The Wisdom of Leaders

OER asked some of Oman’s most influential CEOs about the best management lessons that they had learnt; how it helped them in managing their companies; and the seminal event that shaped their thinking, the challenges that honed their strategies. They share their insights, stories and wisdom in running corporations, building institutions, and managing people.  Muhammed Nafie reports
    

 

Turning challenges into opportunities

Leadership is all about showing resilience in difficulty, learning and rebounding from failure and recognising that little is achieved by oneself

Raoul Restucci, Managing Director, Petroleum Development Oman
Raoul Restucci, Managing Director, Petroleum Development Oman

 

Management is about lifelong learning, finding solutions or strategies that fit different circumstances and different challenges. One common thread, however, is to keep it simple and clear for all those impacted and aligned on what success looks like. Above all, ensure what you are trying to achieve is valuable and viable for all impacted parties.

Never-ending journey

You have to recognise that the pursuit of excellence is a never-ending journey. That it’s not about individuals but how all related parties work together, and that delivery of true and lasting value requires understanding, championship and integration of multi-stakeholder needs. You should never accept the status quo, and strive for continuous learning, continuous improvement in performance, and a ruthless focus in addressing internal aspirations and external expectations.

Challenging oneself

Leadership is about showing resilience in difficulty, learning and rebounding from failure and recognising that little is achieved by oneself. It’s also about turning challenges into opportunities, in discovering and unleashing the inner strengths of all those around you.

On strategy, it’s about challenging oneself, the team and the organisation that we all have the right and responsibility to deliver differentiating and sustainable value irrespective of changing circumstances (for example, in pursuing enablers to oil and gas development that are non-dependent on oil and gas prices). In developing any strategy, it’s about recognising strengths and weaknesses in our capacity and capabilities and truly listening to understand and acting on enablers and constraints to aspired results.

And finally on life guiding mentors, it’s like asking where infinity extends to. Each day, each interaction, each opportunity to provide more challenge or more support, to family, colleagues, subordinates or supervisors alike, is a wonderful learning and development opportunity. The more role models we seek and discover, understand and try to emulate, the more we enrich ourselves and hopefully those around us.

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Know your employees

Understand what motivates your employees, who they are and what they do.  It will help you know their needs and expectations of the organisation

Yousuf Al-Ojaili, Head of Country and President, BP Oman
Yousuf Al-Ojaili, Head of Country and President, BP Oman

 

I’ve been leading teams and people for almost 20 years and over that time, I’ve learnt many management lessons, but the best lesson I’ve learnt is knowing my employees. Understanding what motivates them, who they are and what they do helps me and other leaders understand their needs and expectations of the organisation. It’s not an easy thing to do, particularly in an organisation like BP Oman where we have over 800 employees plus contractors, in addition to those we work with outside of Oman in BP globally. Getting to know your people is best done in an informal setting such as at their desks, lunchtime, over coffee or while visiting the field. I can say, I’m in the middle of this journey.

Two-way communications

Ensuring we understand our people and what motivates them helps us to remove barriers and ensure two way communications. It allows our people to feel comfortable in raising ideas or even concerns. Knowing our employees leads to a healthy, happy and productive work place which supports BP in achieving its long-term goals.

The seminal event that shaped me

In June 2007, Oman was hit by Cyclone Gonu, considered to be one of the country’s worst natural disasters. I was working for a former employer at the time. Rain and winds of up to 160km/h had caused significant damage to the main and only gas pipeline feeding the Al Ghubrah power and desalination plant in Muscat. We had to act quickly despite roads being seriously damaged. We could not identify, assess or access the pipeline area.

It was challenging for many people in the country – family, friends and colleagues. Many people were without electricity and water due to the ruptured pipeline. I was inspired by everyone rallying together in the face of adversity. The Royal Oman Police (ROP) helping with resources and mobilsing helicopters within a few minutes of our requests; employees leaving their families and damaged homes to stand with us; all working together towards a common goal to find a solution to ensure Muscat had clean water and electricity. We delivered a positive outcome in a very short time despite all the difficulties.

This event really shaped the rest of my life as an individual and as a leader. I am now a better planner, a better crisis manager, and more importantly appreciative of the difference it makes when you have a strong, knowledgeable and loyal team working with you.

The mentors who have guided me along the way, also became good friends. Those who provided me with advice when I was at the beginning of my career, those I turned to advice as I’ve advanced through my career and those who still to this day continue to provide me with advice. We still help each other in sharing our knowledge and varying experiences which have shaped my leadership journey. Thanks to those good friends – they know who they are.

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Look beyond traditional strategies

Be more dynamic in your approach to business strategy and explore inorganic and out-of-the-box growth opportunities

Salaam Al Shaksy, CEO of Alizz Islamic Bank
Salaam Al Shaksy, CEO of Alizz Islamic Bank

 

Having faced at least three economic shocks of different natures and recently a growing threat to the financial service sector in the form of disruptive Fintech, I have gained considerable respect for active and effective risk management. Furthermore, you have to learn to be a lot more dynamic in your approach to business strategy – exploring inorganic and even out-of-the-box growth.

Dynamic approach

From the above lessons learnt, I have integrated risk management into the strategy development process. Also, we manage strategy in a dynamic manner, constantly applying necessary tweaks and amendments to address the ever evolving and fast changing local and global markets. Finally, we are constantly on the lookout for inorganic growth opportunities, as well as embracing technologies that help significantly differentiate our business.

Turning challenges into opportunities

As mentioned before, I have learnt ever so much from these different types of financial / economic crises I have faced – as well as organisational challenges such as turn-around management and mergers / acquisitions. Additionally, I believe my short experience in private equity and investments in the Islamic finance space gave me a huge boost to my ability to look for business growth opportunities beyond traditional strategies of organic growth.

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Leading by example

You don’t lead people by what you say to them; you lead them by what they see you do. So, never separate the life you live from the words you speak

Reggy Vermeulen, CEO, Port of Duqm
Reggy Vermeulen, CEO, Port of Duqm

 

The best leaders lead by example. It is essential that the team and the company trust the leader and there is no better way to gain trust than by applying to yourself what you ask from others. As an example of this for me, I learn to operate all the piece of equipment in our port. That allows me to understand what everybody in our company is doing, even the blue collars; and this shows also that I value and appreciate equally all the employees regardless of what they are doing for the company.

Courage is contagious

In the recent years, following the oil price decrease, the company needed to participate in the national cost reduction efforts. For that, we have reduced and tightened some of the benefits that were offered to our employees. This, for example, included travel class or levels of hotel to stay in. Once the company saw that the entire management including the CEO was following the new rules, it became much more acceptable that we all needed to do an effort regardless of the position in the company. This was only possible, if you apply to the CEO what you ask to the rest of the company.

The right to make mistakes

When I took over a company as a CEO for the first time, the chairman of the board told me that only people who don’t try, do make mistakes and therefore I was never going to be penalised by mistakes as long as they would never be repeated. This has been one of the most important event for me, as from that moment I have never been afraid to take a decision and take full accountability, as I knew that I had the right to make mistakes. This is something that I pass on to my company now. I need to be surrounded by colleagues who are not afraid to initiate changes for the best of the company.

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Don’t bite off more than you can chew

Shifting away from the comfort zone is extremely challenging but remaining there is even more dangerous for the long-term sustainability of any organisation

Qais Saud Al Zakwani, Executive Director, Authority for Electricity Regulation
Qais Saud Al Zakwani, Executive Director, Authority for Electricity Regulation

 

Individuals are the most important asset in any organisation; so listening both passively, by making yourself visible and accessible, and actively by continuously engaging with colleagues, is an essential aspect of any manager. Most managers fall into the trap of isolation and by detaching yourself from your colleagues, you have only yourself to blame for any unpleasant surprises. Seeing a colleague I have mentored and coached work their way up the professional ladder gives me a sense of fulfillment by knowing that I played a small part in their achievement. I am also a firm believer that an individual’s aspirations must be bigger than the organisational ones and there comes a time when an individual outgrows an organisation and should be brave enough to leave and move to bigger challenges. On the other hand, the leader of an organisation must ensure the institutional memory is spread across the organisation and not confined to a specific individual.

Don’t lose focus

One of the most important insights is that I never bite off more than I can chew regardless of how attractive the plate looks because I firmly believe that if you are excelling at what you do then opportunities will always appear. On the other hand, you may jeopardise your professional credibility by undertaking too many tasks at the same time and losing focus. One must work hard to strike a balance between his personal and professional life and always make time for himself. That’s easier said than done, but I dedicate time almost every day to play some type of sport. It helps me rejuvenate my thoughts and get rid of any negativity that tends to weigh me down at times. I would like to stress the importance of enjoying what you are doing because that reflects on your colleagues and helps cascade the positivity through your organisation. Nobody wants to see a grim and unhappy face leading their organisation at work every day.

Don’t shy away from challenges

From an institutional perspective, I would say never shy away from pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo. Institutions through time, like individuals, tend to succumb to a comfort zone that implicitly dictates the culture of the organisation. Shifting away from that comfort zone is extremely challenging but remaining there is even more dangerous for the long-term sustainability of any organisation. You will not succeed in every initiative, decision or action but always ensure the organisation learns from those experiences and is better equipped to overcome similar challenges in the future. Lastly, I would also say take time and think extremely carefully before recruiting an individual to join your organisation. You need to make sure that their aspirations fit your organisation’s aspirations.

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Eureka moments are very, very rare

Success is a function of excellence, innovation in the mundane and routine. As the cliché goes, success is 99 per cent perspiration and 1 per cent inspiration

Aftab Patel, CEO, Al Omaniya Financial Services
Aftab Patel, CEO, Al Omaniya Financial Services

 

People don’t listen to what you say; they do what you do, and therefore you have to set the example at the very top. Both the vision and the rot start at the top, therefore it is very important that you practice what you preach. Set high standards of personal behaviour, integrity, honesty and truthfulness in all your dealings.

The next step is to bring a high-degree of common sense, tech expertise and market intelligence in both defining your goals and executing the plans. If you don’t have the conviction, your team does not get the conviction either. So the belief and conviction start at the very top.

Trust and credibility matter

Once you realise the fundamental truth of managing and sustaining businesses through a team, trust and credibility play a very significant role. Your team rises to the level of competence of the belief you have in them, so providing conviction, trust and stability facilitates their work by creating the right environment. Expect high and people will rise to the belief you have in them.

Keen observer

I have been largely a self-made man, governed by my own internal quest for excellence and success. The key element is how badly you want something, have fire in your belly, have one-track mind and are consumed by the passion to succeed.

I have been a keen observer which has allowed me to learn from the pitfalls, validated my thinking process and honed in crafting a successful strategy. I also believe in discussing issues openly and taking into consideration varied views, ideas and finally making up my own mind.

Very rarely is there a eureka moment or a seminal event. Success and excellence are all about performing consistently and continually through a series of small tasks in a very efficient way. Success is not about a very big idea or one big event. Success is a function of excellence, innovation in the mundane and routine. As the cliché goes success is 99 per cent perspiration and 1 per cent inspiration.

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Tapping People’s Potential

Human resource is the most dynamic wherewithal to run an organisation, because it’s instrumental in managing all other resources such as money, machines, methods and materials; and unlike others, it holds immense value and an indefinite array of potential

Dr Mohammed Mahmood Al Balushi, CEO, Shell Oman Marketing Co
Dr Mohammed Mahmood Al Balushi, CEO, Shell Oman Marketing Co

 

There are many lessons that I have learnt throughout my career, but the most influential among them has been the value of manpower as a key resource in running an organisation. There are several resources that a leader or manager leverages to run a company which includes working capital, machineries, technologies, methods, processes, materials and manpower. Of these, human resources is the most dynamic resource, mainly because of two reasons: Firstly, as it is instrumental in managing all other resources; and secondly, because unlike other resources which have a fixed value, definite role or are designed to have a specific capacity, human resources have an indefinite array of potential to tap, that hold immense value and which appreciate over time. If motivated properly, people can deliver beyond their capacity. Motivated people can do wonders, and can amaze you with what they can deliver. Therefore, I have always accorded top priority to nourishing people and developing them. People are not numbers, and should always be treated as individuals. When people realise that they can deliver more than what they hitherto believed they could, it can take an organisation to a different level.

Be able to dare and care

That is the best management lesson I have learnt and applied at my organisation. While daring to make hard and tough decisions, you need to care for people, and this is why our people have enabled us to deliver above target and ahead of schedule several times; despite a challenging environment or an economic slowdown. At Shell Oman Marketing Company, we believe that our people are important; and we hence value them, take care of them in all aspects, invest in them, develop them and give them the tools that enable them to deliver. We constantly strive to make the organisation a better place for our people so that we can retain them. That’s not all – we also strive to create an engaging work environment and a culture of integration, diversity and inclusiveness, so that they are excited to get up in the morning and come to work with a clear purpose, and a strong belief in their integral roles and valuable contribution to Shell Oman’s journey of success, that in turn helps them meet their own purpose and aspirations.

Life never stops teaching

It can be considered unfair and unrealistic to ascribe your leadership skills to one event or an incident or a single mentor for that matter. A leader is moulded by a combination of exposures throughout one’s professional and personal life. Your thoughts, perceptions, philosophy and outlook are broadened by a plethora of experiences and exposures in your career as well as in your personal life. What has shaped me is the collective or accumulated experiences, interactions and exposures that I encountered throughout my career and personal life. What shaped me is not just my career; but a holistic combination of what I collected throughout my life- which includes my academic life, my workplace exposures and most importantly my day-to-day interactions in my personal life – all this and more have contributed in creating the individual that I am today.

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The power is in people

The success or failure of a company comes down to its people and how their energy is harnessed and directed

Sayyid Wasfi bin Jamshid Al Said, Acting CEO, National Bank of Oman
Sayyid Wasfi bin Jamshid Al Said, Acting CEO, National Bank of Oman

 

Leading any organisation is not without its challenges. A financial institution fulfills a basic societal need within a community, but the difference is determined by how these organisations go beyond what is expected and instead provide solutions and services that make things easier for people.

Throughout my experience, the most important thing I have come to realise is that the success of an organisation is dependent on its people, the passion they have, and the purpose they serve. As a leader, it is imperative to ensure that the individuals you bring on board are those who are most suitable for the position and the values the organisation lives by. That does not necessarily refer only to their expertise or experience, by identifying the right type of qualities and values you want to see in your team, and recruiting those individuals who are energetic, passionate and have a positive attitude. They must have the willingness to do something different when what they are doing is not working. They must believe in themselves and in the company’s mission and be excited by the vision the leadership has set for the organisation as a whole.

Unlocking potential

Being a mentor who provides direction, constructive feedback and encouragement is also very important. It is the CEO’s role to set the tone for the entire organisation. After assuring management is aligned with their thinking and methods, those within management must ensure that that alignment permeates through the entire organisation, with everyone moving in the same direction. This is no easy task, but it is an extremely critical aspect to ensuring that customers can rely on receiving the same level of service across each department. Part of my job is to realise the potential people have, unlocking that potential, releasing the energy within them and directing it into positive and constructive outcomes which are energising and inspiring.

Organisations function based on the trust within them. They move at the speed of trust. Team members must have faith in their leadership and their colleagues. Leadership must have the confidence to rely on their teams in order to ensure the maximum output of positive energy. As an organisation, it is imperative that you continue to move towards the mission. Of course, there are times when you have to take a step back and reflect. It is important to constantly ask the right questions, identify areas for improvement or repair and proactively engineer solutions designed to make our customers’ lives better.

Valuing and respecting individuals

In the end, the success or failure of a company comes down to its people and how their energy is harnessed and directed. When we come to work feeling valued, like we have a common purpose and are working towards a positive goal, it drives us to dedicate ourselves and do better together. My father raised me to treat every single person with respect, irrespective of their background. He often said, “When a person is courteous enough to come and greet you, have the decency to stand up and shake their hand.” It is as simple as that. Valuing and respecting individuals is something I try to implement every day, and it has made me understand that the power of positive transformation is in the people.

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Let the life mentor you

There will be good days and bad days. But you have the power to write the script of your life in accordance with your preferences

Hussain Mohammed Al Lawati, CEO of OMASCO
Hussain Mohammed Al Lawati, CEO of OMASCO

 

During the last 20 years, I have worked for the various industries and come across a variety of managers/leaders and styles. Apparently, there would be many lessons that one could acquire from these broad spectrum of experiences. Discipline, decisiveness and thinking out of the box are some of them that stand out. Another important lesson is to make sure that sometimes you have to go against ‘business as usual’ and challenge the norms. And finally, not only as a management lesson but also as a life lesson, I have learned and experienced that by respecting those around you can gain their respect back and it will help you to progress in your professional and personal life.

Three fundamentals

With the diversity of people and the depth of culture in OMASCO, it was imperative that change is driven in a structured, scientific and also an artistic model. Using the three fundamentals mentioned helped me in driving a deep rooted organisation with a team of professional with many years of experience. A lot more to go when an era of turnaround kicks in and some change of style is required to enhance managing the drive further. So respect with a list of deliverables and objectives in mind would mostly be a successful recipe to reach targets.

Make the right choices

Life is a mentor by itself, and the variety of industries that I came across and worked in, guided me in many ways to shape my way forward. There are always good days and bad days, and you need to be the writer and director of your own progress and life, and make the right choices. I continue to learn and create opportunities for learning whether on job or scientific/academic/ book learnings. Different people of different professional backgrounds teach you every day, if you come close to them and give them a chance to add value to your life. It doesn’t matter who your mentor is or what his/her background is. What matters is which lessons you learn from them and how those lessons add value to you, and help you to grow a step further.

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Igniting individuals

Never underestimate what individuals can accomplish, when they are provided with a supportive environment, clear guidance and confidence in their ability

Lawrence Good, CEO, Mercedes-Benz Oman
Lawrence Good, CEO, Mercedes-Benz Oman

 

The automobile industry is a customer-centered one. While, of course innovation plays an enormous role on the quality of our products, we are a service-oriented business and our goal is always to provide superior experiences for our customers.

Our business does not transact through a depersonalised digital sales channel like Amazon or ebay. Nothing wrong with these hugely successful businesses, but if you order a book on Amazon and you don’t like it, it’s not such a big deal. However, if you order a new car online and you get it wrong then that is an expensive and negative experience.

That is why I fundamentally believe that people matter in the car industry. Customers need the assurance and confidence that only well trained and dedicated staff can deliver. It is one of the biggest purchases most people make in their lifetimes and so, they need the best advice possible on vehicle options, safety features, servicing requirements and the list goes on.

With Mercedes-Benz, we also represent a class leading global brand that manufactures beautifully designed and supremely engineered vehicles. However, I also believe people buy from people that build long-term and trusting personal relationships and that is something you do not experience when buying products online without any human interaction.

Never underestimate individuals

One thing I realised early on in my career is the importance of individuals; that everything happens by, with or through people. I have learned to never underestimate what individuals can accomplish, when they are provided with a supportive environment, clear guidance and confidence in their ability. I believe in creating opportunities for our team members, to learn, grow and develop. This has been my approach at Mercedes-Benz Oman; commending my team’s achievements, empowering them, bringing the best out of them and encouraging them to deliver the highest standards.

The personal brand and product experience is what our customers expect and that is what we aim to deliver every single day through our dedicated team in Mercedes-Benz Oman.

A roller coaster

Neither life nor career is on a linear path; in fact it is more like a roller coaster. We all face ups and downs either in our personal lives or in our careers and one thing I have learnt is the importance of turning challenges into opportunities. At Mercedes-Benz Oman, I am focused on creating solutions and the possibilities of what can be accomplished, instead of focusing on our failures. This has helped me go beyond fulfilling my role, and I like to think that this attitude has helped me exceed expectations and drive our organisation to continuously deliver on the promises we make.

I value innovation and realise the impact it has on making our world better. As a mentor, I look to Karl Benz, who designed and built the first practical automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine. As an avid bicycle rider and mechanic, it was while he was riding his bike that he fantasied about a completely mechanised vehicle. What others would have considered a far-fetched dream, he made a reality. This has always inspired me and continues to guide me.

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Learning never ends

Constantly work towards creating a culture which focuses on a happy environment at the workplace

 

: N S Vijaya Kumar, CEO, Infrastructure Group- Khimji Ramdas
N S Vijaya Kumar, CEO, Infrastructure Group- Khimji Ramdas

 

I believe that learning is a continuous process and that perhaps is the best management lesson that I have learnt. As I approach my formal retirement by the end of the month from executive positions after more than four decades of a very satisfying career, three important learnings come to fore: Look for solutions which have a win-win paradigm for most, if not all the, stake holders. And look for sustainable solutions, not quick fixes. Appreciate that management is contextual; there is never one solution that fits all issues. Constantly work towards creating a culture which focuses on a happy environment at the workplace.

Integrate yourself to the institution

I have been fortunate to be working with an institution like Khimji Ramdas; a 100 per cent family-owned enterprise, which is 148 years old. I thought to myself that if this firm had such a pedigree, then surely it must have followed some management practices consistently. And when I internalised these practices, it helped me to integrate myself to the institution while still retaining my individuality. It helped me to align myself to the vision that leads to greater empowerment and growth for the businesses.

A galaxy of mentors

The event which sounded a clarion call for me to act was when I underwent a quadruple bypass surgery. Staring at the multiple tubes after my surgery, I asked myself a very harsh question: Will I be missed? Yes, my family and friends would miss me if I was gone, but at the workplace, I felt like I hadn’t created any significant legacy that would have been associated with me. That was nine years back. And when I returned to work with a fresh infusion of energy, clarity and determination, things at the workplace too started looking up. And together with the help of the continuous guidance and encouragement of the Khimji family, the love, affection and commitment of all my colleagues and the support of all our customers and other business associates, we have created what we are proud of. So, these are my real mentors.


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