Thursday, 23 November 2017 10:29

Inspiring Saudi women into leadership roles

We have recently launched our report, Roads to the Top for Saudi Women, based on interviews with extraordinary Saudi females.

Here Dr Taghreed Al-Saraj has allowed us to share her fuller interview. A best-selling author, international educational consultant, women leadership coach and international public speaker, her most recent role is Head of eLearning Content Development at Takamol Holding. She is passionate about helping and inspiring women to take on leadership roles in Saudi Arabia and addressing youth unemployment in the Kingdom

Metin Mitchell (MM): What changes are you seeing in Saudi that are helping women into leadership roles?

Dr Taghreed Al-Saraj (TAS):  Women are not treated equally around the world and inequality looks different in different places.  In the West, a big issue is that women are not paid the same.  In Saudi, equal pay is not our challenge but here we need to empower women more.  We are now seeing a lot of rules and regulations, especially with the 2030 vision, brought in order to support women empowerment and that is really helping to bring change.  This is part of encouraging women to enter the workforce and progress into leadership roles.

When people talk about equality for Saudi women, you would sometimes think the rest of the world has solved this and it is only Saudi that is left to tackle this issue….  My big eye-opener was at a graduation ceremony at the University of California, Berkeley. I was part of the faculty so we were sitting behind the guest speaker at the ceremony, who was the CEO of Salesforce.  In his talk, he said he had found his company didn’t pay men and women equally, so he made the finance department go back to the books and managed to change the salaries to be equal between men and women.  I was watching my colleagues’ faces as well as the students’ faces on the other side of the stage, who clearly understood this as a really big issue, and there was a lot of clapping.  I immediately compared this issue with us in Saudi and realized that it is not an issue for us in Saudi.

Each country has different challenges to address and we are now seeing real change in Saudi, supported by the government and society.

MM: Looking back to obstacles you have faced, how have you got round these?

TAS: We moved a lot when I was a child because of my father’s work in the military. I ended up living in Washington DC, Miami, San Francisco, Toulon (France), and in Pakistan… As a child, I was exposed to so many cultures and you are forced when you move around to change your styles and habits if you want to interact with the locals.  Language was an obstacle of course. When I moved to Washington DC as a child coming from Saudi Arabia, I didn’t speak a word of English and stayed silent in school for three months, I just signed and nodded, until I got the words to articulate my thoughts and the message I wanted to convey.  Language and culture are barriers but I think I was fortunate because I was constantly exposed to different cultures and my ears were exposed to different languages at an early stage of my life which made me the person I am today: full of tolerance and acceptance of others as they are.

As an adult, adapting to new surroundings wasn’t quite as easy as when you are a child. When I moved to the UK as an adult, it was a bit hard at first even though the language was not a barrier. I was so used to the American way and constantly comparing the two cultures and way of doing things. For example the flats (apartments) were tiny and double the price in London, while in Miami (Florida) everything was big and spacious. I am not saying one is better than the other. It’s just the constant comparison that I was switching between that was a bit exhausting. It took me a year to adapt and say: this is it! Either get on board or leave….  When you accept that way of life and culture, you will start to open up and love the city for what it is and what it offers you.  Throughout my life, I had many homes around the world where I was connected to new friends and neighbors I made along the way…. it was a fantastic life journey!

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MM: What was your first big accomplishment in your career?

TAS:  The big one was my PhD. In the British educational system you either pass or fail your viva (PhD final verbal exam), whereas in the Saudi system you go in to the viva and already know more or less that you have passed. The British way is very tough and you can actually fail the viva.  My topic was on anxiety so it was very awkward!  After I passed my viva, I went home walking full of joy that this major journey in my life ended and a new one will start. That day was very memorable for me.  It was the start of a new career after all these years of studying.

MM: How did you find the Kingdom when you came back?

TAS: When I came back to Saudi, change was happening so rapidly. I am really happy to see that we are constantly improving for the better.  When living abroad, I always get asked: Saudi isn’t keeping up with the rest of the world. I always say: come on, we’re a very young country.  In my book, The Anxious Language Learner: A Saudi Woman’s story, I mention that Lloyds Bank is older than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia!  We’re taking it slow, but nonetheless, we are changing for the better each day. 

MM: Your life as an entrepreneur – to what extent has your own support network made it possible, including your family?

TAS: Networking is very important.  Everywhere you go, networking is your easy marketing tool. You must talk to others and that’s how things get started.

My family is supportive. I am fortunate because I have a wonderful husband who listens and says: here’s my two cents, take it or leave it, it’s up to you.  Also, my mum and sister have always been there as a support too – with recommendations.  In a way, my family acts as my confidante. I trust them completely. They help me to see different angles and perspectives of issues that I might have overlooked. Sometimes you need someone to open your eyes to see an issue from a different angle especially when you are in the middle of things.  I take all what they say on board and go somewhere quiet to think things through and come to a decision.

MM: What advice do you think your husband would give to other Saudi men on helping their wives?

TAS: I am sure he would tell them: don’t tell women what to do!  He knows my personality and if I am forced to do something and don’t have the buy-in it is going to be very hard to do. He tells me to think about it and see it through.  If you always had somebody to tell you what to do, you’re not creative in your solutions because you are just following orders.

MM: What are your thoughts on how to keep men engaged and supportive of women as they go through their particular changes?

TAS: In the Kingdom it is not about how to get the men engaged, it is how to get women engaged.  The men are holding the positions and the women are just creeping up the ladder.  Getting the woman engaged so she can come out of the house, get a job and feel she is contributing to the country’s growth, is what this country needs.

MM: Part of Vision 2030 is to increase women in the workforce.  As a coach, what do you work on to help women reach their goals?

TAS: It is confidence. We need to work on women’s confidence because so often I hear women saying things like ‘What value do I bring?’ or ‘I’m not worthy’. That kills me because everybody adds value to everything.  When I read “Lean In” it was strange to see that the Western culture was the same.  I think we should call the book “Squeeze In” because we’ve really got to work on getting women voices heard and not sitting on the sidelines. 

When I am coaching someone, I start with where the lack of confidence has come from and how it is affecting them. If someone feels they don’t have enough knowledge, then maybe they need to go on a course or do more reading so they feel they know enough about the subject to talk confidently.  It could be someone doesn’t like speaking up in meetings, in which case we look at their personality traits and confidence as to why they do what they are doing.

There is always a way to build confidence.  I want women to understand that your voice matters, your opinions count and we would love to hear them. 

MM: If you are addressing women in a speech, what do you want them to take away?

TAS: Never give up!  You never know what will happen if you don’t try. Sometimes you need to take risks.  Fight for what you believe in.  We need women in leadership roles and this means stepping out of our comfort zones. This is the same for women in the West as much as in Saudi.

If at work you need to change something, make a case for it. Don’t just be emotional and say ‘we need to do this or that’, but build a proper case with research, facts and figures. Then present it in a logical way. It is very persuasive and has helped me achieve several changes at work.

I learned from changing from academia to business many things, and that by itself is a big change.  You should have an open mind and keep learning at every stage of your life.  You can learn from anybody, anywhere and on any day. We should never sit back and think you know it all – there is always more to learn.

MM: What is next for you?

TAS: I have been back in Saudi a year and three months.  So far I am producing online courses to help our youth to get jobs and then keep those jobs.  This initiative is funded by the government. We have online courses that address for example time management, leadership skills, team working, management skills – the things that you don’t get taught at school or college but are essential to getting a job.

Helping tackle youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest challenges for our country and I feel very blessed to play a small part of it in any way I can!

Published in Saudi business leaders
Tuesday, 19 September 2017 16:46

Women are Saudi’s secret weapon

Metin Mitchell interview with Dubai Eye on Roads to the Top for Saudi Women

Metin Mitchell was interviewed by Dubai Eye radio last month, about the role of women for the future of the Gulf region.

It was based on Metin Mitchell & Co’s report ‘Roads to the top for Saudi Women from interviews with Saudi female leaders who shared their insights and expertise to help future female leaders.

Metin Mitchell’s inspiration for the report came from his own mother and a female colleague, Ruth Tait (sadly passed away) who was a researcher and author on women’s leadership – the title of the report borrows from her writing. 

This is the transcript of the Dubai Eye interview, with the breakfast team.

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Q:        How positive are Saudi women about the prospects for their working lives?

A:         They are very positive. One of the things that came out is how supportive they felt their families were and their country is of them.

Q:        How do you work this out? Working life for women in Saudi Arabia is difficult, you can’t travel by yourself, you can’t get around without a guardian... It is not the most obvious place for women to be happy in employment?

A:         Those are the headlines people focus on. What people don’t focus on is what women have to say for themselves and what they find is that things are changing very very quickly, that there are opportunities for them they would not have had before.

Q:        How did you do this research? Obviously you can go to an office and talk to women. But it is harder to find the ones who are not working? How did you carry this survey out?

A:         We interviewed a cross section of women from different sectors, banking, public sector, government etc and they were able to share their views.

Q:        So these are women who have already got jobs?

A:         Yes these are people who have got jobs but who are informed about their own society. These are people who have perspectives on what is going on around them.

Q:        So what was the headline finding?

A:         Saudi Arabia has ambitious goals and is going to make this happen.

Q:        Ambitions in what sense? In bringing women into every sphere, every line of work, every profession?

A:         Right now there are 22% of women in the workforce in Saudi Arabia. The first goal in the next three to four years is to get that up to 30%.

Q:        Does that mean that 22% of the workforce are women or 22% of women work?

A:         22% of the workforce are women.

Q:        We heard this morning that Saudi Air Navigation Services are set out to employ women as air traffic controllers for the first time. The Saudi Academy is going to train them in line with vision 2030 so this is another field open to them. If 22% of women are working what is Saudi Arabia aiming for to get into the workforce?

A:         By 2030 it will aim for something around 40% which is slightly below the global norm but in line with their own aspirations as a society.

Q:        Where do you see the most opportunities, in which sectors?

A:         Financial services is a big opportunity and I also think some more progressive conglomerates like the Olayan family conglomerate.

Q:        What training opportunities are available? Are there enough training opportunities?

A:         Saudi Arabia has big resources devoted towards training so I don’t think training resources are the issue but the willingness of companies to make it a priority, then you will see the changes happening.

Q:        Which is another great question. Are employers taking Saudi women seriously enough?

A:         Some are ... for example GE is doing a fantastic job in Saudi Arabia as is Tata Consulting.

Q:        The last time I was in Saudi Arabia I went to a bank. There were women working in the bank but they had to be on a different floor. Obviously for smaller companies it is quite hard to bring single digits of women in the workforce to start the whole thing rolling if you have to have different floors, totally different offices to put them in. I suspect people listening to this think: well women can’t get around freely, they don’t have the ability to drive at the moment. They get around with a chauffeur or with a guardian. How much does that limit this move to 40% of the workforce by 2030? Will that need to change to achieve that 40% you think?

A:         What needs to change is attitude towards childcare so I think the progressive employers will be the ones who win in the workplace they are those who can provide childcare on site and allow for flexible working for the women.

Q:        Which is one of the things you asked the women that you have surveyed, what needs to change. Childcare is one of the things they spoke about. They spoke about flexible working hours. They also spoke about mentoring?

A:         Mentors can be men or women but the role of mentors is absolutely critical. Someone you can turn to for advice and counsel and how to build a career.

Q:        Tell me about employment numbers. They don’t seem to bear reality to the total population. I wonder how many women are factored into these numbers. Do you know how this works?

A:         Jobless numbers are complicated for Saudi Arabia and there are very wide ranging thoughts for what employment is. One of the complications is how do you calculate the population of Saudi Arabia? There are probably three to four million ex-patriates. They haven’t done the best job they could yet to calculate these numbers. There is room for improvement there.

Q:        It is very well moving from 22% to 40% over the next 12 years or so but at the moment we just don’t understand how many people are actually sitting in Saudi Arabia who would like to have a job but don’t have a job?

A:         I can’t answer that but what I can say is that I am seeing more women coming into the workforce, when you look at companies like Tata or GE, Olayan or some of the banks. They are recruiting every year more and more women. And in fact the women are their secret weapon because it is the women who are actually going to improve the performance of men because these women really want to succeed and they are going to outshine and outperform their male competition. Saudi Arabia desperately needs to improve its performance and women are the way that this is going to happen.

Q:        Talk to me about women moving up the chain. Jobs are one thing but what about management?

A:         You need to have companies which are progressive about assessing talent which gives them a chance. Women also have to fight. They have to be very clear what it is they want to achieve and push and push and push. They will get there. There are plenty of examples, they have role models now which they didn’t have 10 years ago, so they can do it!

More women in middle management will come by more women studying STEM subjects, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Q:        Are women factored into the Nitaqat system?

A:         Disabled people are factored into this and given more credits if you want. Women to my acknowledgement are not yet.

Q:        Women are a vital asset to Saudi Arabia. What is being done to change things?

A:         Social media is changing everything, attitudes are changing. There are no barriers for them to be successful anymore. The Mutawa is an irrelevance. The only limitations are women themselves. They can make it happen. What we need to be doing is to celebrate each other’s successes and pushing for themselves in the organisation in which they work. That is what starts to make the difference and I think ultimately what really makes a difference is their performance. They will outperform the men. The ones that I am seeing right now are outperforming the men hands down. That’s what will make the difference and make the change.

Published in Saudi business leaders
Wednesday, 01 November 2017 09:32

Creating a male support network for Saudi women

How important are men to the success of women in Saudi?

When I interviewed a number of leading women for our report, Roads to the top for Saudi Women, they all talked in different ways about how their male family members had played an important role in their successes.

Saudi women we talked to recognized the uniqueness of their culture and are not aiming to emulate others – they want more women to join the workforce in a way that works for them. One woman explained, “We [Saudis] are conservative people.  Even the liberals here are quite conservative in comparison to anywhere else.”

Here I share the women’s stories of how their fathers and husbands encouraged and supported them, as well as their views on how women can think about bringing up the next generation, their sons.

The role of fathers to encourage Saudi women

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Fathers played an essential part in providing confidence and self-belief to many of the women I interviewed. One said, “Growing up, whenever there was a powerful woman, dad would point her out. He’d say she made it, and one day you are going to make it and do this. Maybe that instilled in me the drive to do something and to challenge myself.”

Empowerment from a father is a common story for successful women. A story in the Atlantic reflects on female leaders from Uganda, India and Tunisia. All three women describe their fathers as “empowering women in the family to learn, ask questions and form their own opinions.”

Fathers can also set a good example for their daughters as role models with their behaviour and attitudes. One of the women I spoke to talked about how her parents’ behaviour influenced her, saying “I have a very ambitious mother and father, and I am a very ambitious person”.

Fathers may want their daughter to make the world their own, but there was also recognition there will always be some barriers. One woman said, “There is a limit to the extent to which they [fathers] can protect or encourage women to take the next step forward.”

The role of husbands to support Saudi wives

Husbands have been equally important in building a strong support network for successful, working women. Women commented that just as a man would struggle to be a father and work, so these women value and rely on the support of their husbands.

One typical comment from Dr Taghreed M Al-Saraj of Takamol Holding was, “I have a wonderful husband who listens and says, ‘Here’s my two cents, take it or leave it, it’s up to you.’ My husband tells me to think about it and see it through. If you always had somebody to tell you what to do, you don’t shine, you’re not creative in your solutions because you are just following orders.”

This sums up the attitude of husbands who are successfully empowering their wives. Giving women the space to explore their options and develop their path is essential. Men are not there to “do it for them” but to help and support.

Supportive husbands have often overcome cultural pressures to back their wives’ success. One woman said, “I admire that my husband was able to support me despite cultural pressure. ‘Why is your wife so focused on her career?’ He didn’t pay attention to that at all, he believed in me and always stated his opinion publicly.” She added, “His advice to other men would be to confidently support women despite the perceived cultural limitations.” Going “against the grain” can feel daunting, but as two-income households become more common in KSA, these pressures should ease and make it easier.

May bint Mohammed Al-Hoshan of Alawwal Bank talked about the way her husband is supportive at home, saying “He has a very demanding job, but I think contributing to raising the kids or being there with the family leaves more room for women to participate in the workplace.”

Al-Hoshan explained her husband’s attitude to her achievements that sums up how men can support their wives. She said, “He tells me he takes quite a bit of pride when he looks at my achievements and that these are his shared achievements. If young Saudi men would look at it from that perspective, we will see higher female participation across sectors.”

Bringing up the next generation of men

Women talked about the need to be role models for young women and also as mothers.  A number talked about the importance of raising sons without gender stereotyping and ‘to teach our sons they are not better and don’t deserve extra candy’.

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How to be a great ally

Levo.com has an article that I think sums up how men can champion women’s success in seven quite simple steps.

Each of their points reinforces what women tell us makes a strong support network – someone who is a cheerleader for their success, an advisor and someone who gives them the space to develop and go after their dreams, rather than telling them what to do.  In my interviews, I had a strong sense of marriages that were partnerships and both husband and wife flourished in this supportive relationship.

Published in Saudi business leaders

Saudi Vision 2030 commits the Kingdom to increase the number of women in the workforce to 30 per cent.  The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is clear on his goals, saying, “My first objective is for our country to be a pioneering and successful global model of excellence, on all fronts, and I will work...to achieve that.”

How can corporates contribute?

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I’ve spoken with a number of Saudi women in senior positions within the Kingdom about their views for our report, Roads to the top for Saudi Women. They have important insights to share about how businesses can recruit, support and promote women within the workforce.

The effect of Saudization

The requirement for companies and organizations to employ local Saudi people has forced many employers to rethink their hiring policies. One woman I spoke to was clear that this has forced companies to rethink how they recruit. She said, “Companies could not figure out how to get enough men, so they hired women in junior and back-office positions because they had to deliver Saudization – and then realized the women are doing very well and better than Saudi men in many cases.”

The challenge for employers now is to make sure they are using this fantastic female talent properly – are there plans in place to promote great women and what are the barriers that need to be tackled? It is important that female talent is not wasted and that women are seen as leadership candidates across the whole business.

What does “best practice” look like?

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The Pearl Initiative’s report of 2016 cites Olayan, Pepsico, GE and Petroleum Development Oman as examples of companies that are “getting it right”.

Others believe global companies are not doing enough in Saudi, “I think this is to do with the fear of the unknown,” said one of the women I interviewed. “They have corporate governance standards for other countries – why not apply these in Saudi?” she added.

Looking at two examples of best practice – GE Saudi Arabia and The Olayan Group, what are they doing and how can other employers emulate this?

GE Saudi Arabia hired their first woman in 2009. By 2016 this had risen to 100 Saudi women working at their local HQ, factory and field roles. GE is clear that practical issues such as separate office space or transportation “were all easily solved”. Nabil Habayeb, President and CEO of GE Middle East, has talked about the company’s efforts to increase the number of women, saying, “GE’s efforts to instil an inclusive and supportive culture, to hire the right people and enable them to achieve success for themselves and the business have proven to work well for women’s careers.”

They organized professional development training for women to address specific needs, such as networking practice, and women at GE are encouraged to apply for all roles with the company. They have made a particular effort to encourage female applicants for positions not previously deemed appropriate for women.

The Olayan Group, one of the few large private enterprises in the Kingdom led by a woman, has also put much effort into increasing the number of women it employs. Lubna S Olayan said, “My vision is a country with a prosperous and diversified economy in which any Saudi citizen, irrespective of gender, can find a job in the field for which he or she is best qualified.”

Like GE, Olayan has introduced HR policies that support women in the workplace such as policies on harassment, inclusiveness and daycare. They also monitor women’s progress and actively ensure that qualified women move up the pipeline.

This positive approach echoes the view of Hala Kudwah of PriceWaterhouseCoopers when I spoke to her, “Women need to be empowered. This will come through infrastructure and HR policies.” She said, adding, “For example, we need daycare facilities at centers where they can entrust children. We need training and development paths for women.”

A striking approach from GE in partnership with Tata Consultancy Services is the creation of an all-women business and IT services center in Riyadh, supporting 55 countries. In two years, the firm hired more than 1,000 women and plans to employ 3,000 by 2020. All women have a bachelor’s degree and are fluent in English. This is an innovative approach that shows that rapidly increasing women’s employment is possible.

 Middle management is key for Saudi female progression

The biggest opportunity and challenge for the Kingdom now is increasing the number of women into middle management roles and from there, there will be a pool of candidates to step into leadership positions. In more than 20 years of executive search in the Middle East, I have seen time and again that it is the female candidates who are outstanding on shortlists.  There is no shortage of female talent, now the challenge is to help them move into middle management. In an earlier blog, I covered the four areas that I think will make a significant difference – flexible working patterns, quality childcare, mentoring new recruits and hiring for talent, not experience. Read the blog to see more detail on these.

What other ways can employers help Saudi women in the workplace? Please share your stories and examples of great practice in Saudi Arabia or other countries that we can all learn from.

Published in Saudi business leaders

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about how women are often held back in the workplace. Ms Sandberg’s words come from her experience in the USA, but they are just as applicable in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

As the Kingdom works to boost the number of women in the workforce, I interviewed a group of successful Saudi women for our report Roads to the top for Saudi Women. They talked about their own experiences and what had worked well.

CEW

A lack of women at the top is not a feature unique to KSA or Gulf states. The organisation Chief Executive Women published figures showing that only 30 per cent of executives at ASX200 companies are women and just seven per cent of FTSE 100 companies are led by women. Under-representation is a global problem. However, Saudi Vision 2030 gives us a measurable goal to aim towards.

What advice did the women we spoke to have for women looking to “lean in” and help their fellow ladies rise through the ranks?

1.      Support each other

Many of the women we spoke to talked about the responsibility they felt to pass on their success and encourage and support other women in the workplace – by backing other women, making sure they are properly heard and creating new opportunities for women in business and the public sector.

Organizations can create women-only spaces that allow more women to contribute. Amal Fatani, who wrote a blog for us with more detailed thoughts, headed a project to expand the women’s sections at the Ministry of Higher Education - from 20 ladies to 334. If possibilities for women do not exist, they cannot flourish so Amal’s example is important. Everyone should ask themselves “what am I doing to create more opportunities for women”.  

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One woman talked about the example of the Obama administration, where women came up with a strategy to amplify their voice. When one woman made a comment or opinion, another woman would take that up and repeat the same point a few minutes later to make sure it was heard. Amplifying each other’s voices can be this simple – just reiterating what somebody else said in a meeting can have a powerful impact.

We all need to ask ourselves – “what am I doing to create new opportunities for women and how am I making sure that they are properly heard?”

2.      Look at the role models around you, and make sure you are a role model to others

Princess Banderi, was very clear about the effect that role models have had on her career aspirations, saying, “In my family, my mother is one of the strongest women I know. For her everything is possible, there is always a way to get to what you want or do what you want.”

There is no doubt that female members of the royal family have had a powerful influence as role models for women in the Kingdom. Queen Effat was mentioned numerous times, with one woman commenting, “When princesses started working, they broke a taboo. Families used to be reluctant to allow a woman to work because it looked as if they could not afford to live without her income. The princesses showed that work for women is as much about self-realisation.”

Strong role models are essential - to set an example for young men and women and to encourage daughters to think of more than just marriage. As one said, “Our vision is to have more women leaders to be role models. This will encourage more women into middle management and the top jobs.”

3.      The importance of finding and being a mentor

Many of the women we spoke to also talked about their experiences as either a mentor or a mentee, and why finding a mentor can be valuable.

One woman spoke of the guidance she received and how it helped her to reflect. She said, “I had a mentor… all along in my career in banking.  After he left banking, he told me my hard work and perseverance had got me where I was, but I needed to develop more skills, different skills to get to where I wanted to be. He said: stop shooting people between the eyes.  I am very direct, and I know what he means.”

Another talked about passing on advice and guidance to younger women, saying, “I think we lose track of how much we can do regarding mentoring. I believe that what younger women can benefit from is this kind of mentoring – speaking up and not being apologetic about what they ask for, about their rights and being more confident about their contribution.”

For women who struggle to find someone within their organisation, the Hadafi Women Entrepreneurship Program operates across the Middle East and provides mentors for female entrepreneurs. Other avenues are peer groups like the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce – which has a specific “Business Women” group to support women in their ambitions.

What next?

Women in Saudi Arabia are an essential part of the Kingdom’s future prosperity and achieving its Vision 2030 goals. This is recognized by the government and increasingly by employers as well.

Women can help shape their own future success. Supporting each other by creating new opportunities for other women and making sure female voices are heard are the foundations of shared success. Setting an example for the next generation as role models and working with mentors so that women continue to take up senior positions are key strategies.

Are there other systems that have been successful in encouraging Saudi women to “reach for the top”? Or businesses who are leading the way on female employment? Share your examples in the comments.

Published in Feminisation

Over recent months I have been honoured to interview leading Saudi women for our report, Roads to the Top for Saudi Women. 

There were so many insights from these inspirational women, I am delighted that Dr Amal Fatani has allowed us to share wider views from her interview than we could include in the report.

Associate Professor at the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology at King Saud University, Dr Fatani was a pioneer in pharmacy in the Kingdom, is a leading academic in this field and has held influential roles at the Ministry of Higher Education, in the private sector as Consultant & Head of All Women Business Process & IT Services Center, as well as Board Member of Council of Saudi Human Rights Commission and lately Board Member at King AbdulAziz and his Companions Foundation  for Giftedness & Creativity. 

Metin Mitchell (MM): Your career is full of firsts. Can you tell me about some of these?

Dr Amal Fatani (AF):  I was privileged to be part of our country in the 1980s when Saudi was building itself. I started off my career in an experiment, the first pharmacy program for girls in the Kingdom. Fast forward and I was the first person in my Master’s and then went to the UK to do my PhD. At that time it was difficult for women to get scholarships so I took leave without pay for three years and literally, rather than spend money on clothes and bags, spent it on my career.

Once I started that first journey in pharmacy, it was very logical to be the first in everything – so I was one of the first people to head the department.  I was the first Vice Dean of the college and then selected to be the first Dean of nine scientific and medical colleges in KSU.

When I went to the Ministry of Higher Education, I became the first woman to set up women sections in the different sectors in the Ministry.  It started with 20 ladies and I left the ministry with 334 ladies, who were taking care of the 40% women in all the scholarship programs – the largest in history and the world.  I think we had 200,000 men and women scholarship recipients studying in more than 50 countries around the globe. My office was responsible for the women (40%), as well as the 55% females studying  in Saudi Universities.

We were responsible for supporting all the leaders in every single university female section in the Kingdom.  We brought them over to the ministries, we went and visited them, we made sure they had everything, we visited the different attachés around the globe. 

MM:  What was the driver in all this – was it family or something inside you?

AF: Both.  I had a very supportive husband, mother and father and I am a very ambitious person myself. There have been obstacles but there is always that push forward from within.

My family and my husband's family have a long history of being pioneers in healthcare, education & business.

MM:  How have you combined family life with working?

AF: I got married at 17½ and so I did everything with my kids and husband - from my Bachelor’s and Master’s to my PhD.   When I was in the UK, it was a good chance for my kids, who were aged between 3 and 15, to experience self-dependency because I would leave at 7am and come back at 7pm, though I did have some help.

My husband is very supportive.  He was with me in the UK, studying for his degree but there were times he had to come back to Saudi for work - he knew he could depend on me.  If you do not have the support within your family it is very difficult to go forward.  I have never been stopped from doing anything I wanted to do as long as I put my head to it – I was actually encouraged. 

MM:  What did the experience of the UK give you in terms of your career?

AF: The British have this concept of throwing you in the sea and if you swim, you are OK.  It taught me self-reliance.  I came from an environment that supported us 100%, especially because I was in the first batch in our studies, everyone made it as easy as they could.  In the UK nobody helps you at all and you have to come up with your ideas, you have to buy your own things.  It was a challenge to me and I learnt a lot.

Dr Amal D 2

MM:  Are there differences in the way men and women manage in the Kingdom?

AF: It is the difference in personality between men and women.  Men are very good at certain levels of decision making and taking quick actions.  Women are better at meticulous, step-wise approaches.  If you come and ask a man: you can take this job and it is CEO level or CxO level, he will immediately say yes, even if only he has 20% of the knowledge.  With a lady she will say: I am sorry, I need to learn and then I’ll do it.  They are very meticulous about what they say and do.

For example in the All Women Center in 2015 they had 400 ladies and by 2016 they were 1000 with 80% fresh graduates, which is even more difficult because they are millennials. They are excited, they think the world is their oyster so you have to manage their expectations in the right way and support them. I was supported in my career, now I need to give that back.

MM: You have seen different parts of the world.  Do you think there are particular strengths as a woman in Saudi society that help you to manage better as a woman, than counterparts in the West?

AF: Our nature of travel – we are migratory by nature, whether going to Jeddah, to Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Egypt or further afield to Europe, America, Far East.  I think Saudis are very open-minded, they read a lot, they travel, social media, the ease of reaching information – especially this new generation now.  They are much smarter than people take them for, especially in the West when they see your abaya. If you are covering your face it is even worse.  They think that your mind is covered if your body is covered and they cannot differentiate.  So I have ladies that stand in front of the best, whether it is scientific symposia or in the business world, who will speak extremely proudly about what they are doing, with their face covered, and I am proud of that.

The second thing that gives us strength is that we have gone through a lot – difficult periods of political instability around us, oil up and down. Women in Saudi Arabia take care of the house, the kids, their parents; they have a very heavy social life that is a must, it is part of our culture.  They usually work and all of this is combined, it is the norm.  We have to get into more volunteering with the NGOs – we have more than 1000 NGOs in the country.  There is this feeling that you have to give back to society which is extremely strong.  Everybody is into some sort of support system.  All this has helped us become more holistic in our approach.

MM:  You mentioned challenges – what were your biggest obstacles and how did you overcome them?

AF: One of the first obstacles I faced was getting people to believe in pharmacy, which at that time was not understood.  Either you were a doctor or you were an allied med but nursing and pharmacy were not on the upper chain of attractiveness. We literally had to change perceptions in the country.

For example, I had a campaign that was written all over the college and we had an event called “I am proud to be a pharmacist” and they had to wear this on their chest and there were banners.  Because it has to start with you believing you are worthwhile before you convince anybody else.  Nobody could understand why I wasn’t in medicine – I had left medical college to continue pharmacy and they all thought I was a nutcase.  I have never regretted that and it is my passion.

MM:  What do you see as the role of women in Saudi achieving Vision 2030?

AF: Women will play a big role in vision 2030.  They are leaving their mark in healthcare, retail, IT, social studies & business. If you go to Ministries, if you go to sports commissions….look for women. Before, women preferred public sector, now we have ventured into business. Before the environment wasn’t ready for women, there were limited jobs and society wasn’t comfortable with the mixed environment in the private sector.    Then there was a plan to encourage women to go to the private sector and make specific centres for them where they can do as high-end work as they want in every field - but in an environment where they feel comfortable.  More importantly, where their families feel comfortable.

MM: How did anyone prise you away from academia into professional services?

AF: I have never been away from it.  My husband has been in the professional world from day one.  He was 10 years at Saudi Consultant House the precursor of SAGIA and then 10 years as the head of Saudi Council Chambers.  He then went on for 12 years in the Shura Council.  So for the whole of my career, whenever he had meetings or delegations, I would be involved with them.  We would host them in our house, we would talk together about academia and business, we have that interaction on a daily basis.  So I know a lot about business and he knows a lot about academia now.

MM:  What advice would you give to young women in the workforce to help them with their careers?

AF: Be relevant.  The world is changing.  For example, in pharmacy – by the time I had graduated, half of what I had learned had become obsolete.  By the time I had my Master’s: the same.  By the time I finished my PhD: the same.  You are into a continuous change of knowledge so be a lifelong learner.

Don’t be afraid to take chances – or of change. If you are going to be more relevant than a robot you need to make sure that you are on top of everything. Same-old-same-old doesn’t work, even your profession is completely changing and you have to be there.

Then there is life-work balance. Whatever you are as a leader at the top, don’t ever forget your family – the family unit will always remain the major portion of a holistic, stable society.  It is like a house – if the foundation is not there, you are building a house of cards. We need to spend time with our children and make them ready to fit in a global world - but not to forget their roots.

MM: To what extent do you think there is a danger of men being left behind?

AF:  I think it is the West that is facing the danger as we speak.  In general I am not worried about men because if we think about women being adventurous and throwing themselves in the sea, men have been doing that forever.  They have been very adept at manoeuvering through murky waters and looking at opportunities everywhere.  They have done it inside and outside the country and nothing stops them, so I am absolutely sure they will always get along fine.

Published in Saudi business leaders

I am frequently asked this question, is it the end of the road for ex-patriates in the GCC?

Given what is being written about ex-patriates and the economies of the GCC at the moment it is an entirely legitimate question – these articles by Simeon Kerr of the FT and Sarah Townsend of Arabian Business give a good overview of the issues. But the answer is not straightforward.

In some cases the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, it is the end for ex-patriates. But overall the picture is more complex and more dynamic than one might think.

The three cultural ex-patriate clusters of the GCC

To give an accurate answer I think we need to break the ex-patriate community down by region of origin and by what is going on in specific GCC countries. For example the experience of ex-patriate professionals is very different in the UAE to what it is in KSA.  

Broadly speaking ex-patriate professionals fall in to three clusters of origins: Western, Regional (Lebanese, Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian) and Asian.

What is happening to these three clusters is very different.

Twenty years ago the majority of senior talent that I used to recruit for the GCC was Western. It made sense then. And I think many ex-patriates did a great job in helping the local economies develop. Dubai is a great example of this. And yet today as a recruiter of senior level talent I rarely have a Westerner on one of my short lists.

Why is this? 

Where are the jobs of the future for GCC ex-patriates?

There is now an abundance of regionally produced talent that can do the jobs better than Westerners - for reasons of language and cultural affinity.  I think this is healthy. It shows in particular the success of multinationals in shaping a whole generation of regional talent. In particular I would point to the very positive contribution to the development of human capital in the region made by companies such as HSBC, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestle, Mars and Pepsico – to name but a few.

Having said this there are still key industries such as commercial banking where there is likely to be reliance on Westerners in key functions for the foreseeable future.  There are also emerging activities such as Digital Marketing and Digital Technology where the talent will for a short period of time (5 years?) still need to be imported, particularly from the West.

My guess is that regional talent from outside of the GCC – most notably those from Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Diaspora and Egypt will continue to play a critical role in the economies of the GCC. 

However opportunities will be less. Partly because of economic tightening, societal changes and the simple fact that they are outpricing themselves. 

What I have seen over the past 18 months is a significant number of Lebanese CEOs, CHROS and CFOs lose their jobs because of the tightening economy and not able to find new jobs because their salary expectations are too high and the job opportunities are too scarce. In Saudi Arabia whole layers of jobs that were traditionally held by non GCC regional talent are now being replaced by Saudi Nationals. Which, objectively, is the right thing for Saudi Arabia. 

But I have also noticed that in some cases – particularly, as it happens, with CFOs – that regional non GCC talent is starting to price itself out of the market.  For example it is often much better – in terms of cost and performance- for a GCC employer to recruit a CFO directly from Italy than it is to recruit a Lebanese, Palestinian, Egyptian or Jordanian because of outsized compensation and benefits expectations.  

The Asian professional class is one to which we all owe a debt. In the last twenty years I have seen time and time again the quiet dedication of those from the Indian subcontinent. I know how many organizations function because of the administrative backbone that professionals from India and Pakistan provide. All the signs are that they will continue to prosper and undoubtedly will find greater opportunities at the expense of more expensive ex-patriates. That said the challenge will be for greater numbers of them to break in to leadership roles where they are responsible for different nationalities. It is happening but I think there is still considerable room for growth. For this to happen they will need to develop universal communication skills and universal emotional intelligence and greater cross-cultural assertiveness.

This Forbes list of 50 Indians in leadership positions in multi-nationals and Arab companies shows it can be done.

The expat dream is over for those who are ‘superior’

So have we reached the end of the road for ex-patriates? The age of expats is over for those who come believing in their own innate superiority and the dream of the ‘expat’ lifestyle.  It is over as a significant factor in Saudi Arabia. It will however continue in the UAE for those who genuinely have something to contribute. Going forwards the recruitment of ex-patriates will be more selective and value focused.

One age closes. Another dawns – how do you see that new dawn?

 

Please share your views in the comment box below and follow me on Twitter

 

Published in Insights

Guest blog by Mr Ihsan Bafakih, CEO, MASIC

What skills will the new generation of Saudi chief executives need?  This was the question posed to me by Mr Metin Mitchell when he asked for my views on What makes an Outstanding Saudi Chief Executive? (you can download the full report here).

He started by talking about the ambitions laid down in Saudi Vision 2030 and what the role of leaders in the Kingdom will be in achieving these.  Here I share more from our discussions – including thoughts on how future CEOs will acquire the skills they need.

What are the challenges facing Saudi chief executives?                                                                                                                                                          

One thing we have to do is anticipate things differently.  We now have the variables of the economy slowing down, government spending slowing down and more interventions and decrees.  These are new aspects to factor in – the economy, GDP, money supply and reforms coming in over time. 

So chief executives will have to anticipate these reforms and there is more to come, however with more efficiency comes more opportunity.  Yes in the short and medium term we have to anticipate seeing smaller margins as a result of paying taxes.  We see it in other countries also.  In Oman where they started taxation a lot of businesses were slowed down.  We might see it here and have to structure our businesses differently.  However, we are moving from an exceptional situation to a normal one practiced by many countries around the world.  Good businesses still flourished despite having these reforms which have become norms.

What is different about being a CEO in Saudi Arabia, as opposed to other parts of the world? 

We are a country in a transitional period. These next ten years are very critical for Saudi history with the transformation ahead and a dependency on issues other than oil. Communications are becoming more important. We have social media, an increasing openness of the media and far more tolerance of the government to see people speak out – more than at any time in our history. The environment of the Arab world and our neighbours makes what we do here unique – it is not the same for somebody sitting in California, the mid-West or Korea. We are going to strive to become an economy of efficiency, of productivity.

What will Saudi CEOs need to do differently in the coming years?

In the short term, we need to look at our forecasts.  Some of the plans were created in an environment where the macroeconomic aspects were more positive – they are going to need adjustment.  That is just in the short and medium term. 

In the long term, what has been postponed is taking place.  We always knew there would be a time in our country and our economy when we would have to let go of our dependency on oil.  I wish we had thought this way in the good years – it is always better to do this sort of change in the good years – but people always do things under pressure.  It is in our nature to wait until we really have to and now I think the government is showing the population what has to be done.  It’s a little bit severe and it’s painful, but it is putting everybody in a state of mind that change is coming.

What personal attributes will tomorrow’s Saudi CEO need, versus what was needed in the past?

We are a country on a learning curve.  In other countries, they have probably gone through what we are going through now – and the State has moved on from some of our issues.  We are going to strive to become an economy of efficiency, of productivity, rather than the stereotype of laid-back and dependent on oil and the government and with the government taking care of everybody.

We need the next generation to come with their merits and knowledge.  In the past, a lot of people on boards have been honorary.  We are beginning to see people appointed now for their merit, where they have a track record and proved themselves – in ministries and in business.

In the future I think we will see fewer people being appointed because of their family and more because they come equipped.

What are your thoughts on the best way to become a CEO?  Any particular route you favour or champion?

MasicI was a CFO before I became a CEO so I guess that is a pretty good route. When you have good people who grow within the organisation, that is a good way to determine a good CEO.  A good company makes good CEOs and I think the natural transition is the better one for the company.  Most of the CEOS we have, have grown within our companies. 

It can be good bringing in somebody who has spent time elsewhere and brings in different knowledge that he can apply to your business.

Is there a place in Saudi for a ‘Harvard Business School’?

I think our universities are good and I know most of my colleagues have graduated from them, but they don’t do enough on applied knowledge or on the job work.  When you go to Harvard Business School, you are analyzing current markets and coming to morning meetings where you are briefed on what’s going on with the stock markets and currency markets around the world. So you apply knowledge through doing and practicing. 

Our universities are not doing that but they don’t fall short on giving knowledge – on the principles of accounting, economics, finance.  That is being taught well here.  What differentiates us is that we don’t produce Wall Street bankers in the universities.  We produce people with a good education – there is a difference.  Look at the recent development when the Ministry of Commerce & Investment went to the US and signed up PWC and other companies to have a college here, teaching people practical knowledge.  You would have good standards in audits with accounting from a practicing company here.  Those institutes are something we need here.

What do you think Saudi Arabia will look like in ten years from now?

In ten years, Saudi will be more efficient and less dependent on oil; more results-driven; a more efficient government.  Also less inefficiency and less money wasted.  And, I hope, in ten years from now we can see the dependency on oil is less than 50% of the GDP.  We will see more contribution to our economy from less exploited areas such as: other mineral mining, industries, religious tourism and logistics.  We will see more of a service-driven economy and an efficiency-driven economy. 

On the social side I hope we will see even more tolerance, as our version of the millennials grows up.  Hopefully we will see a more absorbent society that is more tolerant and understands the differences each person has and sees that we have diversity as a plus. 

Published in Chief Executive
Tuesday, 13 December 2016 16:19

Are Saudi leaders born or made?

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I have had the privilege of interviewing a number of Saudi chief executives to ask for their views on ‘What makes an outstanding Saudi chief executive?

One of the questions we discussed was how best to groom the next generation of Saudi leaders. A large percentage of today’s Saudi chief executives are of course in family businesses and that also raises the time-old question of – are leaders born or made?

If you Google this phrase, are leaders born or made, it produces six million results! It is an issue that leaders often struggle with in terms of how much can you develop someone to become a leader and to what extent do they need to have natural leadership qualities?

An article on the Forbes site says that leaders are both born and made: “It turns out that both camps are right. Researchers have found that leaders come by their talents partly through genetics but mostly through hard work and persistence. In fact, one study from The Leadership Quarterly on heritability (that is, the innate skills you bring to the table) and human development (what you learn along the way) estimated that leadership is 24 per cent genetic and 76 per cent learned.”

What did the leaders who I interviewed think – and what did they think are the best ways to develop future leaders? We will be sharing this information in our report, out shortly, but here are some of the highlights from our discussions.

1. Education is an essential for future leaders

The general view was that the next generation of Saudi CEOs need to have a strong basic education, but they also need a breadth of experience from working in different areas of a business.

Many interviewees are excited at how this education is now extending beyond that of America and Europe, recognising the Far East will bring new thinking around business models, marketing strategies and operations.

There is a real desire for the Kingdom to do more in the way of business school education to help leaders – and perhaps to do more to adapt this to the needs of the country.

2. On the job learning

Several of those interviewed mentioned how they had worked in most departments of their family business to gain grass roots understanding of each area and how they fitted together. This was generally seen as essential for future chief executives - they need to work their way up.

Inevitably there were differing views about which skills and experience actually have the most value for the final chief executive role – should they have held the chief financial officer role, be very good at strategy or be highly skilled in business development?

As a recruiter, I know that good chief executives can come from all disciplines but a good head for finances is essential and also the ability to get things done – I emphasised this in a recent article on creating Saudi leaders; there is a particular need in the Kingdom for chief executives who can make things happen. I don’t think there is any particular discipline that will produce this ability.

There was considerable discussion around how ethics and governance are becoming increasingly important. There is an issue in terms of education – are business schools up to speed – but also our interviewees felt there is a need for a formal plan to develop these skills while working.

3. Mentoring and coaching

Mentoring and coaching is still a relatively new concept in business. Good leaders have always coached and developed those around them, but businesses are increasingly putting formal plans in place to ensure this is done thoroughly – and to teach people how to coach their junior members.

Coaching was often raised by those I interviewed and a few referred to having hired professional coaches for themselves – this was definitely seen as a good thing.   Many referred to the loneliness of being a chief executive and having a coach can help to keep a perspective on the job.

So to sum up, today’s leaders all recognised the challenges facing the Kingdom as it aims to achieve Saudi Vision 2030 and the importance of having outstanding chief executives. Will these leaders of the future be born or made – everyone agreed they need to be made. This will be done through a mix of education, learning on the job, being coached by current leaders and also bringing increased expertise in new areas such as governance.

The verdict from these interviews was that leaders are most definitely made.

Published in Chief Executive

Last month I wrote a blog on Will Saudi’s chairmen of 2030 need to look different from today? I have had a number of comments and discussions on this, both when I have been in the Kingdom and also online - and one comment in particular got me thinking.

 

Mohammed Abdul Gaffar of KFB Holding Group said “It is not just the chairmen who need to look at business differently from today” – and of course he is absolutely right. He continued: “The idea of Vision 2030 has to be trickled down to each and every individual in an organization. Proper communication of the Vision 2030 to everyone and encouraging participation from all groups is paramount to achieving success. Just my 2 cents.”

 

Well they are a good two cents and lead nicely into what I have been thinking about concerning the skills that will be needed for chief executives to achieve Saudi Vision 2030.

 

What will be the biggest challenges for Saudi chief executives?

In my view the toughest challenges for chief executives will be how they cut costs without harming businesses.

 

Just last week, Reuters reported that “Saudi Arabia will cut ministers' salaries by 20 percent and scale back financial perks for public sector employees”

 

Inevitably oil prices are having an impact in the Kingdom and the ability to make these tough decisions wisely will be critical for the long term success of both companies and the country.

 

But the biggest challenge is achieving operational efficiency through cuts – and also knowing when to keep innovating and investing. Great leadership is about achieving this balance and also bringing employees with you so they can see the better future in return for a more difficult time now.

Building a pipeline of skills

You might say that anyone can cut costs. The harder task is to manage through a recession and still build the skills needed for growth.

 

To do this, salaries are going to have to be more aligned to performance and – another tough decision – not reward people who have not performed. That is going to take a big culture change in many organisations, but bonuses have to be earned.

Connectivity with employees

In the next few years, chief executives are going to have to ask their employees to work longer hours and find new ways of doing things to be more efficient. Leaders need to create a team spirit of everyone pulling together and getting people to rotate around departments to learn these wider skills.

 

This is where Mohammed Abdul Gaffar’s comment is so important – leadership that will bring a future vision alive and encourage every employee to participate fully in the company.

We must not lose the existing outstanding qualities of Saudi chief executives

Whenever we look at change and new futures, there is always a danger of forgetting to identify and keep what is outstanding about the present.

 

In the case of the Kingdom, many Saudi chief executives are extremely compassionate towards their employees and often look after them secretly to ensure they are supported and they do the right thing.

 

There is also another very special attribute in Saudi leaders which the West would do well to learn from – they think about and plan for the longer term, looking 10, 20, 30 years ahead or even generations.

FT article on Paul Polman

I loved an article in the FT this weekend. When Paul Polman became chief executive of Unilever in 2009, the FT article says “He immediately said that he only wanted investors who shared his view that Unilever needed to shepherd the Earth’s future as carefully as it did its own revenues and profits. As one of his first acts, he announced that the company would no longer publish quarterly profit updates, as they encouraged short-term thinking. Simon Zadek, a long-time British sustainability campaigner….[said this was] more than just tinkering or public relations, it was a new business model.”

 

Well the Middle East is way ahead in this respect. Muslim teaching is that every individual must protect the Earth’s future and Saudi leaders take this long term vision and planning very seriously. It is not just talk but a daily reality.

 

If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is to create more businesses that are globally competitive, its leaders will have to balance retaining the best parts of their culture with the need for tough decisions and still investing for the future. There is a clear strategy to do this – we just need to find the leaders who can achieve this.

Published in Chief Executive

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