Metin Mitchell

Metin Mitchell

Sunday, 19 November 2017 10:02

Re-shaping CFOs for the age of automation

Could chief financial officers (CFOs) become redundant? That was the question I posed at the CFO Strategies Forum in Dubai last week. And the answer? Well, no-one believes CFOs will be redundant – not yet. But everyone recognises the impact of artificial intelligence on the accounting function and the need for the CFO to develop and change considerably. But how?

I had shared my own thoughts on the impact of automation on the role of the CFO and was keen to hear from those on our panel

Here are the highlights of the discussion, and with thanks to my fellow panellists for a lively discussion!

1.       Change must happen now

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation systems are already transforming the accounting function – and this will continue at an increasing pace. As Adham Gasser said, “We need to be ahead of the curve.”

2.       CFOs need to become more advisory

Dr van Linder defined the three main roles of the CFO as chief performance manager – driving the business forward and adding value; chief strategiest – assisting the CEO on the strategic view and the critical role of benchmarking; and chief accountant – with technical skills and managing standards. 

He commented that the easiest CFOs to hire are the chief accountants – but it is very rare to find a CFO with all three qualities.  He went on to say, “Artificial intelligence will take over anything that can be automated.  The role of senior executives and the CFOs will be more of strategic advisory, as most of the functions will be automated to the maximum extent. AI will assist to make decisions better so the role of the human will be to make judgments and decision-making.”

Adham Gasser agreed that AI would make it easier for future CFOs to be far more concentrated around advisory/strategic skills, with AI taking over much of the operational side of activities.  He said CFOs will have to ‘remove themselves from Excel and Powerpoint’ - and that 10 years down the road, CFOs will need to think a lot more about strategy.

I was interested in this timescale of ten years – as a headhunter we are already seeing expectations for the CFO to be more strategic.  Within three to five years I think the brief for new recruiting CFOs will look very different.

CFO panel photo 1

3.       The CFO’s role needs to have more power

We had an interesting question from the audience, ‘How can we develop the role and the power of the CFO? How can we bridge the gap between CEOs and CFOs, and CFOs and other departments?’  The delegate gave a context for this question and mentioned seeing power struggles in some organisations, where the CEO inhibited the CFO’s ability to communicate effectively with the board.  He also talked about the challenges CFOs can face when needing to give instructructions to other departments – when they are not always taken seriously because others don’t recognise the CFO’s power.

Dr van Linder was absolutely clear, if the CEO is inhibiting the CFO’s communication with the board, then, “The CEO would not be doing his job in this case”.

Waleed Abu Eleiz talked about the need for a CFO to have good communication skills – so if they are facing resistance then they need to explain the potential implications if they don’t comply. It’s the CFO’s job to make sure they understand and take matters seriously.  He pointed out that often departments and individuals are not aware how their actions will affect the business so this is about communicating a message so people understand and relate to it.

Adham Gasser felt that the right incentives need to be shared across the organisation so people are motivated to take action.

As the delegate asked the question, it reminded me of one of the biggest challenges when recruiting executive roles. It is usually relatively easy to find the technical skills – much harder to find the right mix of strategic and communication skills combined with them. The ability to influence and persuade is often under-rated as a critical leadership ability.

Image from Twitter video

4.       CFOs need to increase data analysis role

As we discussed the role of automation, Adham Gasser emphasised the need for CFOs to increase their data analysis capacity.  He argued, “If you launch a new product and it fails, the easy answer is to say it could be due to unfavorable market conditions. However, you have to analyse a lot of other data to come up with a real answer for this, and make sure to look for any inconsistencies.”

5.       CFOs have to be more holistic

Waleed Abu Eleiz is group CFO but also acting COO so has a dual perspective on the CFO role.  He talked about how as CFO he can look at the brands under Harvey Nichols and it’s a simple, financial decision to remove the ones that are not profitable. However, as a COO, he has to think about the bigger picture and understand the importance of having these brands there, regardless of their financial performance. These brands could be important for their clients and stakeholders and could be used to attract other brands in. Having them in the Harvey Nichols portfolio is strategically important.

This seems to me a good example of how CFOs need to combine their financial head with taking a more holistic view of the business.

Adham Gasser commented that the focus of CFOs needs to shift from short term to long term and to setting the agenda for automated systems that will take care of operations, legal regulations and more. CFOs will act more in oversight to automated systems.

I was delighted to see the recognition from our panel and the audience that the CFO role is changing and will continue to change at pace. We may have different views on the timescale for this, but we all agreed that if CFOs are to be relevant in the future, they need to be leading and managing automation, develop their communication skills and becoming far more strategic.

If they achieve this, there will be roles for CFOs for some time to come.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017 09:02

Could CFOs become redundant?

I am delighted to be speaking at the CFO Strategies Forum in Dubai, on 15/16 November along with 150 invited CEOs, CFOs (chief financial officers) and C-suite executives.

With me to create a lively debate will be an august panel of Dr Bernd van Linder, CEO, Commercial Bank of Dubai; Waleed Abu Eleiz, CFO, Alfa International; and Adham Gasser, Regional CFO, P&G.

The topic of our debate is around the relationship between the CEO and CFO and the survival of CFOs in the face of automation; could CFOs even become redundant? How do they need to change or adapt to help the CEO and stay relevant?

In our session, we want to discuss research recently carried out by EY into The CFO and the chief executive officer.  This is part of their Partnering for Performance series which also looks at the partnership between the CFO and the CIO – a critical relationship in terms of the survival of CFOs.

Their survey of 652 global CFOs showed that the CFO role has been center stage in the financial crisis as CEOs relied on them to find cost reduction and strategies to shield against downturns in the economy. They became close allies of the CEO but this also meant reinforcing their cost management role and as economies have picked up, they now struggle to position themselves as a key strategic player in the future of the business.

CFO CEO relationship challenges image

And this is a real risk for CFOs in the long term. Cost reduction will almost certainly be something that artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms can do better than humans. 

Research by McKinsey on Where machines can replace humans – and where they can’t (yet) concludes “While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail. ” In the case of finance and management, they say 6 – 10% of time is spent on activities that could be automated. So it would be easy to think leadership roles are ‘safe’ for the forseeable future. 

The danger is in that word ‘forseeable’. Artificial intelligence has a way of catching even the experts out.  In May this year, the world was shocked when Google’s computer program AlphaGo beat the world’s expert at the game GO – it had been considered unimagable for a computer to beat a human champion in this fiendishly complex game.

It is natural for leaders to think they are indispensable – but are they?

If we look at the challenges facing corporates in the next decade, what are they? They are the big decisions of globalisation – which country is best for what; and digital – strategies that are fit for a digital world, using data analytics, governance and oversight frameworks, and managing the legal and regulatory risks of digital. Even the old focus of ‘staying close to our customer’ now requires data and data management.

So where are CFOs in all this? You would say they should be at the heart of this new digital world? All of the digital challenges sit comfortably within a CFO’s skillset?

Yet in EY’s research only 18% say they make a very significant contribution to the shift to a digital business model and fewer than half are significantly involved.

Qstn 5 contribution to digital image

I believe this is a shocking admission by CFOs. How are they so sidelined in a critical business issue?  We find the answer in another piece of EY’s research looking at the relationship between the CFO and CIO.  In this, CFOs admit the principal barrier to a close relationship with the CIO is their lack of understanding of IT issues.

barriers to IT collaboration image

So what does EY think that CFOs need to be doing about this – they don’t say ‘to avoid becoming redundant’, but I will say this for them.

They have a nine-point plan which includes understanding new digital business models – and new ways of financing these models; leveraging digital technologies within the finance function to improve data processing and reporting; having ‘digital natives’ within their finance team; and working with the board to develop a cyber security strategy.

The one thing they don’t say, to put it brutally, is that if CFOs are to avoid becoming redundant they must themselves own the digital space. They need to understand IT and digital just as they do finance – know the dangers, able to ask the right questions and more importantly, understand and make a judgement about the answers. 

Taking ownership of the digital landscape in their organisation will not only ensure CFOs are relevant and an acknowledged essential leader in their business, it will put them at the heart of the business and the close ally of CEOs.

I look forward to hearing the views of those on our panel – how important do they think this digital ownership is and what do they see as the skills for CFOs of the future.

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

saudi women

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’.

Saudi Vision 2030 logo 1

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.

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?

mm report saudi women final cover

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?

olyan

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.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 goals aim to increase the number of women in the workforce to 30 per cent. All areas of government have been tasked with delivering the strategy, and plans include many ambitious projects such as the scheme to turn a number of Saudi islands into a luxury tourist report.

The Shura Council now includes 30 women members, women’s education has been expanded  and the government is relaxing rules that had previously made it more difficult to hire women – for example, relaxing the driving ban for women. Incidentally the rule change is predicted to save billions of dollars and boost related industries such as car manufacturing.

The women I spoke to for our report, Roads to the Top for Saudi Women, are optimistic for the future and proud of the progress that has been made. But they also had a number of suggestions as to what else the government can do to improve the number of women in the Saudi workforce.

Why the targets are important

The National Transformation Program 2030 outlines future workforce skills and targets to increase the number of women in key sectors.

Each department has targets it must meet and public sector leaders are accountable if these targets are missed. The civil service for example is required to have at least a 42 per cent female workforce with at least five per cent of female senior leaders. Amal Fatani talked about how this has improved female representation, saying, “If you go to a Ministry, if you go to a Sports Commission….look for women.  Women are making a statement. In the health careers you have had women in every single position going up the ladder.”

But she also acknowledged that there is more work to do in the private sector, adding, “Now we have ventured into business because the environment wasn’t ready for women, there was limited jobs, they weren’t very comfortable with the mixed environment in the private sector.” How do we get the private sector to engage with the Vision 2030 gender vision?

Saudization

Government policies can help Saudi women into the workforce.  Saudization requires companies and organizations to employ local Saudi people. It has forced employers to rethink hiring policies and one woman I spoke to was clear about the impact, saying, “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.”

Saudization has provided a “foot in the door” for a lot of women. It is an example of government proactively engaging to encourage more women into the workforce and should help to deliver on the Vision 2030 gender goals.

But what more could be done to help women enter the workforce and help them thrive? Here are two suggestions from those women we spoke to for our report.

1.      Childcare

childcareIn order to take advantages of these new opportunities, women need better childcare facilities. One woman said “we need day care facilities at centres where they [women] can entrust children for short periods, not leaving them with untrained or unqualified help.”

Other governments make it easy for women to go back to work by subsidizing childcare. In the UK, families are offered 30 hours of free childcare per week. Australia offers 15 hours per week  while Italy offers 40 hours. Countries such as Chile and Japan provide help to disadvantaged families.

These offers are part of a trend as countries increasingly recognize the economic advantage of subsidized childcare. The IPPR think tank sums up the argument in favour with a report arguing that universal childcare for preschoolers provides a large return to the state in terms of tax revenue for every woman returning to full time employment.

How could a system like this be implemented in Saudi Arabia and what would it look like?

2.      Restricting gender bias in recruitment

Preventing gender bias in recruitment practices was a suggestion offered by women we spoke to. Hala Kudwah said, “I would like to see that any position being offered is gender-agnostic, and anyone who is qualified can get it.” How could this be achieved in Saudi Arabia?

Other countries have introduced laws that specifically ban gender discrimination or have written it into their constitutions. The UK has the Equality Act, the US has the Civil Rights Act and in South Africa, the constitution commits the state to gender equality and prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.

There is still a lot of debate around the world about how best to encourage more women into leadership positions, with some countries more successful than others. In the US for example, 19 per cent of board members are women while in Japan the figure is just three per cent.

Norway stands out with 35 per cent of board positions being held by a woman, thanks in part to a quota system that requires between 35 percent and 40 percent of board members to be female – with fines or company closures for those who don’t comply. This may seem a drastic step but other countries seem to be following the example – India introduced a quota in 2013 and France Spain and Italy all have similar systems.

Measures to tackle underlying bias in recruitment are possible and doing so could help improve the number of women being recruited. What would the Saudi system look like and how would it be enforced?

Being ambitious

The OECD is clear that there is a strong economic case for improving gender equality, especially in the workforce, and Saudi Arabia is ambitious about improving the numbers of working women. So, it is thrilling to see women stepping up and taking advantage of new opportunities that are helping to strengthen their country’s economy. The government’s commitment to education has produced a pool of talented women and Vision 2030 targets are proving a powerful driver for change. Saudization is making a real difference in opening up new roles – sometimes for the first time.

I am confident that Saudi Arabia can achieve even greater success. An expanded childcare programme would transform women’s ability to pursue a career and thought could be given on how to tackle gender discrimination in the workplace in a way that works for Saudi society. Doing so can only strengthen the economy and will be good for business throughout the Kingdom.

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.

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”.  

amplify

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.

I have been privileged to interview a number of inspirational Saudi female leaders in public, private and non-profit organisations for our new report Roads to the Top for Saudi Women (you can download free from this link). Like these women, I believe Saudi will see a transformation in the workforce over the next decade.

Saudi Vision 2030 logo 1

Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the world, wants more women into work and more into senior positions, to achieve its ambitions of Saudi Vision 2030. What does it need to do to hit its targets and are there lessons for the rest of the world in how to make progress? For all the global initiatives, four in ten businesses in G7 countries still have no women in senior management positions.

My interviews focused on how these women had succeeded and the lessons for other women, what women need to focus on to progress and the role of government, companies and executive search firms.  They also discussed the support from their families and the changing perceptions of working women in society. This report follows on from What makes an outstanding Saudi Chief Executive .

There were three key themes from the interviews. The biggest challenge is how we support women into middle management. This is what will make the biggest difference to increase the pool of talent for senior roles and make the presence of women widespread in the workplace.

Hala Kudwah, consulting leader - KSA Financial Services at PriceWaterhouse Coopers, said: “We need training and to build development paths for women to get middle management off the ground – cashier positions in supermarkets and retail stores may be a start but are not sufficient for building local ability. We need to help women get through this bottle neck called middle-management – there need to be incentives for businesses to do that. I don’t want this just through numbers or window dressing.”

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The other two themes from our interviews were the importance of role models and mentors.  And that women themselves are determined to support the government achieve its Vision 2030 targets - and help their sisters to progress.

HRH Princess Banderi bint Abdulrahman AlFaisal is Director General of the King Khalid Foundation and talked openly about taking on a management position when very young and having to learn by trial and error how to manage her team of men and to delegate. Now she says, “We need to change some of the male and female stereotypes and set roles. People should be equal, it isn’t your gender that matters, it’s what you do and how – and what you contribute to your family and society. We already see two-income households more and more in the country. Our society is changing and both men and women need to be open to change. Female economic empowerment is very important for the future of our country.”

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I have long been an advocate of women in the workplace. I have seen first hand, in more than 20 years of headhunting in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East, that time and again it is the women who are the outstanding candidates on our shortlists. I have been delighted to see them excel in their careers and become wonderful role models to the next generation of women.

The big question is what do we need to do now to increase women’s opportunities? I believe there are three critical areas.

1.      Mentors for newly appointed women

Mentors can be men or women but they need to be more senior and help their mentee to understand how the organisation works, what achievements are valued and how to stand out and be promoted. Also to give them a balanced external view of how they are performing and perceived.

This is something that HR should lead on. They need to ensure every woman in middle management has a formal mentor. Also to encourage female middle managers to look out for and mentor talent in their teams.

A number of women talked about male bosses who had mentored them and what they had learned. They didn’t always agree with their mentor’s views but this objective perspective was extremely helpful.

Women also talked about peer mentoring. As one said, “I read an article that said in the Obama administration they had very few women, so they came up with a strategy to amplify their voice. If May says we should focus on the strategy of expanding in the eastern region then Noura, another woman in the room a few minutes later would repeat what May said to make sure May was heard. It can be as simple as reiterating what somebody else said in a meeting.”

2.      Flexible working patterns

Women talked about the need to balance work and family life, recognising the particular importance of family in Saudi culture.  As one said, “The family unit will always remain the major portion of a holistic, stable society.”

Flexible working patterns will help them achieve this.  Organisations need to focus on the outputs of a job, rather than the hours worked and recognise that working partly from home can be a very successful option in many roles.  For many companies and managers, flexible working means a different way of looking at roles and how individual success is measured and managed.

3.      Hiring talent for skills not experience

One interviewee said, “Headhunters should aim to put forward at least 25% of women for middle and senior roles.” Certainly this is something we are doing whenever we have the candidates – and we actively go looking for female candidates.

However, this is only half the equation. Too often, outstanding female candidates do not precisely fit what the company had in mind for a particular role. They may not have the experience expected, yet would do a super job.

I recently talked to a businesswoman in London about this issue – she had been doing a lot to get more women into UK executive roles and had met a number of headhunters to discuss ideas. She said, “I think headhunters need to do more to persuade companies to change their job specifications. These tend to be written from a male perspective – for instance, a linear corporate career whereas a woman may have done incredibly interesting things that will bring a lot to the job, but not in a corporate way.  And headhunters said that when they put forward ‘wild cards’ – ie women who they thought were great – companies felt they were a risk.  We have to change mindsets and actions here.”

I am keen to share the themes of this report widely, which has many nuggets from these inspirational women.  They also shared their views on how society is changing and the support they have had from mothers and fathers, husbands and their country. Please do share and feedback your views – and I would be happy to speak at events on the findings and add my own thoughts.

What was clear from my interviews is that women are excited about the opportunities in Saudi now. While ten or 20 years ago these women were lonely trailblazers, they are delighted to see hundreds of women working in every kind of job today.  Saudi women are some of the most highly educated and qualified in the world and the Kingdom is one of the global leaders for women in STEM – science, technology and engineering.

What do we need to do now to help the Kingdom use this talent to achieve its Vision2030?

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

 

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?

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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.

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