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Cultural Adaptability and Fit for the Middle East

Amer Lakhani

Renowned Management Consultant and educator Peter Drucker said “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and that is particularly true in the Middle East.

One of the biggest challenges our clients face when hiring leaders from overseas is their ability to adapt to working in the Middle East. Getting to grips with how business is done, the varying pace of work, managing stakeholders and the melting pot of people from across the world, doesn’t come easy to all.

For decades we’ve seen several top-notch leaders move to the Middle East from developed markets including Europe, the US and developed Asia. Some have thrived, and continue to do so, but many struggled to navigate the nuances of the region.

One of the most common challenges leaders face is moving from an environment that is run following a structured, transparent corporate governance framework to a family-run organisation often governed by one person or a small group of senior management. Managing such stakeholders is a unique and new challenge for anyone moving from a large national or international company.

This is a broad topic, but below we set out a few key pointers that companies in the Middle East should consider when hiring leaders from outside of the region and what they can do to help the leader once he or she is in place.


Consistent and Transparent Selection Process

Hiring focused on fit should be engrained in everyone involved in the selection process, from identification to interviewing. If working with a search partner, ensure that the search firm understands the texture and values of your business and people within it and can effectively relay this to potential candidates. Throughout the hiring process ensure that you are transparent on the expectations and personalities of key stakeholders and any dynamics that are unique to the organisation, so that there is consistent alignment.


Behavioural Interviews

Business and HR leaders should integrate behaviour-focused questions, within the interview process, company-wide. These questions should extract attributes such as acceptance, tolerance, emotional resilience, and diplomacy. We find that those who exhibit these traits are more likely to embrace or, at the very least, accept the nuances of the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that working effectively in response to an unprecedented crisis has become the need of the hour and should now be something companies place significant emphasis on. Leaders should be asked questions focused around demonstrating flexibility, managing high pressure and ambiguous situations and innovative problem solving. A leader’s sense of empathy for his or her team is another attribute that has become particularly relevant in recent times.

In other markets, virtual interviews using video conferencing tools have been common for some time and the recent pandemic has pushed the Middle East to do the same. The face to face interaction that would usually bring out certain behavioural qualities can’t always happen, which further heightens the importance of asking the right behaviour-generating questions.


Behavioural Assessments

Today, we fortunately have access to tools that scientifically advise on what kind of person will and, more importantly, what kind of person won’t succeed in your organisation. Certain behavioural types will not be suited to working in a family business and others may struggle at a highly matrixed multinational. EMA Partners supports several organisations across the Middle East with assessing their current and future leaders so that they can make smarter people decisions, resulting in greater engagement and superior performance.


Onboarding Workshops for Expatriates

This market requires a higher level of cultural adaptability, operational agility and emotional intelligence to succeed. These traits are not always innate, and it’s an organisation’s responsibility to ensure that the right support is in place to prepare the leader for a better chance of success.

A handful of organisations with large numbers of expatriate hires provide a suite of seminars as part of the onboarding process to assist with integration. Consider putting together a series of structured workshops for all first-time expats offering engaging sessions on topics including the dos and don’ts of business in the Arab world, managing a business crisis in the Middle East, the importance of trust in relationship building and managing stakeholders from different cultures. Also consider introducing an informal session outside of the office, focused on educating new joiners on the non-business-related cultural subtleties.

Those who feel that their employer has further invested in them will make more of an effort to understand and adjust to new ways of thinking and working.


Frequent Reviews and Partners

Moving ahead from the initial days of selection and onboarding to the longer term; most organisations have an annual or, at best, a bi-annual appraisal system in place. For a first-time expat leader, the first year is one of substantial adjustment and learning both professionally and personally. In the first year, consider putting in place more frequent reviews, perhaps once per quarter, to ensure long-term alignment and course correction if need be.

Some companies find that the ‘Partner’ or ‘Buddy’ system works well. Having a like-minded colleague, who has more experience in the region, to share struggles or seek reassurance, often ensures that smaller challenges can be ironed out and leads to greater engagement in the team.

From our experience, implementing one or more of the above initiatives can have a tremendous impact on the integration and long-term success of a new leader and the business.