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Embracing change at the core of the new Middle Eastern economies

As the region gets ready for a more diversified economy, leaders are expected to establish a culture of trust, says change and innovation expert Laura Trendall-Morrison.

The Middle East has been witnessing a myriad of changes recently, mainly due to the large-scale transition that’s been taking place economically in the region. Such changes have been occurring on many levels, starting initially in every country’s vision, and trickling down to cities, communities, businesses and the population at large.

For governments looking to provide better stability and a better future for their countries, there is a strong social contract in terms of securing a solid support system including pensions, health care and education. This clearly needs to be funded as demographics change, with an older aging population due to retire, and the same health challenges of lifestyle diseases we see elsewhere. There is also a high proportion of young talent (60% of the population are under 25). However, the issue can be retention, as many seek travel and opportunities in other countries.  Transitioning to a diversified economy stimulates job creation and proposes new opportunities in the labour market.

This in return generates a shift in attitudes from spending to solving problems, to looking to address issues of efficiency and effectiveness, by looking at how people, systems and processes are managed in public institutions. One  reflection of this approach is the Dubai World Expo 2020, which has only kicked-off in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The event  has been many years in the planning and brings together contributions from 200 countries. It centres on three core themes:

  • Mobility: which encompasses technology and the increased freedom for travel and movement.
  • Opportunity: to represent education and innovation in the region, as well as opportunities for companies to expand into the region as part of creating a global footprint.
  • Sustainability: which is about promoting the green agenda and is an opportunity to reposition the region to be more directly active in global challenges and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The mindset for change

It is worth noting, however, that change can only be successful when it is aligned with a shift in mindsets, and the key to that is to start by modelling growth, ambition and innovation in existing organisations and institutions.

Growth requires challenge, and traditionally the culture and society has been hierarchical with little challenges to norms and the status quo.  There has also traditionally been a reliance on big consultancies to direct the changes, rather than investment and development in the existing and upcoming leaders in industries. This is now changing, new initiatives have encouraged investment and development in the local workforce, as well as strong investment and support for higher education in the region to develop the skills needed for the new economy.

Working with leaders, I start most engagements with a look at the core purpose of the organisation they lead.  We then go through a questioning process – why does that matter, who does it matter to, and what difference are they truly making?  Often, the difference is to promote economic security, peace, improve people’s quality of life – and this creates an emotional connection with the core work of the organisation, which is very much appreciated in Middle Eastern culture.

Through this shift in seeing work and purpose differently we can inspire and enable leaders and employees to bring forward their best ideas and be more creative and expansive, as well as execute their initiatives with greater focus and commitment.

Another issue, embedded culturally in the region, can be resistance to the very change that’s happening.  So by coaching on the skills of change management, and teaching leaders how to create intrinsic motivation by presenting a desired future with clear and effective communication is critical. The skills of inclusive and transformational leadership and communication, rather than hierarchical, are key areas where leaders can impact a positive change in their employees and their overall company culture.

A simple piece of advice in leading others, is to ask, “Do you prefer to be asked, or told?”. Generally, in almost 100% of cases, we prefer to be asked.  And that is the same for employees and staff.  It is especially true in Middle Eastern culture, where respect is held at a premium.

People need to feel they matter, and when we engage hearts as well as minds, leaders create loyalty, trust and can achieve the organisation’s goals more effectively. This is true the world over, not just in the Middle East.

Laura Trendall-Morrison

Strategy Consultant and Coach for Executive Leaders

Laura Trendall-Morrison is the founder of The GameChanger Consultancy, working with international clients from private and public sector in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Laura supports her clients to develop sustainable business growth strategies, and improve organizational performance, working with leadership teams.