W.W. Clements, a former CEO and president of the Dr Pepper Company, described the taste of Dr Pepper as one-of-a-kind, saying: “I’ve always maintained you cannot tell anyone what Dr Pepper tastes like because it’s so different. It’s not an apple, it’s not an orange, it’s not a strawberry, it’s not a root beer, it’s not even a cola. It’s a different kind of drink with a unique taste all its own.’
Like Dr Pepper, the Middle East avoids categorisation. For every sight, smell, sound, flavour, attitude, you can point to several other examples of the same thing that show its diversity.
A corporate leader who wants to be successful must understand the background and history of the region – in particular, its positioning as a first-generation corporate society (a subject that Dr Tommy Weir has written about at length in the media here) – but you also need to tap into the multicultural mind-set of the employees who are going to catapult you towards future long-term success. In particular, that means youth: millennials and Generation Z.
The bulge bracket of youth is the stored energy in the catapult that will propel the region towards its goals. Harness this energy right and success will follow. To be successful, leaders here will have to roll up their sleeves to develop this talent, actively providing guidance and helping it acquire the business exposure, mind-set, skills and behaviours to deliver.
Having spent nearly a decade in the UAE, a few consistent observations become apparent to me when thinking about engaging with regional youth as employees.
The first is around the nature of inclusiveness in decision-making. Millennials want to contribute and feel part of the decision-making process in their organisation. According to Deloitte’s 2016 Millennials Survey “Winning over the next generation of leaders”, 76 per cent of millennials want an inclusive work culture. While ‘command-and-control’ management style is still prevalent in this region, it shouldn’t be hard for organisations in the Gulf to find ways to engage younger workers with greater transparency and more open and free-flowing communication during the decision-making chain. After all, traditional decision-making has historically been influenced by consultation with all levels of the tribe.
A second point is about influence. While networks matter greatly in our profession, making it about who you know and not what you know is a quick way to turn off the next generation. While personal connections to key decision makers are important, preferential treatment that is unmerited sends millennials the wrong message about their work purpose and risks diluting engagement. With the talent pool available in this region, there should be hot competition for jobs in communications around being the best person for the job based on attitude and ability.
A last point on youth: organisations in the Middle East still need to understand that digital media skills are a strength that young people bring to the workplace, not a risk. Gen Z gets it. They’re glued to their smartphones, telling their stories every day through their social channels with creativity and interactivity in ways that reflect their personal brands. Corporates – let’s be honest – are a long way behind. Generation Z can help them navigate the increasingly blurred lines between personal and professional digital channels to tell an organisation’s corporate story better.
We as regional communicators have a responsibility to represent the true strategic value of the Middle East internationally. If you have a global role, you know the feeling all too well being asked to expand a project into a new market, then being expected to deliver full-blown communications support across the whole of the Middle East for substantially less than would be invested in individual country campaigns in Western Europe.
It’s not unusual for corporate communications professionals for international companies to report that, while the Middle East may account for 10 per cent of their annual revenue, they only spend 3 or 4 per cent of their global communications budgets here. Communicators here must earn the budget. PR practitioners need to understand the global strategies and objectives of the organisations they are doing business with. They need to be able to present clients with realistic plans and deliverables, with budgets rooted in the strategic importance of Middle East markets in the years ahead, and help global comms chiefs appreciate how the nuances of individual Middle Eastern markets affect how work needs to get done.
Real diversity, as experienced in the GCC, presents one of the biggest management challenges in business history. In the Middle East, diversity is multi-dimensional, going beyond nationality. Those who can understand that success in this region requires them to communicate between cultures and with an understanding of different individual points of view will create respect, trust and understanding from everybody’s perspective and be able to truly take advantage of the spirit of this region.