CV in brief:
- 2011-present: Head of strategic HR, communications & change, Tanfeeth
- 2008-2011: Management consultant – talent & organisational performance, Accenture
- 2006-2008: HR service delivery country manager, Accenture BPO
A day in the life
Tell us about your job and organisation
Tanfeeth is a 2,400 FTE strong company, founded in 2011 as the GCC region’s first fully fledged business services organisation and a 100% owned subsidiary of Emirates NBD, one of the largest banking groups in the Middle East.
We are a young, dynamic and fast growing organisation that likes to push the envelope on people practices, and the various awards we have won as well as formal recognition from leading institutes like McKinsey, SHRM and Harvard Business School are a testament to that. Harvard recently did a case study on how we build a unique culture and HR model to deliver sustainable business performance.
My role focuses on managing all the strategic components of HR, as well as branding, marketing and communications.
Who do you report into?
Hessa Al Ghurair, our chief people officer.
Tell us about your team
I manage a diverse team of mid level managers, all with a different, unique specialised skill-set. Our team deliver all HR strategy and budget, talent, rewards, HR technology and analytics, branding, marketing and communications capabilities for Tanfeeth, and I’ve hired each of our team to complement our collective skills and competencies.
They all have more expertise in their respective fields than me, which means all I do is set an overarching vision, support them by removing any obstacles and get out of their way, easy! Individually we are good, but as a team we are great.
What is the most rewarding part of your role?
I was in the unique position when we built Tanfeeth to carve out my own role so I’m fortunate enough to say that I enjoy everything about it. That being said, the part I like the most (besides the cliché-but-true working with / developing my team) is researching and strategising the workforce of the future and the role HR will play.
My role is to understand where the world is moving and then translate that to practical and contextual initiatives we can implement at Tanfeeth. This means a lot of reading, attending conferences and interacting with other practitioners and academics. I love this part of the job.
What is the most challenging part of the role?
Occasionally I get pulled into the more business partner side of HR, which includes things like grievances and disciplinary cases. I find these incredibly difficult to deal with, coming from more of a programme management / strategy type scope of work. Terminations in particular are not easy, at the end of the day you are dealing with people with families and liabilities. I have no problem taking the tough calls but it will never become easy. My respect for my HRBP colleagues has increased massively!
What does a typical day look like for you?
If only there was such a thing as a typical day! Usually my days will include lot of meetings with different internal and external stakeholders, scheduled or unscheduled, which means a lot of running around.
I also typically take part in quite a bit of brainstorming / problem solving with our leadership teams and check ups on on-going programmes and initiatives.
During the day I will try to catch up with my team to see if they need any support and I like to block at least one hour each day to reflect and do some forward thinking rather than getting caught up in the reactive nature of “business as usual”.
Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?
They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Literally. Doing what I love, designing, building and running a unique start-up in Dubai, one of the most dynamic growth markets in the world, while working for a truly inspirational and visionary leader (Suhail Bin Tarraf) that believes HR is a key strategic enabler for his business. How could I turn that down!
Perks and downsides of your role?
I get to travel quite a bit, speak at conferences, publish articles (thank you Changeboard!) and I’m empowered and encouraged to push the boundaries of HR.
Downsides include the travel (it’s a gift and a curse at times) and the fact that HR in the region traditionally is still at the earlier stages of maturity, both in perception and in reality. This doesn’t make it easy to drive business value and impact at times. Granted, we have come a long way but there is still plenty of work left to do to earn that mythical “seat at the table” everyone is talking about.
What skills are essential for the role you’re in?
Learning agility and problem solving are key, as are critical thinking, analytical skills, presentation/communication and a large amount of diplomacy & change management skills. You need to be able to manage up, down and horizontally, often against tight deadlines and within a lot of ambiguity. I think my role is a perfect marriage between a consulting and industry profile.
How did you get to where you are now?
Hard work, a firm belief in myself, a burning desire to learn and reflect, a naïve sense of moral philosophy, consistent authenticity and last but not least, some good old fashioned luck at critical intersections of life.
What were your best subjects in school? What and where did you study?
I studied both sociology and organisational and social psychology at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands with an exchange programme at Eastern Michigan University in the US. I loved social psychology, in particular cognitive biases and heuristics and how these drive more behaviour than we’d like to admit.
What was your first job? How did you get it and why did you choose to work there?
I worked full time doing HR and continuous improvement work in a business services company during uni, but my first job after graduating was with Accenture in their Prague offices, leading the HR Contact Centre for Unilever’s corporate head office. My uncle was a managing partner at Capgemini at the time and he had advised me that HR outsourcing was going to be big, and that Eastern Europe was an emerging market in that space and was the place to be.
Unilever’s global HR transformation and outsourcing deal with Accenture at the time was considered a landmark deal in terms of magnitude of scope and design so I figured it would be an interesting ride, filled with learning and opportunities.
Have you followed the career path you set out to?
Jay-Z once rapped “I didn’t choose this life, this life chose me” and that applies very much to my career. My career is anything but linear and I like it that way. I do have a grand plan of where I want to end up but on the road towards it, opportunities have come along that I would have never considered before. I’ve learned to trust my gut instincts to navigate those.
What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?
Because I didn’t have a linear career I’ve always worked in situations where I had to learn a large set of new skills and competencies within a short time span. While I enjoy that, it can be stressful and difficult at times.
As long as you believe in yourself, surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and maintain intellectual humbleness you can overcome almost any challenge.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to land a job?
I’ve not really done anything crazy with the objective to land a job, but when I was approached for my current the job I do think on reflection I took a crazy gamble. I had just been informed by one of the partners that I made promotion in my job at the time so it wasn’t exactly the right time to consider a change.
The first time a head hunter approached me for my current role there was no brief whatsoever – only that they thought that based on my experience I would love the role, despite not being able to tell me what that role would be or with what company exactly (Tanfeeth did not exist at that time, part of the role was to help design and build the company first, then run it). After a crazy week of further interviews over the phone I was flown to Dubai where the CEO (my current boss) basically made me an offer on the spot and told me he doesn’t negotiate, literally “take it or leave it” without time to reflect.
He also told me that if he was right about the kind of person I was, I would jump on the opportunity regardless of the offer and I wouldn’t need further time to think it through. So I accepted, right there and then, and never regretted it!
I guess you can say I was just intrigued by the whole craziness of it all, the awesomeness of the vision and my gut told me this was the right person to follow. Less than a month later I was living in Dubai.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
There have been many proud moments throughout my career but I would have to say that the design and build of our state of the art, six-story, Tanfeeth head office, is one of my greatest accomplishments as an individual contributor, especially considering I had never done anything like that before. It’s an amazing feeling when something you design comes to life in a very tangible form – and the building continues to receive numerous compliments from clients, stakeholders and employees.
I oversaw the interior design, branding and furniture while someone else in our strategy team lead the fit-out, IT and MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems). Together, for about a year, we literally spent day, night and weekends together, with little support. That experience forged such a deep relationship that I actually ended up marrying her, and we’ve been living happily ever after, ever since. True story!
Do you have any career regrets?
I live by a motto of “no regrets”. It’s a cliché, but for every door that closes…. If I would have any regrets, it would only be for not trying something, never for a decision I did take. I hate stagnation through indecisiveness.
What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?
Work hard, believe in yourself, keep learning and reflecting, surround yourself with people smarter than you, maintain a strong moral compass, stay authentic and intellectually humble and accept and embrace the fact that luck plays an important role in life. I mention luck because I have been very lucky with the people I ended working for at critical stages of my career.
At each transition in my career I ended up working for a great role model who believed and invested in me. They were all very different personalities and leadership types, but they were all instrumental in my development. You can influence it to some extent but who you end up working for is ultimately a lot down to chance.
What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?
I would probably tell myself not to worry as much. I used to run a radio show, organised and hosted events and did a lot of work in the creative space at that age, which often came at the expense of my university progress. Because of my other interests I got to travel, meet amazing people and learn different, practical skills that helped me become who I am today.
At the time I was really worried about my long-term career, how not following a linear path from graduating in the prescribed time to getting your first job would impact me, since that’s what all the people around me were doing. Looking back I’m incredibly glad I didn’t, since I believe it got me to where I am today. I’ve always been somewhat of a hopeless idealist dreamer and I have come to embrace that rather than see it as a weakness. The last thing I would tell myself is “never stop dreaming”. In fact I tell myself this even today!
- Coffee or tea? Tea. I’ve been drinking tea every morning since I grew up – just one of those things that my mom started and always stayed with me.
- Jam or marmalade? Jam – not a big fan of marmalade.
- The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? The Beatles – ‘They had me at Hello’ (Goodbye)
- Mac or PC? Mac. I used to be a die-hard PC guy but for creative purposes, I had to switch to a Mac and will never, ever look back! I will never touch an iPhone again however – Android is the way to go for phones if you ask me.
- The Guardian or The Times? The Guardian. No reason really, just always read The Guardian. Never tried The Times.
- BBC or ITV? BBC hands down. Sherlock, Spooks, Luther, Hustle. Need I say more?
- M&S or Waitrose? Waitrose. My favourite grocery store both in the UK and Dubai.
- Morning or night? Morning. I’m up every morning (including weekends!) at 5am like clockwork, which is when I like to hit the gym, have a proper breakfast and read up on the latest news/thinking in business and the world before my day formally starts.
- Rain on snow? Rain. Growing up in The Netherlands and having lived for several years in London I’ve learned to love it. We don’t get much in Dubai so whenever I’m back in London I’m that weird guy out on the street without umbrella going Mary Poppins in the rain!
- Sweet or savoury? Sweet. I have developed a good discipline but Ben & Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream continues to provide incredibly strong temptation!
- App: Flipboard – all the news / media content you want at your fingertips in a neatly organised magazine format with the ability to easily share content or follow your favourite editors.
- TV show: (Past) The West Wing – brilliantly written political drama, one of Aaron Sorkin’s masterpieces! I have a dork-like encyclopaedic knowledge of that series. (Current) Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – uncompromising, ridiculously witty and always relevant.
- Band: The Roots – I grew up on The Roots, despite being originally a hiphop band they are by far the most versatile band I know, and Questlove, their drummer / producer, is an absolute musical genius. No wonder Jimmy Fallon took them as his in-house band for his late night show.
- Song: That has to be a toss up between two very different songs: (1) Sound of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel. Just brilliant, understated emotion. Also one of the first songs I learned to play on keys. And (2) Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., A Dream. Two of my favourite rappers growing up and my non-stop repeat track in my mini-disc (remember those?!) during uni. My wife also loves this song and coincidentally our driver had this on when we got into the car on our way to our wedding. Crazy.
- Book: Leadership & Self Deception – How To Get Out of The Box. Recommendation from my wife and by far the most painfully insightful book I’ve ever read. Instrumental in my self reflection and personal development. A must read for everyone.
- Sports team: FC Barcelona – I’ve been a fan through good and bad since the Cruyff days and had the pleasure of seeing a full season at Nou Camp when I lived in Barcelona back in 2008.
- Thing to do on a Friday night: Hanging out with good company, good food, good music and maybe play some Call of Duty on Xbox– nothing like it.
- Place to eat: Cocoa Room is the best place in Dubai for an amazing breakfast. PB&J French toast with vanilla ice-cream. What’s not to love?
- Holiday spot: Maldives. I never knew paradise existed until my wife took me there. New York & LA are very different but still a good runner up. We like to go at least once a year for shopping and city life.
- Piece of advice you’ve been given: Colin Powell once wrote that: "The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership." This always stood by me and one of the most important things I do with my teams is book frequent time for them to rant, complain, chit-chat or anything else they want outside of the standard functional conversations. If they don’t have problems or concerns, I will inevitably get worried and probe to make sure I’m not failing as a leader.