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
Tuesday, 14 March 2017 14:14

Saudi Women Can

Last weekend a unique conference in Riyadh highlighted the changing role of women in Saudi Arabia and aimed to inspire younger women to push for new opportunities in the Kingdom.

The conference, called “Saudi Women Can” was organised by the Alwaleed Philanthropies charity which works to empower women. It aimed to draw attention to Saudi women’s achievements and inspire the next generation to take on a new range of leading roles in the Kingdom.                                                                               

Secretary General of Alwaleed Philanthropies, Princess Lamia bint Majed Al Saud, said about the event: “I want to give the younger generation role models to show them that, no matter what obstacles, there are opportunities and give them stories to inspire them.”

This subject is very close to my heart. I passionately believe women can play a critical role in helping Saudi Arabia transform itself over the next decade – whenever we are recruiting, we always hope for women on our shortlists as they tend to be outstanding candidates.

This is a vision shared by many leading Saudi companies that are actively working to recruit female talent and support the objectives of Vision 2030 to increase the proportion of Saudi women in business from 22% to 30%.

Over the next month, I am looking to interview outstanding Saudi women leaders to learn about how they have achieved their success and the skills needed in Saudi Arabia to achieve Vision 2030. 

This follows on from our recent report What makes an outstanding Saudi Chief Executive, based on interviews with Saudi chief executives and chairmen.  This next report will be called Roads to the Top for Saudi Women. 

I hope we can help this campaign by providing our own insights and role models to inspire the next generation.

What are the opportunities for women in Vision 2030?

Vision 2030 v1

So what is already changing in the Kingdom and what is behind this conference?

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 says that, for Saudi to become an economically dynamic and politically stable nation, it must end the kingdom’s dependence on energy exports, empower women to take on new leadership roles in business and encourage businesses and citizens alike to adapt to a world of accelerating technological change.

It is a big ambition and there are significant challenges ahead. However, I believe women are a critical part in achieving these ambitions.

Women already outnumber men among university graduates in Saudi Arabia and that means there is a huge pool of untapped talent for businesses to explore. Secondly, the Nitaqat target to improve Saudization of companies is much more achievable if businesses turn to female talent.

This conference helped to shine a spotlight on the great potential Saudi women can offer the Kingdom by showcasing the achievements of some incredible women.

The first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, Raha Moharrak, , said girls in Saudi Arabia must be taught that they are not less than boys and said fathers and brothers must be encouraged to support this change. She explained: "My journey started as a mini-rebellion - I wanted to shock my parents.”

Other speakers included Hadeel Ayoub, who invented a smart glove that converts sign language to text, and Lama Al Sulaiman, who quit after being voted onto a municipal council as her male peers insisted she sat in a different room.

The message was simple: “Women in leadership positions today is a must, and there should be women everywhere.”

Women taking the lead

Recently, at an event to mark International Women’s Day, Salma Al Rashid, chief program officer at the Al Nahda Philanthropic Society for Women, also said there had been significant change in the past 18 months in line with economic shifts.

She said the government's Vision 2030 was enabling women to play a greater role in the economy and added: “Things are changing so fast, little things here and there. But, there is still a lot of work to do on cultural attitudes and at the policy level.”

I am witnessing this change and, I’m also seeing an appetite for change in our business leaders who are eager to develop female talent. This was a hot topic for those who participated in What makes an Outstanding Saudi Chief Executive and all agreed that women would be critical to ensuring the nation achieved Vision 2030.

Yes, many are questioning whether the Kingdom can achieve these ambitions in a short time frame and also give women the freedom they need to fill the skills gap, but the Government has a clear vision, the correct targets and, most importantly, the timing is right.

The pressure to recruit Saudi nationals is acute but there is also a real will to do it among Saudi business leaders who want to make sure Saudis are running their own businesses. As a result of this, the number of fields open to women will inevitably expand.

Critically, making 30% of the workforce female is also achievable and this is because women want it. Women have the talent and appetite, they are more cost effective for companies as competition for male Saudi leaders remains fierce and, in many cases, they are better suited to the available roles.

Female talent will fuel the transformation

Saudi Arabia is still ranked at the bottom of the Global Gender Gap, a World Economic Forum study on how women fare in economic and political participation, health and education. However, that will change.

Conference speaker Eqbal Darandari, an associate professor at King Saud University, was elected to the Shura Council in 2016 and said it was important women learned responsibility and leadership so they could push for change.

She explained: “We have a lot of opportunities, but you have to break through and push the obstacles and not just complain. We are achieving things - not as fast as we would like - but what is needed is social change and that is slow.”

Change is happening and that is because no-one in Saudi Arabia can afford to ignore the pool of female Saudi talent.

I would welcome hearing your views on the outstanding Saudi women who we should be talking to for our next report. Please share your thoughts by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or leave a comment below.

Published in Insights

For insights on the job market in Saudi Arabia, listen to Brandy Scott interview Metin Mitchell with questions including

  • Where do the decision makers in KSA see the skills gap in the transformation plan (Saudi Vision 2030) being laid out for the future?
  • What kind of job descriptions will be needed for the future?
  • Is it achievable that women will make up 30% of the Saudi workforce over the next few years?
  • What needs to happen to fill the skills gap?
  • If Saudis are going to receive 30-50% pay rises to fill the skills gap, how will this work?
  • What will be the knock-on effect for the rest of the Gulf?

Dubai Eye interview podcast image

If you have any problems clicking on the link to listen to this interview please click here

 

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

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’ve worked in executive search for 20 years, recruiting leaders for Middle East organisations of all types. One of the most interesting countries has been Saudi Arabia, where the types of leaders needed have changed as the Kingdom has grown and diversified.

Now Saudi is at a critical point in its development. There is an ambitious future set out in Vision 2030 to transform the Kingdom. At Metin Mitchell & Company, we have been looking at what skills will Saudi chief executives need over the next 15 years in order to help our clients in their recruitment. These skills are what will ensure the Kingdom achieves its Vision 2030.

To play our part in helping Saudi through this evolution, we have interviewed leading chairmen and chief executives to hear their views and add our own thoughts. We are grateful to these leaders who have given their time and wisdom, which we have incorporated into our research report, What Makes an Outstanding Saudi Chief Executive. Below we look at the key findings – you can download the report for free by clicking here

• Mr Loai Abduljawad, CEO, Emirates NBD KSA
• Dr Badr Al Badr, CEO, Dur Hospitality
• Mr Ihsan Bafakih, CEO, MASIC
• Dr Adel Ezzat, CEO, Saudi Paper Manufacturing Company
• Mr Adel Al-Ghamdi, Group CEO, Abdullatif Alissa Holding Group
• Mr Ibrahim Al Jammaz, CEO, Alamar Foods
• Mr Aiman Al-Masri, President and CEO, MESC Group
• Mr Omar Al-Midani, CEO, Beatona
• Mr Anees Moumina, CEO, SEDCO Holding Group
• Mr Musa’ab Al Muhaidib, CEO, Al Muhaidib Technical Supplies
• Mr Sulaiman Al-Rumaih, Vice President, Power & Industrial Group, Tamimi Group of Companies
• Mr Raeed Al-Tamimi, CEO, The Company for Cooperative Insurance (Tawuniya)
• Mr Fahad Al-Zomaia, CEO, United Matbouli Group
• Mr Khalid Abunayyan, President and CEO, Abunayyan Holding
• Eng Talal Al Maiman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Investments and Developments at Kingdom Holding Group
• Dr Hilal Al Tuwairqi, Chairman, Al Tuwairqi Holding

Our interviewees say future Saudi leaders must be inspirational and able to clearly communicate their vision through a period of great change. But alongside this they must be able to make tough decisions as they drive through new efficient operating models and make the necessary cuts. They also need to have an ability to spot opportunities.

In my view, the biggest challenge is going to be how businesses transform the way they operate. Saudi needs leaders who can make things happen and achieve a new type of employee culture to deliver this.

We asked about the role of women for future success. I was delighted at the unanimous enthusiasm to see more women in senior positions – they are recognised as hard-working and talented and the Kingdom needs their skills. This is certainly reflected in our experience of recruiting – female candidates are generally outstanding. Yes, there are still cultural challenges to achieving more women in leadership positions, but chief executives want to see women promoted within organisations and also welcome the number of women who have studied abroad, who bring wider experiences to the workforce.

Our interviewees agreed that while much can be learned from Western CEOs, it is important that key elements of the Saudi culture are not lost – particularly the genuine care for employees and the long term generational view of business.

It was good that so many recognised the increased importance of corporate governance – I looked at this in my earlier blog, Will corporate governance create a clear path for Saudi Arabia?. There is no doubt corporate governance will be the big challenge for chief executives of the future. They will have to understand the regulatory and compliance issues, but also learn skills in how to challenge board members – especially when these are more senior family members.

Our interviewees had mixed views about how to train chief executives of the future. While international business schools have their place, the general view was that the new generation of Saudi chief executives must work their way across and up a business, so they understand how different disciplines work.

So to sum up the key findings, future chief executives will require a different mind-set from that of the boom years. They need to be cost conscious, look for hidden opportunities and inspire their workforces. But get the leadership skills right and Saudi is a country full of opportunities.

Click here to download a copy of What Makes an Outstanding Saudi Chief Executive. I would welcome other views and am happy to discuss this research in more detail and look at its implications for your own organisation.

Published in Saudi business leaders

I came across a thought-provoking blog on the future of Saudi leadership by Professor William Scott-Jackson, chairman of Oxford Consulting Group last week.

In it he argues that Saudi will need 1.9m leaders to achieve Saudi Vision 2030. With a population of around 15m employable Saudis, this will be a challenge in terms of pure numbers, let alone skills.

leaders for KSA

I have spent the last few months interviewing a number of Saudi chief executives and chairmen to gather views on what makes an outstanding Saudi chief executive – in particular the skills that will be needed to take the Kingdom through a period of great change over the next 15 years and how you develop these skills. This is very relevant to how the Kingdom develops these 1.9m leaders for the future.

We will be publishing this report early in 2017, but here I want to share insights from our conversations and add to – and challenge – some of Professor Scott-Jackson’s comments.

Professor Scott-Jackson says: “The most important capability for achieving Saudi Vision 2030 is leadership, which has a fundamental impact on every aspect of organisational and national success – and indeed the well-being, happiness and productivity of all people.”

And this view was shared by all the leaders I interviewed. However, while I agree leadership skills are critical, I think it is easy to overlook the importance of being able to ‘manage’ and get things done. I would place as much importance on this as ‘leadership’.

It is easy to under-estimate the skills needed for different cultures. I think what will differentiate Saudi businesses will be those with chief executives who have an ability to get things done. Of course, leadership plays its part in that but in doing that, we should not overlook management ability when recruiting and developing future leaders.

In a study by Caliper into the most important and difficult aspects of leadership, 300 presidents and CEOs shared their thoughts on aspects of leadership. They were asked to rank various tasks: creating the right vision, getting people to embrace the vision, maintaining momentum (motivating, influencing and persuading), managing change (strategic planning, problem solving), surrounding yourself with the right people, developing staff (coaching, managing performance, transforming teams), and delegating.

Nowhere in here does it refer to ‘gettting things done’.   You could argue that if you surround yourself with the right people and are good at problem solving and delegating , then this will ensure that things are done. But I think there is another layer of skill needed in here that is specific to getting the best from the Saudi culture.

Saudi leaders need to understand how their business works, particularly the profit drivers and have a particular skill in helping their teams to unblock problems. Aspects of the Kingdom’s culture can make this challenging – especially family dynamics and respect for elders.

There is a lot in the Professor’s article that I like and agree with.

He asks how can Saudi build leadership skills fast – and looks at some specific advantages of the Kingdom. This was something we were keen to do in our interviews – ask leaders to share what is good about Saudi leadership that should be retained as the Kingdom goes through change. There is often a tendency to think the West has all the answers and put the wrong values and priorities on to another culture.

Professor Scott-Jackson says: “There are two exemplary situations in which young males and females are often fast-tracked [in Saudi] and often do a great job.  The first is the royal family itself and the second is the family firms where young successors are trained from birth in the obligations and skills needed to lead. In addition, Saudi (and the Gulf in general) has a unique leadership style which, in many ways, has advantages over the best practice western style taught on courses today.”

In his analysis of Saudi Leadership style (see the table below), he highlights potential weaknesses as ‘task and project deadline management’ and ‘tough decisions and difficult conversations’.

the saudi leadership style

The first, project deadline management, comes back to the point about making things happen – and is one of the most critical skills to ensure success in the Kingdom. The second point – taking tough decisions and having difficult conversations – was discussed by nearly all the leaders I interviewed. In a period of change, a good leader may have to ask loyal and hard-working people to leave, because they do not have the right skills for the job to be done. This is not easy for any leader but it is a question of ensuring the right people are doing the right jobs and that the organisation is ‘fit for purpose’.

How else do leaders need to be developed? The Professor says everyone needs a qualification such as from the Chartered Management Institute and to start leading young. While our interviewees rated qualifications, several were keen to bring ideas and different approaches to the country such as from China, Korea and Malaysia. One leader commented on the Chinese being great risk-takers and focusing on volume and mass markets – where the West tends to lean more to niche markets. They felt a mix of thinking will best benefit the Kingdom.

Many of our leaders also talked about learning the basics in their family businesses from a young age and working their way up. They felt it stood them in great stead – but they talked more about doing and learning than leading when they were young.

Developing Saudi leaders of the future is a big topic and I plan to expand on many of the ideas from our leaders along with our own thoughts in future blogs. I would welcome other ideas and experiences on this important topic.

Published in Leadership

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