Raja Assili, chief operations officer at HEC Paris, holds a BA degree in business administration and economics from Richmond University, an MSc in finance and accounting from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and an MSc in management and business research methods from Kingston University. He shares his vast personal experience and academic knowledge on how to make a highly diversified workplace work.
Qatar, and the GCC in general, is a melting pot of nations and cultures. Consequently there is no implicit common ground on how things should be done and what is appropriate or expected in a professional/workplace relationship. How should a leader tackle this?
I have been involved in various GCC based companies for over 20 years: startups, mature companies, large and small. Invariably, the workforce in each case was drawn from all corners of the world. Such workplace diversity brings creativity, different perspectives, competencies and experiences, and many more benefits which should be harnessed. If mismanaged, workplace diversity can also give rise to obstacles or barriers, low productivity, conflict and miscommunication.
In my experience, GCC employers deal with workplace diversity by expecting employees to be assimilative and embrace the workplace’s predominant culture, its policies and procedures. This is understandable seen from an employer’s perspective, as it is a more practical approach than trying to satisfy so many nationalities and cultures.
A good leader should endeavor to strike the right balance between standardization and assimilation while doing enough to promote the value of workplace diversity. The workplace in the GCC is more than an office; we work in an environment which inevitably involves interacting with other people’s lives and cultures. It is therefore important to recognize, respect and value workplace diversity by having it reflected in an organization’s policies and procedures.
Above all, it’s important to remember that our customers and external stakeholders are likely to be just as culturally diverse as our own workforce, a key consideration in client relations.
Are there/should there be any specifics in a leadership-style within a local and an international company?
Whether you work in a local or international company in the GCC, the workforce demographics will likely be similar. I believe that a leader’s guiding principle should be integrity. A good leader should be more focused on finding similarities between cultures rather than emphasizing differences. Spend time understanding what makes a culture what it is: values, practices, hierarchies, concepts of time, attitudes are all important. As you become more informed, your leadership style will adapt.
In addition, organizations in the GCC have a tendency to be quite hierarchical. It’s important for the leadership to avoid drifting too far away from the reality of day-to-day operations. Spending time occasionally on the ‘shop floor’ will nearly always give you a different and useful perspective.
The main reason for people working in the GCC are high salaries and generous benefits; from a psychological point of view this is THE most shaky foundation to build loyalty on, as there is always somebody who can pay more.
What do you recommend companies offer that could be even more important than financial compensation?
Financial reward is an important factor for many people working in the GCC, but there are also many non-financial benefits which attract employees to the region. Employee retention requires sound strategies, short and long term.
Employee satisfaction is a vital element in employee retention. Fair performance assessments and career growth opportunities are also important. Employees who feel valued, satisfied, and engaged will expect a higher financial premium to be enticed elsewhere.
How should a leader handle workplace conflicts?
Fairly, objectively and ethically. Having a solid frame of reference in the form of policies and regulations will give you a solid foundation. Make sure your policies are reviewed on a regular basis; the GCC is a dynamic environment and you can soon find that your rulebook is outdated. Make sure that due process is followed and documented and observe the rule of law at all times. Be aware of the power of the precedent and try to be as consistent as possible.
Stealing talent from competition is an HR practice everywhere, but much more pronounced in the GCC where talent is lacking in almost every field. What can a good leader do to prevent this?
Talent poaching is common practice, even more so in labour markets where demand outstrips supply. The same principles apply here as in the previous question on employee retention.
Having said this, we must not lose sight that employee loyalty and length of service are also remarkably high in the GCC, particularly in family owned conglomerates which make up around 70 percent of businesses in the region.
A lot of people see their managers/heads as not motivated or loyal themselves. (i.e. “We had a dissatisfied customer (in a PR firm) and my boss said – oh, don’t worry, it will blow over. We didn’t do anything to improve our service”). A good leader sets the standard of quality in the organization.
There should be zero tolerance for mediocre work or complacency and you should never take your customers for granted.
The quality of output across the organization should be monitored regularly and any lapses addressed swiftly. It is nothing short of commercial suicide for managers to be seen by their peers or employees as unmotivated or lacking loyalty. This will quickly spread throughout the organization.
Expats often complain that nationals of GCC states do not mix readily with foreigners. For most people who work in the private sector, belonging is limited to work and a group of friends. This can be frustrating and tends to alienate people. Can this also be an opportunity for a good leader to offer a kind of substitute citizenship to his employees?
As I stated earlier, the workplace in the GCC is more than an office environment, but a place where nationalities and cultures converge. I believe it is misjudged to say that GCC nationals do not readily mix.
GCC nationals are amongst the most welcoming people I know. They have accepted expatriates in ever increasing numbers. In the context of the workplace, a good leader should recognize this and respect the norms of cultural assimilation. He should be the one to instigate links amongst people that will promote camaraderie and friendships, while respecting professional working relationships.
On the other hand, most nationals in the current workforce are among the first members of their family to work in a corporate environment. They have historically worked in the public sector or dukkan-style businesses. They too need a special attention and (historical and cultural) understanding. How should a leader motivate them?
Many of the family conglomerates which account for a large portion of economic activity in the GCC states started out as small enterprises and evolved over decades to become the business champions that they are today. For those embarking on the entrepreneurship road now, it is important to have the right kind of advice, mentoring and support at hand to facilitate the transition from the public sector or small scale businesses to a bigger going concern in a competitive environment.
GCC based businesses are fortunate to have a thriving regional market, however, it is also important to be able to leverage value from overseas partners and markets.
A good leader should appreciate that developing such a business requires a blend of skills and experience involving local, regional and international know-how.
How important it is to educate leading personne /managers on the leadership skills and what does HEC Paris offer in this regard?
HEC Paris is ranked number one in the world for Executive Education by the Financial Times in 2014. This is an affirmation of the high quality and standards of the programs we offer to both aspiring and top business executives. The importance of educating leading personnel has been further emphasized by a study conducted by the World Bank last year, wherein it stated that higher education is a very important element for emerging markets because it increases the scales necessary to participate in the global economy, encourages innovation, social mobility and creates even democratic and innovative leadership.
For Qatar, with the Qatar National Vision 2030 plan geared towards moving from a carbon-based economy into a knowledge based economy, education is definitely one of the key drivers that will ensure success of this transition. Accordingly, we offer our Executive MBA and Specialized Master Degree in Strategic Business Unit Management, as well as non-degree management programmes for executives in the form of open enrollment programmes and custom-designed programmes for individual companies.