Crossing the divide: Interview with Joanna Al-Najjar, CEO of Impact HCC

Written by
Mary Appleton

21 Jun 2017

21 Jun 2017 • by Mary Appleton

Public and private sector

The contrast between public and private sector organizations in the Middle East is an ongoing talking point. In many countries, the public sector remains the primary employer, often offering higher pay and additional benefits. While the private sector struggles to attract national talent, the future prosperity of the region partially depends on its ability to create and fill job vacancies.

As someone who has worked in HR in both public and private sector organizations, UAE national Joanna Al-Najjar is well positioned to discuss the development of HR in the region. Although she believes the function has reached ‘different stages of maturity’ in individual countries, she thinks there’s an opportunity for HR professionals across sectors to collaborate in building its image and capability so that it can become a key business partner.

A diverse career

Al-Najjar, who has Syrian ancestry, was born in Bahrain, grew up in Dubai and studied in the US. “I’m very proud of the diversity and mix which has moulded me into who I am today,” she says. After studying counselling technology at Hawaii Pacific University, Al-Najjar started her career in counselling, followed by education and later advertising before moving into HR.

In 2003, she joined Pepsico’s HR management trainee program, which was designed to build the capability of young, talented UAE national candidates and prepare them for managerial roles in the HR field.

“I was attracted to a career in HR, as it seemed to me the perfect blend of ‘people’ and ‘business’,” says Al-Najjar. “What could be more perfect than to use my counselling knowledge and experience of advertising and the corporate world, and combine them into something that serves humanity?”

From there, Al-Najjar went on to work for several organisations in HR roles in the public and private sectors, including Gillette, Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the General Civil Aviation Authority, before setting up her own business, Impact HCC in 2013.

“I’d been toying with the idea for a while,” she reveals. “Working in both public and private sector organizations gave me the insights, knowledge and understanding of the main challenging trends and concerns of the HR profession in our local market.

“I became determined to address them and drive the wave of change where I was working, yet being an employee can sometimes present its own limitations in terms of decisionmaking. “As a consultant, I’m better positioned to share the tools that can truly impact the way we do business and build our most valuable asset – people – in a market that welcomes change and growth. What better place is there to be than the UAE, where the main infrastructure nurtures such burning ambitions? And what better timing to live in, than this time and especially with announcement of the Dubai EXPO 2020? This is truly an opportunity not to be missed, for making your mark, learning and overcoming new challenges, as well as, growing and expanding your business to new levels and horizons!”

Public and private tensions

Al-Najjar feels the key to overcoming what some term as the ‘disconnect’ between the public and private sectors is collaboration. “There have been courageous efforts by a few passionate HR professionals, who have opened their doors to sharing best practice with each other. I have done so myself, while working in the public sector.”

She suggests that if HR professionals from all sectors were able to access a formal HR group platform to learn and share ideas, this would bring about added value and action taking. For example, if you could share your successes and failures around new innovations in HR with a wide range of professionals, you could then work together to come up with diversified solutions and share learning and knowledge.

“Each one of us possesses individual backgrounds and experience. Imagine the pool of treasure once you combine these brains under one platform to serve the common interest of learning and growth,” she says.

She believes multinational organizations have a lot to offer in the knowledge-sharing process. “Multinationals have had 100-plus years to fail, learn and grow. Their biggest value is their understanding of this process, which has led them to empower their HR function and their ‘people’ with knowledge and tools to support the growth of their business,” she explains.

Al-Najjar argues that the public sector must seek to learn from the multinational organizations’ experience and adapt that process of learning, to design solutions that are better suited to their own unique needs. “There isn’t a single solution that fits all though,” she warns.

She points out that to become more attractive to national employees, private sector employers must be more present and vocal about who they are, particularly among the young generation. “Get close to hearing their voice by getting involved in the community or a youth development program aimed at awareness building,” she advises.

Brave new HR

Although there’s a growing desire among many organizations in the UAE to partner with their HR function, she says much more needs to be done as HR is often perceived as an administrative function and not yet a business partner.

However, Al-Najjar believes the appetite is there, but the onus lies on you as an HR professional to develop your own expertise and knowledge so you can work towards elevating the view of HR. “This process is the road less travelled in the region so you’ve got to be brave,” she says.

As an HR professional, you should not hesitate to seek support from elsewhere in the market, outside of your own organization, says Al-Najjar. This can help to support you in selling your solutions to the business and help drive change. “The future is extremely promising and the ground is very fertile for success,” she concludes.