A breath of fresh air: What it takes to work for MBS
A friend of mine working in media asked me: “Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, what has changed in your administrative work?”
I told him that, in my modest experience, the state and the Royal Court had firmly established bureaucratic practices that could not be altered, as if they were sacred traditions we had inherited. We would hardly dare to amend or change them. We thought government work had unchangeable standards that were passed from one generation to the next, as if we were isolated from the changing and developing environment around us.
There are terms and concepts in modern management that we did not know, or even recognize; we heard about them only in the media, and quickly scanned them without interest. We thought issues such as management, planning, strategic analysis, performance measurement and project management belonged in the private sector, with its volatility.
So the most embarrassing and perplexing situation in my career was my first meeting with the crown prince, after he became President of the Royal Court. “What is your strategic plan at the Media Monitoring and Analysis Center?” he asked me.
Strategic plan? I thought such terms were marketing jargon! However, we work around the clock, we have many achievements, and I was prepared to describe them in a proper, orderly and interconnected manner. I suspect the crown prince saw my confusion, so he made it easy for me. He said: “I mean, where were you 3-5 years ago? Where are you today? And where will you be 3-5 years from now?”
I spoke at length and with great pride about where we were and what we have achieved. As for where we would be in five years, I had to be frank, and told the crown prince I had no idea.
He had more questions for me: “How did you know you had succeeded? Scientifically, what was the standard you used?” I was baffled and hesitant. I replied: “Your Highness, these are the achievements and accomplishments I have personally witnessed, confirmed by many ministers and officials.” He said calmly: “So is the criterion, Saud, your personal impression or their personal impression? Do you think that personal impressions are the standard in assessing the success of institutions or departments?”
What could I say? How should I respond? Quickly, I said: “No, of course, Your Highness, it should be referred to a neutral arbitrator.”
“How is he going to arbitrate?” the crown prince asked. “Who will draw up the measuring standards? Who will approve them? And I am not referring here to the Center specifically, but asking about your opinion in general.” I was bewildered, and he saw it; one of my flaws is that my body language always reveals my feelings.
Observing my bewilderment, the crown prince told me politely that he wanted me to conduct some research, and to do it personally, not assign someone else. The research was about strategic planning. “I want you to completely devote yourself to this task,” he said when I was about to tell him that I was too busy doing more important things. He then lowered his voice and said: “This is important to me personally, and I do not want anyone to know about it.” He made me feel as if it were an important, classified task; he discussed with me the sources he read and liked, and did so in the spirit of a colleague, not a superior. He discussed courses he had attended or watched online, many of which were extremely advanced. His language was encouraging, which gave me the impression that the research I was about to conduct would be the final say on the matter. He also gave me the impression that the outcome of this research would be a continuation of our successful work style, throwing whatever new terms we had heard into the wastebasket.
I had conflicting emotions about the new terms we heard from the crown prince, terms we had never heard of. We know what we are doing, we work hard, this is just theoretical talk and I am going to prove it to him using this research; that is what I was telling myself at the time, as were my colleagues in the Royal Court and other ministries.
So what happened?
Working with him is a duty. He will not compliment you, he will measure your performance and foresee your work path
Amazement, delight, and self-criticism, this is how I felt when I started on the research. It forced me to look into so many aspects of our work, including vision, mission, values, strategic objectives, executive objectives, operational planning and performance measurement. It also forced me to dig deep into other aspects, such as strategic management and project management. The crown prince has always insisted during every meeting on having a project management office (PMO); he asked me and others about it. Our response was always: “That is a private sector concept for a private company, our work is confidential, and we are no company!” I then studied project management thoroughly; it amazed me. So I looked for the best PMO trainers, and organized a special 40-hour course for my colleagues and myself. That was three years ago. A month ago, we organized another course at the Center, a professional project management course, and I attended once again.
I finished my strategic planning research, and followed one of the online courses the prince mentioned; I believe I read most of what has been written in Arabic about this subject. It was a work mission. At the beginning, in my own mind, I was aiming to insert into my report what I believed to be the correct management approach, but the experience turned into a joyful one. I greatly value discovering new things, and I like to expand my understanding of anything once I’m convinced of its value. I requested all the strategic plans drawn up by universities and government bodies, so I could read them. Why had I not done this before? Because I used to say that they were nothing but essays and a waste of time and effort, and I was sure I was right!
However, reading the strategic plans of various government bodies led me to the certainty that the prince was totally right. Strategic planning is important and vital, and we cannot ever succeed without it. We, however, did not apply it. And when anyone ever did, they did not do it correctly. I went back to the crown prince, excited about strategic planning, as if I had invented it. I talked to him with enthusiasm about the subject and how it was not applied in government work, and told him that it was essential. I was carrying the report on the strategic planning study he had asked me to conduct. I proudly handed it to him, thinking I had come up with something no one had ever come up with before. He swiftly browsed it, then smiled and said: “Now, Saud, we have a common language. Tell me now where were you, where are you now, and where will you be in the future?” I told him I would need three months to answer those questions. “No”, he replied. “You first join the (….) committee, which will draw up the strategic plan for (….).”
I joined this committee with enthusiasm, and later joined a second and a third. Those who worked on the committees had already worked with the crown prince, and had learnt the same difficult lesson. I have benefited greatly from my involvement with high-level foreign experts. I worked with them on non-confidential matters. Another committee was at Misk Charity, where I was honored to join its board, which is full of professionals from both the government and private sectors. I have worked enthusiastically with the greatest scientific references in strategic planning. Then I was honored to lead the strategic plan of the Center for Studies and Media Affairs, along with an elite group of Saudi colleagues. Today, I saw the initial presentation to update the plan three years after the original one was adopted. And I remembered my fateful first meeting with the crown prince.
Now, I recall my joy and my pride in my research into strategic analysis when I presented it to him. How naive I was. I did not realize that he had been practicing “change management” on me so effectively that I did not even realize it was happening.
How had I been working in the past? I do not know. But whenever I remember his method with me that day, I say: “This is the difference between a manager and a leader.” Now, I cannot start my working day without seeing the PMO’s report, which I used to mock, or rather did not understand. Today, I take my dashboard and key performance indicators (KPIs) with me wherever I go; they are always on my iPad. Moreover, we are currently working on developing them and making them more effective. The strategic plans committees that I used to hate and fight are my happiness today when I join one of them.
What I’m sure of now is this — if you want to work with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman then you must have the knowledge, professionalism, accurate understanding and ability to form a distinguished team and work with it in the following fields: leadership and strategic thinking; strategic planning; strategic analysis; performance measurement; project management; crisis management; risk measurement; and change management.
Then you must integrate this knowledge into thinking outside the box; there must be continuous improvement in the work process, and, more importantly, self-improvement. You must also keep up with the latest theories, ideas and techniques, and you must have a never-ending love of endless challenges. If you do not possess these elements of professionalism, it is better for you to excuse yourself from working with the crown prince.
Working with him is a duty. He will not compliment you; he will detect your mistakes, measure your performance, and foresee your work path. The crown prince is a reference point in these sciences, which are alien to our government culture. I have seen it many times.
I do not mean that we were wrong in the past; other times, other ways. In the past, the government had its own way of managing its work in light of changing variables. Now, Saudi Arabia, surely, is renewing itself and developing with our young crown prince’s vision, and in the eyes of our king. Our power is our ability to interact, to move, to develop, to deal with our mistakes and address them. Nothing stops us. “The sky is the limit.” So said the crown prince. This is who we are.
• Saud Al-Qahtani is General Supervisor of the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court.