become Chief Executive Officer very soon.
‘I’m ready now because of you,’ he said.
Flattered, but curious, I asked why.
‘In part it’s the lessons of that film you showed us, The Matrix, which is all about our personal choices isn’t it?
‘But it’s also about our very first conversations.
‘You helped me see that leadership is a responsibility and not a right.
‘That everything we do has a legacy…
‘That everything we do IS a legacy.
‘And that helps me prepare for being CEO.’
A responsibility not a right
I was touched by his gratitude, but was simply awestruck with his reflections.
That leadership is a responsibility and not a right.
And that everything is a legacy.
I loved these ideas, especially in the concept of the Emerging Leaders Programme.
And this changed how I led that programme forever after.
Rami lived ‘the responsibility of leadership’ all the days of his life.
I’ve known many participants on the Emerging Leaders Programme, but none with the vision and passion of Rami Makhzoumi.
And – above all – responsible.
That is his legacy.
Rami Makhzoumi was above all a spiritual man and a family man.
His friends, colleagues and co-workers became part of what he – and his father Fouad before him – called ‘an extended family’.
On the lips of some executives this can sound manipulative or childish, but we believed it of Rami.
We mainly knew him as a businessman. A leader.
And we learned many things from him.
The importance of looking after your customers.
And how imperative it is to communicate constantly.
But above all there are three things burned into our consciousness.
The only constant is change. (So lead the revolution or get out of the way.)
Leadership is a responsibility and not a right. (Are you committed to your communities?)
And everything is a legacy. (What’s your legacy?)
He was likely, had he lived, to have been a force for good in the Middle East, and an inspiration to leaders of the future from every nation.
Rest in peace, Rami Makhzoumi.
If we have anything to do with it, your legacy is assured.
And your children will know.
You changed the world.