More women than ever before are starting careers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, helped by the Vision 2030 goals and government policies such as Saudization.

But as more women enter the workforce, new challenges are emerging in terms of how to balance a career with roles in the home and as a mother – a debate that continues to occupy women across the world. Nevertheless, in Saudi Arabia a cohort of well educated and ambitious women are leading the way and we’re seeing female leaders heading large Saudi companies and that is extremely exciting to witness.

With the importance of family being at the heart of Saudi society – one interviewee for our report, Roads to the Top for Saudi Women said, “The family unit will always remain the major portion of a holistic, stable society.” So what role can mothers play – both in the home and in wider Saudi society to set an example and influence girls to strive for a successful career?

Mothers are important role models in the home

Many of the women I spoke to talked about the example set by their parents and how that influenced their drive and ambition. One said, “I have a very ambitious mother and father and I am a very ambitious person”.

But the importance of mothers in particular, and the positive example they set for their daughters, was a recurring theme of our conversations. Expanding on this, one interviewee said, “In my family, my mother is one of the strongest women I have met and she always focused on education and never took no for an answer. For her everything is possible, there is always a way to get to what you want or do what you want.” She added, “She pushed for independence – in thought, financially, making decisions, failing – she was setting the stage of always looking to do more.”

This idea that “if she can see it, she can be it” is at the heart of this, the understanding that “you have opportunities and you can go out and take them” is an important lesson not just for young Saudi women but for women globally. But how can families in the Kingdom build on these lessons in future?

Women as role models in wider society

Women have acted as powerful role models outside of the family unit in the Kingdom. There is no doubt that female members of the royal family have changed views in wider society and inspired women in the leadership roles they have taken on. Queen Effat was particularly mentioned by several interviewees. One said, “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 couldn’t afford to live without her income. The princesses showed that work for women is as much about self-realisation.”

Instilling boys with the same values

While the focus of our report was on women, several of those we spoke to stressed the importance of teaching young men that women and girls are just as deserving of opportunities as they are. One interviewee summed up her thinking by saying there was a “responsibility of mothers to teach their sons they are not better and ‘don’t deserve extra candy’”.

Another said, “mothers need to raise sons without gender stereotyping and daughters to think of more than just marriage.”  Keeping the family at the heart of Saudi society but teaching the lessons that will help girls to reach their full potential as adults will be important for the Kingdom going forward.

Setting an example for the future

Setting an example for the next generation has been one of the strongest themes from my interviews with female leaders in Saudi Arabia. They are proud of what the Kingdom has achieved in just a few decades – and are keen to be role models and encourage more women into work and especially middle management. 

Women being able to drive in Saudi has been one of the most visible messages of change both within the Kingdom and to the wider world.

But while many might see this as a move for Saudi to become more ‘western’, what was clear to me from my interviews was that Saudi women want to do all this in their own way.  They do not want to be like the West, nor even like other Middle East countries.  They have their own values and vision – and I am certain that we will see more female leaders in the Kingdom, leading in their own distinctive way. And who knows, these women could find new ways to combine motherhood and work that the rest of the world could learn from. No-one pretends to have all the answers to this particular challenge.

Published in Saudi business leaders

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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