Developing leadership capability at SABIC: Interview with Fahad Al-Sheaibi, executive VP of HR

Written by
Mary Appleton

04 Sep 2015

04 Sep 2015 • by Mary Appleton

Prior to the SABIC Academy

The petrochemical manufacturer SABIC used to depend on open enrolment programmes that were given by third parties and not connected to business and individual requirements.

But, with the introduction of the SABIC Academy, the process of developing talent and leaders is managed and reviewed internally.

The academy offers leaders from throughout the world the perfect opportunity to meet in one place to engage in a variety of business challenges, network for learning, and exchange their experiences and opinions related to strategic issues.

What was the idea behind the SABIC Academy?

The SABIC management started nursing the idea of building the academy in 2008/09. We knew back then how important it was to have a leadership development centre. SABIC is a giant global company and needs many leaders to develop and drive the organisation’s activities and operations.

The idea was to search for the means to develop company leaderships through specialised programmes with international standards and via strategic partnerships with external institutions, including universities, learning centres and education providers.

Mr Al-Mady, our CEO, chaired the steering committee of SABIC Academy in its early stages. The committee also comprised executives from business and corporate functions.

Among the most important benefits of the academy is that it is a centre where leaders are developed, through an organised process, following a single methodology and in an institutionalised way.

Our leaders from around the world meet in one place to engage in dialogue through learning networks, and to exchange experiences and views related to the strategic issues facing us. We also focus on delivering high quality programmes connected to both individual and organisational needs.

Have you made efforts to localise the programmes?

Yes, we have localised some programmes and specialties, which are vital to the work SABIC staff are engaged in. When we conceived the idea of the academy, we relied on external institutions.

Now we have designed a set of programmes that cater for the needs of the company and the challenges it faces. We have more than 13 programmes, all delivered by SABIC staff. Some are focused on basic leadership, and basic business skills. The learning team in the academy also engaged in facilitating workshops that focus on business solutions through action learning groups, where a cross-functional team gathered to bring solutions to critical business challenges.

This is simply because SABIC Academy is not a training centre, and often uses a blended approach to learning at these workshops, including e-learning and project-based learning.

Our objective in localising and custom-designing our programmes is not to reduce training costs, but create a clear mechanism for generating knowledge in a way that does not prevent our employees from keeping pace with scientific developments abroad or meeting experts around the world. Furthermore, it has enabled the organisation as a whole to learn and grow.

What does academy mean to you?

Our concept of an academy is flexibility, adaptability and agility in the learning process. Although we have “academy” in our name, we are in fact a leadership development centre.

We have to be flexible to face the company’s challenges, and these are varied. SABIC is a giant petrochemical company and has to confront many issues – in innovation, culture, marketing, the supply chain, and other fields.

In the academy we must address each of these and have to find solutions that might facilitate the company’s business. We do not offer all the solutions, but engage with any idea that might help to develop business.

Do you keep up with petrochemical developments?

We co-operate with SBUs (strategic business units) and corporate functions to understand current and future business challenges.

The learning team works as solution enablers. For example, we may not be directly aware of any new trend towards product development.

But by holding regular dialogue with industry experts in the relevant field we will be able to build knowledge and expertise in that specific subject. Take, for instance, the market focus transformation where the company is geared towards SABIC’s 2025 vision.

As an HR entity, we debate the following: “Are we ready?” “What are the skill sets required?” “What developments need to be in place to enable this approach?”

How do you update employees about the academy?

SABIC Academy’s journey has just begun. Our attempts focus primarily on creating development programmes on leadership and functional learning.

So far, many SABIC employees have benefited from them. As for staff engagement, the programmes are available to all staff through the learning management system and learning portal.

In addition to that, we periodically launch campaigns to educate key stakeholders on our programmes. The regional learning leaders are making tremendous efforts in engaging with business heads in their regions to communicate our programmes and connect with leaders to identify need and areas of development.

The message I would like to communicate to all staff is that learning and development will ensure that people, no matter where they are located in SABIC, can benefit from the value we bring, either through attending instructor-led programmes or other forms of learning – such as e-learning – in which the academy has invested heavily.

We have about 150 self-learning programmes available online. Through these, the employee accesses the system, learns, gets trained, tested, and obtains the results that evaluate his or her performance.

This is part of the development approach that we are trying to adopt, not only in the academy’s programmes but also in the general mechanisms involved in disseminating knowledge, so that we are not confined to only traditional methodologies.

The academy’s activities are not limited to offering programmes; it has the capabilities and competencies to help departments in many different areas, such as change management.

SABIC Academy could also offer coaching for on-the-job training to employees. We have the ability within the academy to provide advice and guidance to staff who may be facing challenges at work around areas like productivity, performance development, or how to deal with the pressures of work. A qualified group is charged with this responsibility. It directly contacts employees and has nothing to do with the academic programmes.

SABIC Academy focuses on leadership and offers courses in finance leadership, marketing, supply chain, technical programmes, and essential business skills. We do not simply provide academic programmes, but developmental ones too.

In addition, we have partnerships with international universities such as the Thunderbird School of Global Management, which is based in Arizona, London Business School, and INSEAD business school. We have many strategic partnerships with these institutions regarding the courses they offer. Some of the programmes are internationally accredited.

The importance of accreditation is linked to the type of programme. The marketing, finance and supply chain ones may basically require specific credits, while leadership programmes do not necessarily need to be accredited by a specific body since the foundations and principles of leadership are adopted everywhere and known by everyone.

The main focus here is on the mechanisms by which these programmes are done, with the aim of facilitating the job to the recipient to understand the programme and utilise its applications.

Has the Academy influenced employee's progress?

We conduct 350 to 420 courses every year throughout the world, covering all of the significant business areas that we focus on.

We recently celebrated graduation of the first cohort of the company’s EMBA (Executive Master of Business Administration) graduates. This two-year course is not purely academic, but focuses on specific topics that directly touch SABIC business.

The programme was the fruit of collaboration between the academy and the Thunderbird School of Global Management. Some of the employees who participated in the programme had their leadership capabilities developed significantly. Some were even promoted as a result.

The programme was a sound investment to boost capabilities and a tool to evaluate our leadership. As a result of it a number of talents were identified and promoted to leading functions. We can proudly say that it it is a developmental and knowledge-enriching programme.

Will you run more comms management workshops?

Such courses that we offer to various departments are an important part of our work. SABIC Academy has worked out schedules and the courses planned are currently posted on the portal. Some programmes are open to all, while others can join in through a nomination process.

We believe that the academy’s courses are stimulating tools for employees. As per our system to manage learning in the company, employees can register online and review the available programmes.

How does the academy add to SABICs research?

SABIC Academy co-ordinates with the company’s various departments by providing assistance, advice and scientific support in matters related to research and innovation. We often invite them to share knowledge and discuss the various challenges in the field. We ask them to come to the academy and present their ideas and projects.

The academy is definitely an integral part of the company’s strategic objectives. It is one of the basic elements that makes a contribution to achieving the company’s vision in terms of growth and sustainability.

What progress do you expect to see in the future?

It is a long journey for us. The academy is still young and needs time to be more influential across the organisation. Our key aim is to help SABIC not only in developing and educating its employees, but also in facing future challenges.

We are continuing to work on making the academy an ideal centre for knowledge sharing and have ambitious goals in this direction.

The coming period will also witness an important event, to be held in the presence of SABIC leaders from around the world. This will be an opportunity to share ideas and add value.