Armed with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and Construction Management from Kuwait University and an executive MBA from Arizona’s Thunderbird School of Global Management, Engineer Ghosson Al-Khaled joined the family business, ACICO Industries, in 2002. Throughout her years at the Kuwait-based company, which has grown to become a regional manufacturer of a wide array of building materials and controls other procedures, Al-Khaled has become renowned for her operations know-how, resourceful business strategies and coming up with just the right solutions for clients. What’s more she aims to empower each one of her employees, driving them to success with the motto “One Team, One Dream”.
After climbing the corporate ladder, then acting as Chief Operating Officer (COO) in the company’s industrial division, Al-Khaled has risen to become the group’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer. The position sees her managing five COOs in different divisions and monitoring how the company is doing overall. With all the company’s notable profits, steady growth and new launches and services, she is continuously proving why she makes it to power lists featuring the most victorious Arab business women in magazines like “Arabian Business” and “Forbes Middle East.” What’s more, on the personal side, Al-Khaled raised the bar in corporate social responsibility when she established a non-profit autism treatment centre, the Autism Partnership Kuwait, which uses the latest and proven practices in applied behaviour analysis treatment.
As part of our series on highly successful women who have been invited to speak at the 19th Global WIL Economic Forum taking place in Dubai on October 25-26, we have a chat with the inspiring entrepreneur. We ask about the barriers women face in the region, her most difficult decision, tips on climbing the career ladder and a lot more.
Name three women who have inspired you.
Three women who have inspired me and still inspire me to this day are Shaikha Al-Bahar, Naseema Al-Rafai and Christine Lagarde. Al-Bahar is the Deputy Group CEO of the National Bank of Kuwait. She has been lauded several times, including making it to the top 10 of the ‘100 Most Powerful Arab Business Women’ list compiled by “Forbes Middle East.” Besides being my grandmother, Naseema Al-Rafaie became the first Kuwaiti woman to manage a ladies' branch for the Kuwait National Bank in 1972. Last but not least, Christine Lagarde is the lawyer and politician who has been the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund since July 5, 2011.
Can you share some strategies that can aid women achieve a more prominent role in their companies?
Reflecting on my career and journey, I’d like to sum up strategies to success in any industry in three words: planning, mentorship, and adversity. Success is a decision, and in order to reach that, women must make sure to set a plan. This is crucial because planning ensures focus. Set a five, 10 or 15-year plan and accordingly stick to it with a certain degree of flexibility, as change is inevitable. But at least by having a plan, you will be better equipped to handle change.
Besides networking, women should find a mentor. A mentor is a person who will guide you and help you develop your career. I have been fortunate to have my father as my mentor from the start of my career. I consult with him, discuss ideas and strategies and learn from his experiences. This has allowed me to better reflect on my decisions benefiting the organisation and myself as a whole.
Achieving a prominent role is not an easy task, for men and women alike. Adversity is inevitable and requires tough skin, perseverance and a positive attitude. Factors in gender biases in a male dominated world and acknowledging adversity are important for women to keep in mind. Women need to acknowledge that their career paths will not always be smooth and this struggle will make them tougher and more resilient. As Oprah Winfery once said, “Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.”
Tell us about the most significant leadership lesson you have learned in your career.
Empowerment, of all the lessons I have learned, empowering decision-making is the most significant. Embracing empowerment and encouraging employees to make decisions and not only execute tasks has paid off. At ACICO, I see firsthand how employees feel more valued. Through the trust we have put in them, they are more invested and attentive to their productivity. By shrinking the approval process and developing a decision-making framework, the company and the people have become more efficient and creative in achieving set goals year on year. I make it a point to train and develop employees to advance in their careers at all levels throughout the organisation and empowering them is a significant tool in doing so. I have personally found that investing in human capital has improved morale, employee efficiency and creativity and therefore company productivity.
And what are the most important barriers to female leadership in the region?
I was lucky enough not to have to face work barriers as such. This could be because I started from the bottom and worked my way up. I started as a site engineer and am now the Deputy CEO. Throughout my career, my father has been constructively harsh and attentive to everything I did. Thereby, I feel I earned the trust and respect of not only the employees but also other players in our field. However, I did face personal struggles in balancing between my family and my job, especially during maternity leave. However, these special experiences that women have, one of which is becoming a mother, should not stop or hinder your path, as I believe if there is a will, there is always a way.
Which kinds of challenges do you think the new generation of women face?
I believe the new generation of women will continue to face similar challenges the previous generations have, but their challenges will be easier to face. If we look at this region of the world, issues such as marriage structure and gender biases are still prevalent, however we can’t deny that we are witnessing a culture shift in women’s rights. I feel the new generation of men are more accepting of equality and are proud to see the women in their lives succeeding at work. Yet, I still feel that challenges such as maternity leave and the glass ceiling are still really relevant. These challenges might slow women down but should never stop or hinder their ambition and progress.
What is the most difficult decision you've ever made?
Accepting a family member, my father, as my boss. It was initially very difficult for both of us to separate family from work. I remember during my earlier years, as he trained me to become the Deputy CEO, it felt as though he was criticising my every move. There were days where it was hard getting home and seeing him as a father rather than my boss who had just put me through a series of gruelling tests. I always had to make sure my work life did not bleed into my family life. I have to admit though that this relationship and my father’s tough love definitely made me better at my job and much closer to my ‘dad-boss’ than I ever was.
Which particular qualities (some of the things you couldn’t include on your CV) have helped you get to where you are today?
Ambition, I say that because ambition goes beyond just passion, it includes motivation, grit, willpower and an internal drive to succeed. I believe I am ambitious, resilient, and persistent. I always seek learning opportunities that will contribute to making me a better person and a better leader in all I do.
What do you do to keep yourself centered?
With the rush of today’s face-paced world, I have made a decision to consciously practise mindfulness in all I do. I will take a couple of minutes to practise breathing exercises throughout the day. I make sure I always focus my efforts to attentively listen and be conscious and aware of all I do. I have found that such practices help keep me centred. I also make sure to exercise at least a few times a week. It’s all about balance; I am constantly and actively working on balancing my career and my family. I realised that when I am not balanced and centred, I am not as creative or productive as I am when I am. That’s why it has become a priority to set aside a few minutes or hours from my day to focus on keeping centred, benefiting my family at home and at ACICO and myself.
What’s the most exciting part about participating in the Global WIL Economic Forum?
To me personally, meeting new and interesting people at a personal level and catching up with previous colleagues is the most exciting part. Plus, sharing and learning from other leading women’s experiences is a critical factor and benefit from the forum.
The theme this year is ‘The Butterfly Effect – From Intent to Impact.’ Why do you think it’s particularly important to focus on enacting social change at this time?
Change can start from anywhere. Anything you say or do, no matter how small can cause change. We, as women, must keep pushing boundaries and breaking glass ceilings to promote social change. Women suffrage movements started in the 19th century, and thanks to all the changes these females have succeeded in accomplishing, women today lead better lives than our ancestors. This is more reason for us to keep progressing and focusing on enacting social change, as we now have a better chance of achieving this change.
The agenda explores diversity as the driving force of our collective future. Could you elaborate on that?
The world today is more connected than ever; just consider the powerful Internet, travel and digital platforms such as television and social media that connect us to the ‘outside world’. Through this connection, the beauty of our diversity is augmented, as we are able to learn and borrow from each other. The “cross-pollination” and cross selling of cultures is not only a beautiful thing, but also a learning curve for the whole world. Embracing our differences and appreciating our diversity while adhering to best practices is in all our interests, it sparks creativity and encourages collective success.