By: Mohamed Abdel Latief
Without a doubt, in the past few years, Egypt has been witnessing a remarkable era that will certainly be carved in the center of its rich vibrant history.
Economically speaking, this is certainly one of the toughest periods that Egypt has faced for quite some time and perhaps ever. To name just a few of the challenges: rising riots, tourism income setbacks, and Forex dramatic swifts. Throughout all this turmoil, CEOs and Country Business Managers are expected to juggle all the spinning plates; whilst keeping their firms on the map of ‘emerging markets’.
Taking a broader look at the recent business history from industrial revolution till today, many nations suffered similar tough periods; the global recession, World Wars, credit crunch or just national political upheavals. So many lessons can be learnt from how some nations transformed throughout years of pain and agony and turned it all around to an astonishing bright future.
Many critics and business reviewers direct their focus on strategic national aspects of what decisions governments should take; while not doubting the importance of righteous legislations and economical reform that can be brought forward on a national level. There is no second thought on the equal weight of significance for the role of top management for any organization and how their contributions can positively amalgamate to boost the overall national economy.
This is not limited to CEOs and top management, but also to the next couple of levels down from senior executives. While teaching many classes on leadership in Egypt and the Middle East, especially in the arena of change management, I was fortunate to come across several leaders who inspired me with one striking conclusion: the secret to their success was always about getting the basics right, doing what is right for the people, the organization, and the brand.
Personally, I frequently get fascinated with the level of sophistication in the models presented in many “Leadership in Tough Times” articles; yet once I put my books aside and stand in a room full of people, I stumble over the fact that ‘Getting-real’ is the name of the game. You have to press all the right buttons rather than attempting to sound like a Harvard lecturer or a Bloomberg Analyst. And ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘easy’; as Steve Jobs always echoed; “Simple can be harder than complex”.
In the spirit of this ‘simple’ philosophy, I will lay out a recipe to illustrate a mix of effective leadership practices that I have seen exhibited by leaders facing turbulent times in the Middle East:
Above all else - doing what is right for the people and the organization!
1. Listen, Listen and Listen more
I have seen some leaders campaigning for what they call “Hearing sessions” and yet they end up doing most of the talking themselves! I believe listening for leaders is not just a skill but is also an attitude. As a skilled listener you can show your audience you are attentive, and the good attitude of being truly attentive and not faking it. Another listening skill could be asking the right kind of questions that provoke critical thinking. A good attitude is asking ‘genuine’ questions rather than ‘smart question’ as smart questions only serve to glorify those who bestow the question.
During tough times you need to get the basics right and for this to happen you will need to uncover the true root-cause of problems, excavate for unseen opportunities and get around with some out-of-the-box groundbreaking boosts. All these types of inputs usually rise bottom-up in any organization if employees are encouraged to speak up and contribute. As a measure of your listening effectiveness, if you are not stumbling over at least one encounter a day where you say to yourself “This is really interesting”, “I never thought of this before”, or “let’s try it” then you still need to improve.
2. Campaign for a shared and relevant cause
No matter what level of audience you talk to, explain directions in terms of long-term vision and strategy. While explaining your organizational strategy you are not only clarifying the way forward but also providing your team with the rightfulness of what your company or firm stands for. This is key for individuals to connect to, especially in tough times. Adopting a company’s mission is such a crucial mandate for leaders to the extent that Jack Ma (Founder of Alibaba) once said; “It doesn’t matter if I failed. At least I passed the concept on to others. Even if I don’t succeed, someone else will”.
3. Create and safeguard the right environment
Like the human body, a healthy work environment gives your organization immunity in times of turmoil against whatever behavioral germs you might think of: lack of team morale, complacency with poor performance, office gossip, etc. Work environment is not about the organizational hygiene factors as in employee’s benefits or even a friendly workspace but rather how do employees interact on a daily basis and how do they feel towards their managers, subordinates and teammates.
As a top leader your role goes beyond simply making sure the performance appraisal system works, or the company’s values program, or how HR KPIs are nicely presented during quarterly review meetings. Your role certainly scales up to creating the proper culture that invites, trains and empowers line managers to implement these drivers in their everyday work with their teams. Line Managers are the artists who paint your culture’s identity. If they get it right then you have got the job done. You will need to ask yourself: Are your line managers encouraged to implement such behaviors? Are they capable of doing it? And do they have the right tools, resources and decision-making capacity to implement the right kind of behaviors?
This leadership capability of safeguarding the proper work culture is even more important in tough times, as many top executives during turmoil fall into the trap of “survival mentality”. With such a mindset they focus too much on bottom line and tend to unconsciously skip what is important for their people or their brands.
4. Absolutely avoid anything that divides
Does it sound obvious? Then please do it! If you have a hobby of expressing your own personal opinion on how things happen, or if you think a polite civilized debate on a limited-invite business lunch would help break the ice, then you will have to let those habits go. In this crazy social media era and fertile gossip making environment, any word or hint you express may be stripped off its context and reshaped into something that could disappoint members of your team, your clients or your consumers. I see many leaders that fail to do so, and believe that they have the right to have a personal point of view shared openly, and/or believing they can segregate their personal views from their business welfare.
I always ask anyone who thinks so to run a little experiment: Sit down with a bunch of people who initially don’t know each other but you know they just happen to have opposing personal views. Then lock your emotional involvement away and let them have their debate. You will see them easily becoming polarized and divided. Then comes the interesting part: Open another topic of discussion, and you will see people continue to subtly hold onto their points of view against others, even if there is no reason to dispute the new subject. Avoiding what divides doesn’t only protect against unnecessary morale damage but actually offers those rivals a safe harbor point to gather around you and unite for other valuable causes where everyone can relate.
Secondly… Doing what is right for your brand and the marketplace!
1. Let go of legacy stories!
Things change and what worked perfectly in the past may not be the exact answer for today’s problem. Many organizations and senior leaders just fail because they were unconsciously becoming too arrogant to get the new pulse right! It is worth mentioning that leadership practices hold true for external stakeholders whenever applicable, so for example in this case you should listen very carefully to your consumers. You may need to break some rigid and established marketing molds that lasted for decades in order to be flexible to these changes.
2. Educating your consumers and investors is more important
Whether you sell your products or services to the out-of-pocket market or you sell to private or national organizations. Despite the huge economical pressure allowing for less purchasing options, buyers still make wrong decisions, and those decisions become more costly as it drains out resources quicker and makes recovery from these mistakes even tougher for both the consumers and the organization. For example, despite the narrowing purchasing capabilities of middle class families we easily see many still split their spending unwisely.
So items like health or family nutrition might get compromised for the sake of some leisure or unnecessary items! Reality is that the consumer is not the one to blame, those consumers were left alone making those decisions without companies empowering them with the right and genuine non-marketing information that will enable them to make the right purchasing decisions.
It’s a pity to see some companies make savings on education campaigns while continuing to spend ridiculous amounts on above the line advertising. If you believe you own a good product or service, then you need to recognize that a funny limerick and a good-looking model are not enough to sustain a return on investment. You are competing for every single pound coming out of the buyer’s pocket and hence it is better to play towards the well being of the consumer.
3.Thrive not survive!
In describing his philosophy of risk taking, Mark Zuckerberg oncesaid, “In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks”. Despite being in tough times, you will need to stop searching for calm water and predictable weather, as having a growth mentality, rather than a survival one is absolutely essential. In fact, economical turmoil is perfect timing for marketplace transformation and changing the rules of the game, so don’t limit yourself to the transitional playbook. For instance, in the energy market perhaps investing in renewable energy is the right answer, especially in the presence of the gigantic Benban project in Aswan.
Or, if you are in tourism then you might need to take your offerings to a brand-new level in order to compete with markets like Spain or South France rather than just competing for the same old cake of Russian/Italian or traditional Arab families.
Finally, I would conclude with saying that lessons from recent history in different parts of the world clearly show us that living a tough economical era is not a few-bumps-on-the-road story, the road ‘is’ bumpy all the way and it is a long one to go. There are no head starts or short cuts, yet it is amazing how almost all stories draw back to one same center of gravity; “In times of crisis those who show true colors of courage, perseverance, passion and determination to succeed have a much better chance of winning”.
About the Author
Mohamed has worked widely across the MENA region for the past 18 years. He is a pharmacist with experience in working as a senior executive for multinationals. The last position held was Country Business Manager at Nestlé. He is currently working as a freelance consultant, whilst managing his own private business, as well as pursuing a Masters Degree in Physics and teaching at the AUC.