Confessions of an Expat HR Leader in the Middle East

By Ron Thomas

Mr. Ron, we would like your insights on this issue.”

This happened throughout the conference until it got a point that I just wanted to be left alone to listen. “Let me just take it all in,” was my thought.

Last week, I was a keynote speaker at an annual HR summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. My topic: HR at the Crossroads of Business & Leadership.

One of the main pieces of advice I have for any expat is to get involved right away in your industry. The learning experiences that I have gotten from attending these conference are incalculable. Attend as many conference as possible and learn, learn and learn some more.

Jumping in with both feet

Because I come from America, and specifically from New York, it was really easy to become a part of the speaker circuit. Of the seven (7) conferences that were held from December, 2013 through the end of this year, I ended up speaking at each one.

It is like getting an HR degree from an Arabic university. Their views and policies expressed are totally different from an American-based knowledge level. We all attend conferences, and after a full day, we kind of automatically walk through the sessions we attend, and in many cases, and our mind has already checked out.

Whether you admit to it or not, you know it happens. My experience here in the Middle East is totally different. I am engaged throughout because I am in total learning mode.

From expat to compatriot

A learning point for me is this: if you want to understand the discipline of the work you are doing in a different environment, get out of the office and network.

A conference provides the perfect platform for learning and networking. The connections seem to mean so much more. I am now the student in many ways. While I am always asked for my view from my US-HR vantage point, I am much more interested in their insight.

If I constantly remind my staff that in New York we did it this way, I would lose them over time. What I did in NYC and prior HR jobs serves only as a reference point in another culture.

My past is a great benchmark with a host of best practices, but like so many benchmarks, it has nothing to do with this industry, culture, and this environment.

All my past benchmarks would work great if I were back in the northeast US practicing HR. That’s because HR, as practiced here, is possibly 10 years behind human resources in the States.  One of the oddities is time cards (biometric terminals). They are used everywhere and everyone palms in — even the senior leaders. That takes a while to get used to doing every day.

Culture shock will always be there

I assumed that this was just happening at my company until I was invited for a visit by the Chief Human Resource Officer for a major telecom company.

As I arrived and told reception who I was there to see, I was pointed to a bank of elevators for the “executive floor.” When the door opened, facing me was a “biometric terminal” on the executive floor.

Yes, every executive for this major brand “palms” in. It is an accepted practice and is not questioned. Imagine going to visit the CHRO of ATT or Verizon in the U.S. and seeing a “time clock” that all the executives were expected to use.

The value of real learning

These conferences have allowed me to sit back and become immersed in HR from a Middle Eastern perspective. While my brain is always being picked by others, I am in full learning and knowledge-gathering mode. I am in their house and I need to know their framework. I get a VIP seat to examine their challenges and the culture that produces these challenges.

During the lunch break each day, I make it a practice to seek out and sit with a different group,  exchanging business cards, LinkedIn info, and building a relationship. These lunch conversations are normally followed up with emails, coffee, and dinner engagements. I have even been invited over to their organizations to meet their staffs. During this last conference, I was approached by a university professor who asked if I was willing to come and speak to his HR class. I jumped at the opportunity.

What I consider a test as to the effectiveness of your networking as an expat is when 95 percent of the new contacts coming through LinkedIn are all from your host country. Each is followed with a note and my standard reply: “If I can be of assistance in any way, feel free to reach out to me.”

That statement is not redundant because I mean it. Numerous conversations have followed those brief notes, many concerning with career advice, opportunities, and pick-the-brain sessions, but most of all, real learning from both sides.

Immersing yourself into a different work culture

Lots of global companies offer cultural immersion programs for their expat population which are very valuable. However, one thing I have found from traveling and working throughout the Middle East is that no amount of research is going to give you insight into being a culturally-fluent individual. An expat’s task is to become fluent in the country’s lifestyle as well as the work culture.

Lifestyles in countries are dictated by culture. That is why I will never start a conversation with, “ In New York, we did this.” There is one executive that always prefaces each statement with, “When I was at XXXXX, we did it this way.” When that happens, after a period of time, everyone zones out.

When that happens, I always have this thought: “Hey Mr/Ms Expat — nobody cares what you did back home. What matters is how do we do it here?”.

Ron Thomas is a Chief Human Resource & Administrative Officer currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He was formerly Director, Talent and Human Resources Solutions at Buck Consultants (a Xerox Company) and is certified by the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). He’s also worked in senior HR roles with Martha Stewart Living and IBM. Ron serves on the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI’s Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. Contact him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Do you like this article? Sing up to receive our newsletter  for HR insights delivered to your mailbox.

ramybayyour