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Ron Thomas

The RGTS Group

Chief Human Resources Officer

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Thoughts of an American HR officer on a one-way ticket to Saudi Arabia


“Mr. Thomas, we would like to make you an offer”. 

I thought of the scene in the Godfather where the Don makes an offer that can't be refused. Well the offer was one that I could not refuse. And with that call, my life changed. I would be leaving New York City to live in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

I have traveled and consulted in HR all over the world: Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, Dubai, Abujia [Nigeria] and Amsterdam. However all those assignments were a week or no longer than two. Now this meant actually living and working in another country.

This process started six months earlier. I received an email kindly asking whether I would be interested in this opportunity. After kindly affirming, I immediately started my process of analysing workforce culture in Saudi Arabia.

How do you access culture?

This project was a geographical insight into another culture. I wanted to know as much as I could about the country and region because I know that this would shape the thinking of the workforce. I scoured blogs, signed up for every news site and newspaper that was related to the country. I read the history of the country and how it was formed. I was on the hunt.

I called this project “sifting” through a culture. I wanted to know everything I could know about the culture of the country so that could be applied back to the organisational culture. If the country has authoritative leaders, a workforce that has grown up under that environment would feel comfortable in that work environment. If there was a change to the model of leadership to collaborative that would be a huge dynamic and your change model would have to reflect it.  From authoritative to collaborative is a huge leap.

Two cultures: country and organisational

This was important because during my fact finding and interviewing process, I knew that the vast majority of the company leaders were expats. Their duration of employment ranged from a few months to multiple years, but the vast majority were short tenure. So I knew change was in the air. Having an OD background, I mused about collaboration with all the different mindsets and how to make that more effective and unified. I also surmised that any change process that is driven from an expat perspective has to take into account the cultural differences between the two cultures. 

Cultural merging is not only about the merging of different cultural entities within an M & A process. There is also a merging on cultural differences within new leadership coming into the company. With the leadership expats coming from Britain, Thailand, US and the Middle East, that is an internal dynamic within itself. This creates strange bedfellows, and the drawbacks of companies' cultures not meshing together can have an impact on the bottom line.

In order for me to be successful and for the organisation to be successful I knew we needed to converge on a few shared values, common operating principles. That could be something as simple as how we make decisions or how we view change. This would have to be viewed internally the same way that companies that would merge cultures, only in my case my concern was with all the new leaders coming in.

What are you bringing to the table?

As we rise in corporate setting moving from perch to perch we create cultural baggage that we draw from as situations arise. This baggage determines how we think, behave, collaborate and interact. As we move from company to company, our cultural assessments are based on trying to fit and to determine how to operate in this new cultural management dynamic.

Now take that same baggage and move into another country and the logic that was used to make decisions may become suspect. Your management style that has proved successful in jobs past may not work initially in your new environment. Your leadership style could be totally disparate to be successful within your new team.

Transplant rejection

The dynamics of making this cultural leap are huge, but with research you can minimise the shock value, lessen the time to being productive and more importantly becoming fully integrated into this new world. In organ transplantation there is a daily regime of medication to aid your body in accepting the new organ.

Before this organ goes into a new body, doctors “type” both the organ donor and the person who is receiving the organ. The more similar the characteristics are between the donor and recipient, the less likely that the organ will be rejected.

So while a company is making the decisions as to who to hire for a new role, think of the transplant model used in the above. Will the organisation reject or accept the new member? A lot is riding on at question.

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Ron Thomas

Chief Human Resources Officer

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