Building the future of talent at Zain

Written by
Maryam Saif

23 May 2018

23 May 2018 • by Maryam Saif

How did the youth engagement role come about and what prompted Zain to create it?

Having spent so much time in HR, I was always drawn to how, by using behavioural change techniques, we can define the outcomes of employees to achieve more for themselves. I wanted to make a difference at Zain and leave a lasting impact so we created the youth empowerment role to focus on a long-term strategy for youth development.

As for achievements and future plans, we are currently witnessing the success of our Generation Z, a one-year graduate programme that focuses on developing Kuwaiti youth with the purpose of creating future leaders. As a result of their leadership development, they are working on ideas that will become commercially viable products for Zain. This is not something every 23-year-old can say.

We are working on a number of programmes aimed at children that will look at creativity and innovation from a young age so we are excited about these plans and we are developing an internship programme with a twist.

Why do you think that fear of risk-taking stems from childhood?

From a young age, we are told we must pass an exam, we must recite, we must remain in our zone and fear the consequences if we deviate. Over time, these constant reminders create a view of how we should act in the workplace.

What was interesting to see in the organisation was that we have not changed: we expect employees to think and act ‘creatively’. We ask that they think with an ‘innovative’ mindset and yet we create performance management systems that are antitheses of creativity and innovation and so that essence of control remains throughout the workplace. We often hear of our employees worrying about what their managers or leaders might think if they were to present an idea or a solution to a problem their team are facing.

For me, it was about going back to the beginning and making that change from a young age. In most organisations, employees are at their most engaged in the first year of their tenure. After that, engagement levels drop quite significantly.

Employees have hope and ambition when they join. It is our responsibility to cultivate that and develop these employees to realise their full potential, not instil strict measures that demotivate them or stifle their thought process if it is not in line with the leaders’ plans.

At Zain, our focus is to create a digital experience and with the dynamic industry we are in, we can’t afford to not take risks.

Whatever failure we experience, we learn from and develop. What are the aims of Zain’s youth empowerment programme?

Youth empowerment is the brainchild of our vice chairman and group CEO, Bader Al Kharafi. Creating sustainable economies, developing the creative mindset and building entrepreneurs who will be recognised globally is the focus. The programme is a longterm strategic plan with a set of initiatives that will see a change in curricula, in start-up businesses, in recruitment of young talent and in development of children. We’ve started with graduates but we will also target teenagers and children. 

What are young people looking for in the workplace?

Our youth are inquisitive, agile, restless and motivated. Bring them into a rigid culture where rules are rife and process is a must and you will lose them in the first three months.

We need to create a space where they can create, connect, design and lead. With the technological advancements available, our young people are smart and we are to treat them accordingly. They look for flexibility, the ability to be agile and to suggest ideas they can be accountable for.

Treat them like future leaders and they will act like them. We will see more flexible working spaces and more socially connected people.

How have you created a culture of reciprocity?

At Zain, we possess a strong sense of comradery, a culture that is quite powerful and captivating, which stems from our values. We accepted that our role in HR was to capitalise on our culture and connect to our employees by using our values. In 2015, we developed our first employee value proposition, ‘the Zain promise’.

This embodies the unique and differentiating ‘assurance’ Zain makes to its employees with a set of reciprocal obligations and expectations. It allows Zainers, from different disciplines, backgrounds and levels of decision making, to develop a mutual purpose and expectations around the promise.

Behind each value statement is a set of initiatives that we worked on achieving as a group; our measure of success was to see the outcome through our employee engagement surveys. In 2015 and 2016 we received unprecedented engagement scores.

What is your personal work journey?

From a young age, I knew I wanted to run my own company. With luck and hard work, I managed to establish an organisation in the heart of London which went on to become incredibly successful.

I moved to Kuwait with my family and struggled with the change until I joined Zain. I genuinely believe Zain provides the opportunity to act and think like a start-up. You are provided with the tools, freedom and ability to prosper as much as you want, which is why I’m still here.

Which successes led to you being named HR Professional of the Year in 2016?

Constant planning, communication and team working with the entire HR department across Zain. We set ourselves a very challenging goal and worked non-stop until we achieved it.

We had an incredibly fun journey that brought us closer as a team but also enabled us to connect with the organisation. We developed an HR social media strategy containing a number of innovative campaigns that enhanced our HR brand publically. We were keen to come across as genuine, so everything that was on social was based on our daily lives at Zain.

Which other female leaders in the region inspire you?

Inspiration for me is about how hard people work to get to where they want to be. I am always inspired by rags-to-riches stories – people who are faced with challenges and yet manage to push through obstacles and triumph.

We need to accept that we have a significant gender imbalance in the Middle East. While we are starting to see some movement on the issue, there is still much more to do. I would love to see more females represented at board level in our region.

What advice would you give to your fellow HR leaders in the Middle East?

My advice would be to challenge the current HR status quo and to create something valuable for your employees. HR should be seen as a strategic decision maker within organisations and should be able to contribute to the organisation’s overall business strategy. Try to think like a start up.