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
Monday, 09 October 2017 12:48

Making sense of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Women driving, a street party in Riyadh’s main drag Tahlia Street, new forms of taxation and a relentless push towards modernisation and diversification of the economy are leaving external observers of Saudi Arabia as breathless as those trying to make sense of President Trump’s daily flurry of tweets.  

The reality is that the Kingdom is in a race against the clock to preserve its very existence.

The usual platitude of “tell me where the price of oil is going and I will tell you where the Saudi economy is going” gives a terrible forecast, which most people using this blithe statement have not grasped: unless the government and people of Saudi Arabia can make a success of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ plan – better known as Vision 2030 – we are facing the collapse of the Kingdom. The stark truth is that with current oil prices and oil price trends, the economy of the Kingdom is unsustainable.

For the last two decades I have been travelling to Saudi Arabia and there has been a comforting premise for the population that the country had hundreds of years’ worth of oil – and indeed it may do. The problem of course is that the world is going electric and the power it needs will come from nuclear, renewables and, in the case of North America, from domestic carbon sources.  That the world is going electric is challenge enough for the giants of the automotive industry as they face competition from Tesla, Dyson and Google.  But for the Saudis, as they are presently configured, it is a disaster.  

saudi oil wells

Give or take, the Saudi Government has needed oil to be at 80 dollars a barrel to break even – at 50 dollars a barrel and with an incredibly costly) war  against Yemen, this largely undiversified economy is under severe threat.  

To make matters worse, the country has a fast growing population with almost 45% under the age of 25. All these young people need jobs and with the economy growing at 0.1% it seems that unemployment currently pegged at anywhere between 11% and 25%, will get significantly worse.  

480px Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud2

If this picture seems bleak, there is hope. The Royal Family has made the very bold move of preparing the way for a young king. When his father passes on the reins to him, Mohamed Bin Salman will have the possibility of a long reign ahead and the chance of actually pushing forward the reforms the country needs.  Many of the issues facing the country – inclusion of women, entrepreneurship and diversification – are dealt with in the 2030 plan.  But these will bring disruptive and at times painful changes to society.

Saudi Arabia will need all its cohesiveness to weather these.  Very sensibly, by addressing the bug bears of the young – restrictive societal practices and the ban on women driving – the government is creating palpable levels of goodwill and social unity in this critical demographic group.  I assume that a calculation has been made that by winning over the young of the Kingdom there will be an overwhelming counterbalance to the conservative elements of Saudi Arabia who have, for so long, resisted change.  

My guess is that the Kingdom will make it. What is not always obvious to those in the West who, to my mind, are too quick to criticize Saudi Arabia is that the Kingdom, as a country and as a people, has a lot going for it.  Most notably, over and above oil it has considerable mineral wealth and the possibility to generate vast solar energy. 

But most misunderstood are the considerable talents of its people – women and men. Once their energy is harnessed, their skills developed and their economic framework liberalized, the prospects for the Kingdom actually look bright.  

But the government will need to keep firm on its plans.

Published in Leadership

Guest blog by Mr Anees Moumina, CEO, SEDCO Holding Group

I was interested to be interviewed recently to share my thoughts on What makes an Outstanding Saudi Chief Executive.  This is an important subject because if you look at the different areas and objectives that Saudi Vision 2030 is trying to promote, we will need excellent leadership to achieve these ambitions.

It is thought provoking to be asked for your views on subjects like this and I thought I would share my views in addition to my comments that are included in Metin Mitchell & Company’s report on this topic – I have included the questions behind our discussions.

When you think about the old days compared today, then look ahead at the coming years, what are the different skills that Saudi chief executives will need?

This is something I keep reminding myself, that as a CEO I now have to wear two important hats.  One is looking at the market risk factors which have impacted payment collection, due to tightening receivables and credit sales.  You have to put realistic figures to companies, so If you want to grow in a declining market, you can but if the growth is based on credit terms rather than cash then you may be surprised with credit problems after two or three years, and there lies the risk.  The second hat is opportunity. Declining markets are often the best time to look at good deals. You have companies selling, so it could be the best time to buy.  As a CEO you need to balance the opportunity and the market risk, especially when you have the cash and the appetite to invest in a declining market.

What are the different challenges facing a Saudi CEO compared with CEOs in the West?

I see the challenges for a chief executive as the same, wherever they are.  A CEO is a CEO.  A CEO should be trained to weather cycles and to deal with different regulatory environments.  Challenge is an opportunity – that is how I look at it.  In Saudi Arabia, you have regulatory requirements, you have to test the market, have good market knowledge through different organizations – these are the same challenges in the West.  You have to know what to do depending on the market.

What is the best way to train and develop chief executives?

Ex bankers tend to have a faster grasp on a situation because you deal with different organizations.  You look at the credit of a company and what is the critical success factor; you deal with boards, regulators, people with the most sensitive item - which is money.  You need to have a broad vision.  The challenge is when individuals move from a publicly listed company, which has standards, to a family business and that is a different question.  This might be a company which is not internationally regulated and the challenge is risk.   A lot of family businesses have very strong corporate governance – boards, processes, systems, KPIs, compensation procedures. I think one of the best ways to develop chief executives is to ensure they have worked in regulated companies.

Companies have to believe in developing their people.  In a downturn market the first thing we see being cut is training, which is wrong.  You need to spend more on training. We look at the weakness of an individual and then do proper training to address that. Our people have to learn to innovate, to try new things – invest in IT, go into greenfield activities.  We also have to train in risk management.

How are we going to get more Saudi women in the boardroom?

Before we can have more Saudi women in the boardroom, we need more in executive positions. There are Saudi women in the boardroom but these are in family companies and where they are a member of the family. 

Things are changing.  We see progress in institutions and regulators are helping this – there is an abundance of candidates.  When you have a vacancy you see both genders applying and if it is suited to hire a lady, according to the regulations, it is happening more and more.  It is a good thing.

In our group we are in different businesses and have ladies working in different companies – in our hospitality business, our automotive business, our restaurants and in the pharmacy business.  We welcome that.

Saudi Arabia is committed to change – what will be the impact over the next ten years?

Companies have to be dynamic, geared to change and rate of change.  Business models are changing.  There are proposed fees and taxes on hospitality items, restaurants, hotels and on labour, so the private sector has to get more involved and proactive with the economy. That is a challenge. This is where the dynamics of a company come in.  If you want to get more market share you have to have the mentality of ‘let’s do things differently’.

What is your view on tenure of the role of CEO – assuming they are doing a good job?

Assuming they are doing a good job, then look at ways to retain them. Keep them motivated and challenged and compensate them.  I think a minimum of six years as chief executive is needed - usually there is a term of three years, so have another term.

What are the particular challenges for CEOs in Saudi Arabia?

A lot of businesses in Saudi Arabia are family businesses.  They have been started by the first generation and are now moving from second to third.  Saudi Arabia needs to learn from other organizations how to move these vast family companies from one generation to another successfully, it is a corporate governance question.  Without good governance, any problems at family level – such as splits between brothers and sisters – will affect a business model. You learn that from a bank – look at ownership.

The critical issue is to look at how transition is happening. Moving from fathers to sons – that is fine. But moving to the third generation – this is difficult and I worry about these third and fourth generations. 

What advice would you give to chief executives in Saudi Arabia now?

Wear two hats: risk and marketing opportunities.  Balance both.  There are some opportunities in a declining market so take advantage of that.

Published in Chief Executive

I have been honoured to interview a number of Saudi CEOs recently to hear their views on the skills needed to achieve Vision 2030. This is for a report we are producing, What makes an Outstanding Saudi chief executive? (You can read my views on the skills that Saudi chief executives will need in this blog)

One of the themes to emerge is the need for a corporate governance framework in the Kingdom. As one CEO said, “We need to have a conducive atmosphere for leadership to flourish, but under a robust corporate governance framework. Corporate governance starts at the top. Audit needs to be independent.”

Corporate governance is still a relatively new concept across the world. I was interested to read Lubna Qassim’s blog (she is on the leadership team and general counsel at Emirates NBD) where she cites the Cadbury report in 1992 as the start of governance in the UK.

What the Cadbury Report did was to introduce the concept of independence. And it is clear that if the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is to become more open to the world, it will need its own corporate governance framework.  

Saudi Arabia has been pursuing corporate governance reforms, with the Capital Market Authority (CMA) in 2003 and the publication of the Saudi Corporate Governance Code (SCGC) in 2006. In the Saudi Organization for Certified Public Accountants (SOCPA), the accounting standards committee holds the responsibility of developing and reviewing accounting and auditing standards in the country. All of these will play a part in developing Saudi Arabia’s own corporate governance code.

The central components of the voluntary Cadbury Code, are

  • a clear division of responsibilities at the top, primarily that the position of chairman of the board be separated from the chief executive, or that there be a strong independent element on the board
  • the majority of the board to consist of outside directors
  • remuneration committees for board members to have a majority of non-executive directors
  • the board to appoint an audit committee including at least three non-executive directors

So what do I think would be the key ingredients of corporate governance for Saudi Arabia and the challenges and opportunities of this?

1. Independent board members

Saudi Arabia’s businesses are no different from the way American, British and others have been run – and still are in many cases. Before codes of conduct were introduced, the tendency was to recruit family members to the board and appoint ‘people we know’. The phrases ‘old boys’ club’ and ‘old boys’ network’ came from the very normal practice of appointing people you were at school with or were in the same men’s club

old boys    

The Cadbury code is voluntary and it has taken years to achieve the shift in culture to recruit independently – some would say this still has a way to go in the West, especially around finding and recruiting women.

This will be one of the biggest challenges for the Kingdom; to open up family businesses to outsiders.

2. Clear division of responsibilities at the top

Separating out the role of chairman and chief executive has been well established in the Kingdom for some years. While this should be included in any governance code, the practice of executive chairmen in Saudi is not widespread and will be less of a challenge to achieve.

The issue that will need addressing is that, while there may be a distinction between chairman and chief executive in terms of titles, many chairmen act like the chief executive, essentially making the role of the CEO more that of a chief operating officer.

3. Audit committee with three independent non-executive directors

Having an audit committee with independent non-execs will be more of a challenge to achieve in Saudi Arabia. An independent audit committee requires a confident chief executive to accept, and also manage, strong external views.

A report by Independent Business Research on Corporate Governance and Auditor Independence in Saudi Arabia: Literature Review and Proposed Conceptual Framework looks at the emerging role of the auditing profession and the role of audit generally. They say

this end

Vision 2030 has set out a clear direction for the future of Saudi Arabia – should a corporate governance be part of this to ensure a robust and sustainable business community in the Kingdom?

Published in Leadership

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