Engineering local careers: Interview with Huda Al Ghoson of Saudi Aramco, part two

Written by
Mary Appleton

05 Jul 2015

05 Jul 2015 • by Mary Appleton

What makes Saudi Aramco an employer of choice?

This generation of talent has different expectations to what we’ve seen before. Yes, they still want to work for a respected brand, but they also want a work environment that inspires performance and values creativity and diversity.

We have created a company that employees are proud to work for and to be associated with – and that’s what makes us an employer of choice. A competitive remuneration package is important, but we also consider the company reputation and our dynamic learning work environment as critical elements of our EVP. The young generation wants to be associated with prominent and leading companies that have a solid reputation, long-standing performance record, strong governance and work ethics, and which are serious about all aspects of the business including workforce inclusiveness and diversity, social and economic responsibilities and, of course, the environment. 

How important is career advancement to retention?

Our training and development strategy is designed as an attraction and retention factor. It has a wide range of development programmes for employees at all levels. Rigorous assessments are conducted annually to identify the development gaps that are then closed by targeted development programmes and field assignments in and out of Saudi Arabia.

Our career development programmes provide opportunities for personal and professional growth to every employee during their employment life cycle with the company – from hire to retire.

Employees are taught from day one to be in the driving seat of their professional growth. Learning does not stop throughout the employment life cycle. As our corporate culture is defined by a culture of meritocracy, accountability and performance, career advancement is guaranteed for those who contribute the most and add value to the organisation.

Our training programmes aim to develop technical expertise as well as soft skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, communication and problem-solving. To encourage employees to take ownership of their development process, we introduced an extensive e-learning programme around 15 years ago. This has more than 3,500 specialised courses and all employees are provided with free home access to the intranet to support self-development initiatives. Last year alone, more than 600,000 online courses were completed.

We operate 30 training centres locally that deliver technical, professional, and leadership training. Rigorous assessments are conducted annually to identify development needs; appropriate programmes are then designed to close knowledge gaps, including classroom training, cross-functional and field assignments in and out of the Kingdom.

New graduate recruits are immediately enrolled into learning programmes and get extensive support and training to develop their skills during their initial years with us. We also have collaborative partnerships with national education providers, from summer camps for school children through to participating in university advisory boards. All programmes are supported by ongoing mentoring, coaching and knowledge transfer processes.

What characterises the new generation?

The new generation is very ambitious, demanding, outspoken, and confident. Young workers today are more virtual, fluid and free, and can easily get bored and lose interest. They are not interested in bureaucratic organisations that are dominated by a command-and-control management. The new generation of workers will be looking for organisations that are democratic, diverse and people-oriented. They don’t work eight or 10 hours a day just to put food on the table and money in the bank. They seek jobs that are fulfilling and offer a sense of purpose and personal satisfaction; and a work environment that is empowering, rewarding and fun.

Providing young talent with learning and development opportunities, a road map for career growth, and an open network of professionals and mentors will keep them motivated to go the extra mile. 

How do you measure worker engagement?

For me, there are three vital factors when it comes to engaging and motivating employees: recognition, purpose and work that challenges them. People want work that gives them personal satisfaction and allows for development, not just a job to put money in the bank. It’s vital that the workplace is rewarding, whether that’s by making it a fun place to work or by giving responsibility where it’s due. We regularly survey our employees to monitor organisational health, work out where we’re not meeting our own high standards and develop strategies to address these issues. 

How do you maintain a pipeline of leaders?

Building the leadership bench in Saudi Aramco follows a structured approach that includes four steps: identification, assessment, development and selection.

We use the high-potential development process to identify candidates and then administer assessment centres against leadership competency models that are linked to business challenges at four leadership levels. Individual development plans are designed to build employees’ knowledge, experience and skills. Candidates’ progress and potential are tracked on a regular basis by senior management. Selection is determined through a formal succession planning process that is reviewed annually by committees of senior management.

Our leadership development framework follows the ‘70, 20, 10’ model, with 70% of development taking place through structured rotational assignments and internal mobility; 20% through coaching, mentoring and performance management; and 10% through formal classroom programmes. We use a blended learning approach which integrates assessments, action learning, simulation and coaching in all core programmes to maximise learning outcomes.

Our approach creates a highly immersive learning environment with an incremental process that builds more complex skills on the solid foundation of capabilities acquired at the lower level. 

What are your aims and objectives for the future?

We have recently rolled out our new HR strategy, which is based on three perspectives: business strategy, market trend, and internal assessment of organisational health.

At the core of the strategy is our corporate HR vision – to create people advantage for Saudi Aramco. We have also identified three high-priority action areas to address over the 2014-2016 business plan: strategic workforce planning and analytics, leadership development and performance management. Our workforce model and analytics programme allows us to understand the number of fully qualified employees each business line needs each year, breaking it down into almost 400 different job families. We can then scale this going forward, so we know what each business area needs in the next five, 10 or even 30 years. 

What recruitment strategies do you have in place?

We have four approaches to our staffing strategy, including recruitment from the external market; developing and re-skilling existing talent; internal mobility; and borrowing talent through contractors and consultants. Our staffing strategy is supported by workforce analytics and a sophisticated workforce planning model that evaluates our internal and external talent supplies. This helps us forecast talent needs, anticipate knowledge gaps and identify effective strategies to close critical workforce gaps.

Our workforce planning model also facilitates the allocation of training expenditure to focus on developing talent in critical areas, and the early identification of redeployment possibilities to optimise the utilisation of employee capacity. 

How do you ensure diversity among your talent?

Our goal is to maintain approximately 85% Saudisation level and we are succeeding in this area. Expatriate employees will always be needed for knowledge transfer and to fill gaps in critical industry skills. Women’s recruitment has increased by approximately 20% over the past few years. Unless we recognise, celebrate and appreciate diversity, we will never unlock the cultural and intellectual richness we have at our disposal. 

We assess performance against targets related to the number, quality and category of recruits. We also review the number of qualified applicants against the number of open positions to determine the effectiveness of our marketing and branding efforts. To assess quality, different measurements are used including psychometric tests, proponent surveys and impact on business performance. 

How do you balance regional and external values?

Best practice is not best practice when it is taken out of its context and its business environment. We should be careful not to arbitrarily copy best practice without considering the business model, HR capabilities, management style, resources, and entire environment that support a particular practice. Best practice will fail if it does not consider a company’s corporate culture and people’s behaviour and attitudes, and address their specific business needs. 

What is the future of work in the region?

We have a large youth population that can support a strong economic growth in the case of ample job creation and a good match of human skills to employer need. But if the education system does not adequately prepare young graduates with the necessary skills to be competitive, and if job creation is not keeping pace with the waves of young men and women looking for employment, the result will be poverty and social unrest.

By training women to enter and compete in the workplace and assume more active leadership roles; by designing and implementing programmes that create jobs and foster entrepreneurship; and by removing barriers to fairness and productivity for a more inclusive, motivated and enabled workforce, we will build stronger economies and societies.