Culture gives the Competitive Edge

By: Shatha Al Maskiry and Joy Abdullah 
visual courtesy @carlarieger
visual courtesy @carlarieger

Culture– that all elusive and hard to describe organizational element that fuels how an organization performs– has had a lot written about itself. Yet there is no one-size-fits-all formula that can be applied, across board, for leaders to have the right cultural climate that results in increasing profitability for the organization.

Change in work culture has become a buzz word for many organizations in the Middle East today.  However the organizations are still challenged to effect change failing to appreciate that a written statement with a handful of glamorous values plastered on walls will not do the trick.

The major shortcoming is that change is greatly undermined in terms of the effort, time and investment required. Change is an organizational wide transformation and we have seen it fail because it is not mandated by leadership nor is it communicated through practice in a consistent manner. Diffusing change requires partnership with the workforce and the organizational values must be closely aligned with the strategy and growth plans. If leadership does not lead cultural change, then the mass would; and in most occasions, they would disintegrate it into a collection of varied sub-cultures that are misaligned. This results in a culture of crumbs.

The reasons why change initiatives, in the Middle East, have often failed is because middle management impede it, and fail to see why they must invest a significant amount of their time as change champions.  They fail to see the necessity of leveraging their interpersonal skills and eloquently communicate what is in it for the employees  in order to create a inspiring engine to make the employees the agents of change; as no real change can be realized without involving all stakeholders.

For industries and their organizations across Middle-East and ASEAN region, business is a colonial legacy brought about through the presence of the multi-national organizations. Independent businesses spawned by employees of these corporates operate with similar cultures as the owners were used to during their employment days.  The result of which is having businesses operating with yesterday’s tools and expecting a different result.  

Aren’t we expecting a bit too much?

The colonial legacy, of Middle-East and the ASEAN regions, passed on what is primarily a very individualistic cultural business style.

Whereas the social culture, of both regions, are more community oriented with rigid hierarchy based on age. In the Middle East, it is also based on a diverse spectrum of factors because of imported talent of various nationalities from various fields and cultures.  

Into this enters behavioural changes which people have had due to the global financial crisis of 2008 and rising adoption of technology. Social media, for one, has made the world a much smaller place and has led to the rise of self-interest based communities. Word-of-mouth referral has become a norm for success and failure of a business.  Yet across businesses in these two regions we are yet to see a concerted focus on culture and its resultant impact on business strategy.

Asia today is the economic growth center for the world.  Along with the twin economic tigers—China & India— the Islamic economy, centered out of Middle-East with its hub in Dubai, is adding to the economic growth and impacting across industries.

The Middle East economies have also put a concerted effort in attempting to diversify away from petro dollars. This is a major challenge that cannot be overcome unless there is emphasis and focus on a new type work culture.

A culture that is highly transformational in nature with a set of values that engages and builds bridges for and with the employees in order to mould a
mind-set that is agile enough to serve the current challenges of the new economy with a special focus on productivity and innovation.

This impact is felt by thousands of businesses, corporate and SMEs involved in generating this economic growth and, in turn, by the consumers in these regions. All of this has a direct impact on the culture that employee, entrepreneurs, leaders and their businesses display today.

Globally we are seeing how established industries are being disrupted by new businesses based on the culture they identify and put in place. The one common denominator for success across these organizations is the culture that they create to drive sustainability of their operations.

 Can we achieve new results with old methods?

With 4 generations—Baby Boomers, Gen X & Y and Millennials all in the workforce now– and each generation having very distinct behaviours, developed through socio-cultural and  educational conditioning, can we expect an organization to have engaged employees who are all on the same page with regards to organizational goals and its linkage to them individually?

There are several cultural gaps in Middle East and ASEAN organizations; hierarchy still exists, lack of flat communication, leadership always runs short of time or spend too much time fire-fighting, and there is a general theme where lack of trust and confidence in each other has become the norm until proven otherwise.

Although diversity is part of what compliments a cultural change, it has been a challenge at several organizations where diverse interpretations of events affect everyone very differently.

We need to look at new scenarios, perhaps disruptive ones, and benefits of the same to each generation, to create a culture that allows for a common purpose to be shared across these generations of people in the workplace. It all boils down to giving the people the value they deserve in developing the business.

How can we create new scenarios that actually work in creating an impactful culture?

  1. Respect: Senior leadership behaviour, in organizations, should communicate equal respect for male and female colleagues.
  2. Voice: Move away from the ‘master & slave’ attitude towards a more open ‘partnering’ attitude which provides an environment for employees to voice thoughts and ideas.
  3. Conversations: Create more opportunities for face-to-face in person, or through technology, interactions or conversations where issues successes and failures are openly discussed for its learnings and not to point blame. The more an organization talks, informally on work, the more engaged the employees get. This creates accountability as people want to do their work so that it helps their colleague.
  4. Trust: Create trust through the conversations, by bringing diverse people and skill-sets together on key business projects, and taking their point of view and making them accountable in delivering the agreed goals for the business.
  5. Passion: Recognise the ones with passion for the business and praise them for their initiatives and drive.
  6. Creating Culture: Culture is created either consciously or unconsciously. It exists. We know of it and actually do something to make that culture behave in a manner that is beneficial to the business or not is what defines success today. One may question and ask—how do I create culture as I am not in a position of authority to do so — the answer is that you can create culture in your unit, department, and work section if you consciously decide to do so.

The collective experience and behaviors of the employee is what sums up the organizational culture.

Culture is just like personality and leadership must create the goals, strategies, experiences, interactions, and rewards from the values it preaches in a consistent manner as every experience is a piece of the bigger puzzle. History forms pieces of the puzzle just like language, events, stories and work practices also shape the desired culture. Impactful change is about giving and taking and it can be achieved through formal strategy, systems, and measures with ownership.

Culture change requires changing behaviors and breaking old habits and this is realized through collaboration, training and coaching. In order to continuously reinforce a strong and successful culture change it has to be modeled, taught, repeated, recognized, and rewarded. The end result should be shared values and productive behaviors to create a healthy and harmonious environment.



About the co-author: Shatha Al Maskiry is a country managing director of Protiviti in Oman. She has 18 years of experience spanning across various consulting roles from process re-engineering, talent risk management, and digital transformation. She is also a certified coach and active in social services especially in coaching youth and students.


Does Islamic finance have an economic and societal value?

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Visual Courtesy:

As the world reels from a continuous series of financial, economic, humanitarian and natural crisis’s, the world of Islamic finance is growing. In the past decade the various projected global industry growth figures show this industry sector to be going up, up and away. Yet if one were to co-relate this growth with social development a direct correlation is, as yet, hard to find.

Is there an anomaly?

Within the global Islamic finance industry the strain of growth is starting to tell on the business models in use as issues of talent, technology and socially responsible investments are now the topics of discussion in industry conferences. Couple this with the developments occurring in the mainstream finance industry where areas like social responsible investment, alternative currency  and crowdfunding are drawing the organizations to view the disruptions taking place and review their business strategies and models.

On ground, technology has empowered people to be able to seek intellectual, financial and managerial collaborations, generating entrepreneurship and a mushrooming of small businesses. The financial industry, as a whole, is looking at the way investment is changing and the way finance is being run.

Against such a backdrop Islamic finance is beginning to look isolated and bereft of a clearly defined economic and societal value.

Decades ago as Islamic finance came in, as an alternative financial system, organizations took the system for use within the regulatory environment that existed. Regulations changed over time to accommodate market sentiments and with those changes organizations seemed to focus on compliance and not on the purpose of their business.

Therein is the anomaly!

The global industry undertook Islamic finance activities based on their then business models and processes. Models that focused on shareholder return of dollar value as primary objective not social or community development and, thus, it was business-as-usual.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

The many financial, environmental, economic and sociopolitical crises, coupled with the advancement and adoption of technology, over the past 20 odd years has brought about seismic shifts in the common man’s buying behaviour. Trust in organizations has eroded given the many scandals. A clearly recorded increase on the dependency of word-of-mouth reference, with regards to engaging with organizations, has come about. Resulting in organizations needing to have specific competencies that simply weren’t in existence 20 years ago. Social media usage has resulted in organizations having to depict simply and authentically their business purpose.

Institutional business has come to the realization that it’s people who make the deals. People who want to work with credible, honest and trustworthy counterparts. Trust has come a full circle and is now at a premium. At the same time, Boards are driving organizations to be more socially responsible and to ensure that the eco-system where a concerned business operates benefits from the services of the organization.

This provides an ideal setting for Islamic finance which, inherently, has economic and societal benefit in-built in its ethical use. Let me clarify through an example—a conventional bank would evaluate various parameters when opening a new branch, in a remote area, including cost-recovery and present a cost-benefit analysis to its board when recommending opening a new branch. The decision would be based on the return its investment would earn and the period in which it would occur. Currently an Islamic bank or financial institution would be doing the same.

But therein is the opportunity!

For an Islamic financial institution the purpose of business is not profit but providing, ethical, financial service to the community. Profit is a secondary objective coming after the benefit to the community has been established. Thus an Islamic finance institution opening a new branch in a remote area should be driven by the societal responsibility of providing services in an area where no such service is available. This involves disrupting the current business models and thinking fresh on the purpose of an Islamic financial institutions business and developing strategy from it to generate required financial gains.

Such gains will encompass developing the eco-system in which the business operates bringing about economic and societal benefit that would not only benefit Muslims but the society at large and enable Islamic finance to show a tangible and distinctive value-benefit.


I’d be delighted to learn of your views on the opportunity that the global Islamic finance industry has and how organizations could capitalize on the same. Please feel free to share your observations.



If Culture Drives Strategy Who Drives Culture?

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visual courtesy:

Organizations oft forget that at the core of their existence are people. Employees, customers, partners each in their own way define an organization. The common denominator is People. The behaviour people display through their individual understanding, acceptance and ownership of organizational values reflects the culture of that organization.

This creates a brand experience which impacts profitability and sustainability.

Amongst the stakeholders of a brand employees are the single most important group. Yet, often, when we are developing a brand experience we fail to recognize and incorporate the culture that’s in play.

A critical ingredient in developing a desired brand experience is to ensure there is clear empowerment of individuals. An organization where the employee feels empowered to contribute ideas inspires employees to strive for delivering to the best of his/her abilities and results in engagement.

This engagement leads to specific behaviour that is aligned with the organisational values and manifests as the work culture. Strong teamwork is visible. Positivity is visibly felt and success of individual activities occurs.

Activating a culture creation plan is not easy. It takes time, persistence, consistency, support of the Board and most importantly clarity of business goals, functional roles and individual development.


As individuals our names give us part of our identity. So also with brands who have their names and logos. But that’s half the job done. Our personality and behaviour, with our name, provides the full experience of ourselves when we interact with another person. Together this makes for our complete identity. Similarly brands, through employees and their behaviour coupled with organisational processes, create specific experiences for a brand stakeholder that lead to having a complete identity of a brand.

Where brands are concerned the specific experience a stakeholder goes through is purely dependent on two factors:

  1. Employee behaviour
  2. Organisational processes

The impact of behaviour and service quality, in terms of process, creates either a positive or negative perception of the brand in the stakeholders’ mind and affects the buying decision and ultimately impacts on the bottom-line of the business.



Developing an effective corporate culture is not an external effort. It is purely an internal exercise that needs as much attention and planning for effective implementation, as the regular functions of an organisation.

The leadership of an organisation needs to provide clarity of its business and the brand experience it wants stakeholders to have. This then needs alignment between organisational and departmental goals and desired behaviour of employees.

Changing behaviour is very difficult.

Work habits are part of our individual cultural make-up that we carry with us when we walk into a job. Affecting change requires having a consistent engagement program through which employees clearly feel and get a feeling of pride and value.

Four Steps to Developing an Employee Engagement Program:

  1. Identify the platform on which the culture would be based. The ethics and social norms it would want to promote and foster among all its stakeholders. Based on this ethical platform determine the values that the brand should stand for.
  2. Inform and internalize these values to the employees by clearly linking them to their work functions and relating back as to how not projecting the same affects the brand and in turn affects the bottom-line. Provide as much clarity to employees here to show the impact on revenue.
  3. Get the employees involved. Get employees to write down, in their own words, how they would project the values in terms of their behaviour.
  4. Ensure measurement. A measurable, performance indicator has to be in place which should be clearly explained to the employee and ensured that comprehension is there.


Having initiated the program, keeping momentum is extremely important. A structured internal communications program, aimed at regularly highlighting organizational achievements and the responsible team or employee who achieved it will aid the program significantly.

What this does is:

  1. It informs the organisation as to who’s championing specific activities.
  2. It creates peer acknowledgement for the high performers.
  3. It motivates the competitive spirit within divisions to do their bit and get their names on the communication roster.

As a team employees move in one planned direction in delivering the desired brand experience. This benefits the brand as all stakeholders receive a very positive brand experience. In turn this strengthens the brand relationship with the stakeholder and leads to increasing revenue.


Across Asia corporate cultures are still largely governed by the ‘command-and-control’ leadership practices that actually alienate employees.  Instead of people being the key focal point for a brand in developing its relationships, the focus is on profits through higher sales & lower costs.

Gunning for increasing profits, year on year, is not wrong. Any business needs to be profitable. That’s why it’s in business. But the strategy to profitability needs to take into account the community and society the business operates in. Without a clear benefit to both any business would not be sustainable in the long-term.

As managers we veer away from undertaking new approaches because we are conditioned to be risk-minimisers & profit-maximisers through years of doing it.

Here’s the catch—as a business leader if you do not put your people first and focus on what benefits them, how can you get them to give a positive brand experience to the stakeholders who matter to you and who pay the revenue the business generates?


Get involvement.

Involvement is the critical element. Intuitively we all understand what involvement is and how powerful a force it can be. When we are told to do something, we do it and then tend to forget about it. But when we are involved in something, we tend to be possessive and own it on an emotive level. 

When emotions come into play passion emerges and enables for a strong, positive experience to take place. This leads to developing trust. As trust grows, relationships strengthen and repeat usage and referrals occur.

The question to ask—is there involvement?

Involvement requires that a strong group process, where meetings and interactions take on a deeper meaning, be in place. A deeper meaning where one focuses more on authentic and honest conversations that emanate from appreciating and valuing the people on the team and not letting personal biases and egos come in the way.

Once a strong group process is in place it leads to strong relationships within individuals for implementing the planned activities. As each individual owns the activity ensuring quality deliverables in terms of content and channel is not hard. As a result of this each interaction of the brand goes to become more personal, emotive and honest. Together it leads to having a positive brand experience.


By taking the pains of involving & engaging employees and defining the culture, organisations can build up a very strong competitive advantage that results on both a strong brand identity as well as a healthy bottom line.

A positive and enriching brand experience is the output of having involved and engaged employees. Such experiences become the differentiator for a business vis-à-vis its competitor and leads to increased business through referrals and re-purchase thus impacting positively on the bottom line.

Engaging perception through customer-centric CSR initiatives

Most organisations undertake CSR programmes as having to fulfill the corporate duty of giving back to society. Often the development of the program becomes the responsibility of the marketing team and is tied to the brand being seen in good light.


Here’s my article on this, published in the Islamic Banker Asia:

Ethics– Is It a tool for Business Sustainability?

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Having been part of two major change management programs in the past 3 years I’ve had the privilege of experiencing how important it is to have a strong organisational culture in place prior to rolling out a change program.

How does one go about setting in place a culture that’s productive, efficient and most importantly empathetic?

There are some key areas of organisational development that affect the sustainability of a business. One such area is that of leadership.

Leadership is the make it-or break it factor for a business in ensuring its sustainability.

It’s the leadership that brings about trust, establishes credibility and generates empathy. Through all of this emerges a common cause, or the vision of the business, which then becomes the reason-why employees rally around and work in the desired directions. The process through which the business works becomes the organisational culture.

So how can organisation leaders develop a strong culture that would aid them in generating support from employees and drive the business to achieve its goals?


Ethics are the keystone of an organisation’s culture and it’s the starting point in developing the type of desired culture. Caution: this does not happen overnight and it cannot be done simply by calling in an external consultant. It needs internal people to be identified and empowered. But that’s for another post.

Ethics is the foundation of a value system.  It is what we, as individuals, as communities, as societies, have in place since history. It is  the cornerstone of the value system a family follows, society follows and what, ultimately, an organisation uses to put in place a ‘work culture’.

It is important that the leadership of the organisation is aligned with the ethics and more importantly, the ethics reflect the eco-system within which the business operates.

Ethics can, either, be used as an interim or as a permanent tool to ensure business sustainability.

So can Ethics be a tool for organisational growth or is it the foundation of a work culture which results in both commercial and social development?

Developing a work culture based on identified and agreed ethics would clearly provide for a beneficial scenario. A scenario, that in the long term, has far significant and positives benefits than immediate short term financial gains.

In the huge industries of Halal & Islamic Finance this particular area of organisational development has not really seen any concentration or alignment with an organisations’ mission and vision. As a result of which articulated ethics are not married into the business plan.

Given the pace of growth of both these industries, it is a matter of time before the two industries have to figure out a way to collaborate. At that point in time, the common starting point for both industries would be the ethics on which they are built. Ideally, they would have a common ethical foundation.

Does this all sound very utopian?

It’s not that it can’t be achieved. What are required are determination, clear focus, and a clear intent of benefiting the business’s eco-system in a positive manner in order to be profitable.

If today’s organisational leaders step outside the realms of how business has been done or work processes followed (for the past 100 years) and look back into our rich Islamic commercial history and adhere to the respective hadiths that are there, they would see the benefits clearly detailed for all. Sometimes one has to study history in order to progress to the future.

Utilising these, to create a foundation and therefore a “value-based culture” would enable the organisation to be leagues ahead of its competition. But, patience, perseverance and faith is required in order to ensure the success of such a culture.

How To Make Your Business Sustainable

3 cornestones of a sustainable business

The words Sustainable and Sustainability are used interchangeably depending on context and mean a variety of things. Here’s a list of some views (taken from the Sustainable Store) on what Sustainability can encompass:

  1. Sustainability means renewing resources at a rate equal to or greater than the rate at which they are consumed.
  2. Sustainability means living within the resources of the planet without damaging the environment now or in the future.
  3. Sustainability means creating an economic system that provides for quality of life while renewing the environment and its resources.
  4. A sustainable community is one that resembles a living system where all of the resources (human, natural and economic) are renewed and in balance for perpetuity.
  5. Sustainability is creating a world where everyone can have fulfilling lives and enjoy a rich level of well-being within the limits of what nature can provide.
  6. Sustainability means taking the long-term view of how our actions effect future generations and making sure we don’t deplete resources or cause pollution at rates faster than the earth is able to renew them.
  7. Some of the many uses of the word sustainable include: Sustainable Business / Sustainable Development / Sustainable Agriculture / Sustainable Living / Sustainable Community.

As you can see there are many areas that are attached with the term ‘sustainability’. For businesses these have a direct correlation to their daily activities, and in the long term, to their survival. However, not enough time and focus, is given to this extremely critical issue.

Majority of businesses approach the issue of sustainability piece-meal. Depending on the nature of the business there are CSR (Corporate Social Responsibilities) or as EEP (Employee Engagement Program) programs introduced. Each with its independent goals to achieve. They, often, do not have clear and measurable targets and, most importantly are not derived out of the business strategy.

How can businesses make themselves sustainable?

There are three cornerstones in developing sustainability in business:

  1. Brand Sustainability: This is the starting point in developing a sustainable business. Once the business strategy i.e. the short and long term goals have been identified the delivery of that is led through the brand. In terms of business planning this is the  section is where the brand’s footprint and impact, across its audience, is planned for. This is the stage where product development, marketing and communication strategy would be defined.
  2. Organisational Sustainability: This is the section where organisational resources will need to be evaluated for delivery of the business strategy i.e. manpower competency & skills sets, identification of required training, evaluation of current processes and systems and planning of scaling up as maybe required.
  3. Financial Sustainability: Finally, when brand and organisational sustainability plans are in place, the costs of the same would translate into budgets. This is where the core team of CMO, CFO & Business Development Head have to work very closely to ensure correct translation of specific costs as investments in order to have a healthy bottom-line and to earmark the quarterly earnings for the business.

These three cornerstones, if developed properly i.e. with adequate time and granularity, will encompass specific sustainability issues of natural and human resources and community benefit and development and lay out initiatives (a la CSR or EEP programs) that have a clear line-of-sight with the business strategy.

The benefits of undertaking such sustainable business planning are quite a few. Here’s the top three that would be of help:

  1. Each initiative is directly correlated to a particular stakeholder group and would map out measurable achievements with a timeline. This provides a clear road-map for boards’ to see progress of the business.
  2. Specific initiatives can be identified which impact the business’s eco-system i.e. all stakeholders and the specific markets, and these can then be turned into CSR or EEP’s.
  3. Prioritising fund allocation for the specific initiatives becomes more scientific as it would be based on the need, impact and return from that initiative.

In summing up, a sustainable business is not just to do with contributing to reducing carbon emissions and saving natural resources (these should be part of the business process) but its more to do with development of the entire eco-system with which the business interacts on a daily basis. Planning and ensuring specific initiatives that benefit the eco-system will lead to greater engagement which would translate to continuous growth.


Understanding Change for Ensuring a Positive Bottom-line

ChangeChange : Make or become different i.e. change the law; change the colour from green to gold.

For most organisations change is a re-active state of being coming about from a need to be profitable. Whilst the saying–“What ain’t broken, don’t fix it”– is what most senior management follows; in today’s business world change needs to be factored into the business process if one is to have a successful bottom-line.

As a head of a division, or a department or, for that matter, as the head of a organisation how do you influence behaviour in order to bring about successful change? At the end of the day, change boils down to people and their attitude. And attitude comes about from behaviour and perception. Both of these need to be influenced in order to bring about the desired behaviour.

Influencing behaviour is easier said than done. But there is a way to rally the staff around a single purpose and thus bring about a change in behaviour.

Noble Sales Purpose (ref: from the “One-minute change that will transform your company).

Identifying a pivotal behaviour and putting it down as an organisation policy and, perhaps, titling it as the ‘ Noble Sales Purpose (NSP)’ is a simple way of initiating a behaviourial practice that any organisation can implement.For service oriented organisations, having such a behaviorial practice in place, is actually extremely helpful not just from the bottom-line perspective but from a staff motivation point of view.

By implementing such a policy each and every staff member personally connects with the stakeholder. They empathise with the needs of the stakeholder and take that understanding back to their daily job and this aids in improving the work process and results in a satisfied stakeholder.The end benefit of this is the impact on the organisation brand reputation.

In time, such service becomes self-reinforcing and staff get to see themselves as key representatives of the organisation. This ends up having a hugely positive impact on the organisation’s cultural set-up and process outputs.

In sum, identifying a critical behaviour that’s aligned to with the business objective and putting the same into practice as a policy results in staff motivation, manifestation as part of the organisational culture and achievement of planned profit targets.