Late in 2010, The International Federation of Association Football announced that Qatar will host its World Cup tournament in 2022. Soccer fans were stunned. It’s not an understatement to say Qatar has not been a powerhouse in the sport. A few months later, Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris (HEC Paris), a business school ranked first in 2011 by the Financial Times, launched Qatar’s first executive MBA program, including a module on executive leadership. Learning executives were excited, but not surprised. Qatar is striving to become a leader in the region for global learning initiatives.
The two coups — athletic and academic — are somewhat related, thanks in part to the mission of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF). The foundation is a private, chartered, nonprofit organization focused on moving the country from a fossil fuel economy to a knowledge-based economy by placing value on achievement rather than privilege.
Established in 1995 by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and chaired by his wife, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned, QF aims to carry out this mission by unlocking human potential.
Among some in the West, perceptions of the Middle East and related stereotypes linger. It is often assumed that men don’t respect women as equal, that men would never receive instruction from women in a professional scenario, that men would not work for women or that men would not be comfortable as peers to women. It’s also assumed that Middle Eastern women are unassertive and do not want to be in the workplace. Qatar’s EMBA program aims to dispel these notions, and learning executives can learn much from the engagement.
Once they are understood, cultural differences can be invigorating and informative. This becomes clear when working with new students who are keen to succeed in a global business arena where stereotypes are irrelevant.
“An autocrat ruled so long as he was on good behavior. In other words, if he treated his subjects in an evenhanded way, honored their traditions, did not publicly flout the Koran, and did not levy onerous taxes, he was expected to rule for life,” said Jan P. Muczyk and Daniel T. Holt in the May 1, 2008, edition of the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. “All along, the touchstone of good leadership in that part of the world seems to have revolved around the concept of justice, not democracy. Inevitably, such a pervasive tradition spills over into the world of work.”
This paradigm is being dismantled quickly. The commitment to establish learning organizations through global business programs like that of HEC Paris, the London Business School, the University of Virginia and others, as reported recently in the Khaleej Times, is moving the Middle Eastern workplace toward meritocracy — meritocracy that may teach Western business a thing or two about gender, ethnic and cultural parity.
In the U.S., few women would say gender inequality has been vanquished, but they do assume American women have greater social and professional latitude than their Middle Eastern counterparts. Yet, Qatar’s government-supported efforts to develop women in leadership and establish a national Women’s Leadership Centre in the Middle East have offered women considerable support in their efforts to be successful in office-based professions.
While some Americans may see an intergenerational household as a burden, perhaps accentuated by ever-present in-laws, in non-Western societies, those relatives translate into free, safe and reliable daycare. Thus a female EMBA student in Qatar is likely to be less harried, more focused and more supported than the iconic American “super mom” who packs lunches while contemplating her thesis on macroeconomics.
Also, while there are prohibitions on women sharing an office with men in much of the Middle East, in Qatar women take on roles — industrial and physically demanding jobs like oil rigs — that would surprise Americans.
The differences in gender equity are still there, but they are not detrimental to executive education in Qatar. The story continues in matters of faith as they relate to professional life. Muslim traditions promote a deep respect for protecting the role of the family in leadership. It is appropriate to avoid phone calls at certain times and not to send email during prayer times. In the global business world where EMBA candidates work it’s probably impossible to accommodate all tenets of all faiths. Yet, who can argue that shutting down gadgets can be conducive for thoughtful work and focused learning initiatives?
Western HR professionals might be taken aback by Qatari bosses who commonly inquire about their employees’ faith. But there may be some value in considering that political correctness and legislation may not leave much room to respect others’ customs, which can sabotage work-life balance for all.
In Qatar’s case, executive education has been given a vital role. Even in an EMBA program that is less than a year old, there are as many expatriates as local students, and it may set an example for other nations in the region. Corporate education and the concept of learning organizations can frame a society that values knowledge, skill and experience above birth order, gender, caste, ethnicity and income.
This is not unique to the Middle East. Learning organizations influence civil rights and gender equity in the West, too. It is perhaps more noticeable in the Middle East, as the gaps in stereotypes are greater, and cultural differences are more subtle in the West compared to the Middle East, with more overt expressions in style of dress, head coverings and the common practice of public prayer.
Working in this environment can be a learning experience that enhances outcomes while providing development and growth for instructors. Educators working in cultures different from their own have to test their assumptions and immerse themselves in the local society. This can be harder than it sounds. Learning executives, whether they come from a consultative, psychological or teaching perspective, tend to operate on an expert model. It may be challenging for a recognized expert with decades of experience to readily admit that he or she doesn’t know clients’ and students’ day-to-day realities. In this way the term “learning leader” could arguably have a dual meaning.
How can learning executives help make corporate education an example for greater society? Consider:
Embracing diversity: Being mindful at all times of gender, ethnicity and culture isn’t about being politically correct; it’s related to the curriculum. It also can be a way to lead by example. It can help to be open and ask for feedback from a local resident to learn how to “show up” or participate respectfully in his or her culture.
Learning from students: Schedule time for students to share how their personal experiences relate to their goals in the learning process. This can be as important as course evaluations in any efforts to enhance or improve the program. It is also a way to improve teaching agility and examine or focus on a topic from multiple perspectives.
Being immersed in the local society: Become an active learner by making a point to master regional protocol and local news to be better informed and more sensitive to student experiences in the classroom.
Including topical issues in the coursework: Don’t hesitate to address world politics and current events as they relate to business leadership and strategies. Encourage ethics-based decisions and conscientious solutions.
These practices make learning leaders more effective in two ways. They increase relevance and credibility. By becoming agile enough to instruct from multiple perspectives in a way that takes local societal conventions into account, CLOs can make their content more relevant to the student and, therefore, more effective in long-term outcomes. This relevance promotes credibility for the learning organization.
Lily Kelly-Radford and Sandra L. Shullman are partners in the Executive Development Group. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.