What 11th grade Saudi girls taught me about “How to be a Leader”

High School Students With Raised Hands in ClassLast summer while waiting for a job offer from Deloitte Middle East, a tweet from the CEO of Injaz Saudi Arabia, Mr. Nael Fayez, caught my attention. It advised, “Choose a high school near your home and volunteer with Injaz SA for five hours only to help prepare our students for the job market.” Having always been feverishly interested in volunteering, I discovered that Injaz Saudi Arabia (Injaz SA) is a member of Junior Achievement Worldwide; the world’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to educate and prepare students for the job market. Established in 1919, it now reaches over 10 million students in 124 countries around the world every single year, through public outreach programs that are led by private sectors volunteers. The outreach programs deliver hands on training in the areas of job preparedness, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

I checked the list of corporate sponsors of Injaz SA, and what a welcome coincidence I discovered that Deloitte Middle East is one of those sponsors. Soon after I had joined Deloitte, I got in touch with Injaz SA and arranged for a training session for Deloitte employees interested in volunteering. The first program is about work readiness, called ‘How to be a Leader in my Society’. The second program is titled ‘It Is My Business’, and the third, ‘Entrepreneur Master Class’. The three programs are delivered over the course of three days.

Injaz did all the required arrangements with the school I chose, such as informing the school with the set date and sending out the printed materials and posters needed to deliver the program to volunteers. On my way to that school to deliver the first program, and while I was going through my labored notes, I had a flashback to my own school days before I left Saudi Arabia for the US, some thirty years ago! Memories of my student days came rushing through my mind. Arriving early to set up the classroom and hang the posters, I had more time to reflect on my teenage years in Saudi public schools. I reminisced on how the past looked intensely and curiously similar to the present; the school’s playground, its narrow stairs and high walls, the teachers’ room, the school canteen, and most of all that venerable school uniform, the “maryool.”

I recall wearing my long grey uniform dress in that classroom with its oversized blackboard and bits and pieces of chalk scattered on the floor. At the same time, many questions about the present raced through my mind. I did not know if I would be able to control 36 talkative 11th graders so that learning can begin to take place. Will they laugh at my “shami” accent? My thoughts got interrupted by the noise of students racing to enter the room. The students looked excited, I believe, in anticipation, and because they were going to take the session in a room that was designated for training teachers. They must have also felt important. So I thought I should capitalize on this. After introducing myself and Injaz SA, I asked them to imagine that they were attending a conference on leadership. To facilitate our discussions, I added, we need to agree on a means to stop the side discussions in a way that was different from, “GIRLS, GIRLS, PLEASE LISTEN,” all while banging on the table with a ruler! I explained to them that when I want them all to listen, I will raise my hand and those who see me will stop talking and raise their hands too until all are ready to listen. To my surprise, they liked the idea and all seemed eager to be the first to notice my hand go up.

Learning can now take place!

After several brainstorming sessions with the 11th graders trying to disseminate the traits of leaders, it struck me how modern-day information tools figured prominently in their answers and in group discussions, tools my own generation did not have, perhaps not even imagined. These new tools of information have armed them with that still uncommon “common sense,” which has the wonderful and welcome effects of diluting and replacing the dated rote learning paradigm. As long as the students can seek information independently, and as long as the free flow of information transcends the school’s “high walls”, those students will be much better equipped to chart their own future. Success becomes theirs to claim. Knowledge and access to information delivered via different media are vital to the students’ confidence, trust, facts finding, and determination – all are substantive elements of leadership and future leaders, who I believe I have seen some of them today.
Let me share with you their thought provoking responses to a sentence completion exercise: “A leader is someone who is…,” Here is the list the brain storming session generated:

“A leader is personable, humble, and respectful of others, a listener, inspiring, visionary, responsible, and ethical. She can resolve conflicts, shares knowledge, is consistent, has values, trusted, charismatic, controls her temper, team worker, role model, delegator, and motivator, and admits mistakes, constant learner, fair, innovative, passionate, takes risks, and positive.”

Who can say that those 17 year olds do not know about leadership? They never read an article from either the Harvard Business Review or the Wall Street Journal, yet they instinctively know what the common characteristics of a leader are.

After we exchanged our Twitter usernames, and before I erased the list from the white board, I copied the list and put it in my purse to reflect on it later.

Facilitating the other two programs where the main objective is to instill entrepreneurship spirit in the students was an unforgettable experience. It was a pleasure to witness how the students cleverly applied the concepts of leadership when they were asked to think about their target customer and market segments. Towards the end of the ‘It is My Business’ training program, students were required to present an advertisement about their product where they had the option to use different media. The classroom was filled with the sound of laughter as some students chose to advertise their product by singing a song while others chose to perform a skit. It was utterly creative, brave, funny, and lively. What intrigued me was the students’ ability to choose the element of surprise to market their product – a powerful marketing tool.

Having delivered all three outreach programs in a public school – that appears so similar and yet so different to the one I attended – gave me the profound sense of satisfaction of giving something back to the community that helped me succeed; its school, its teachers, its students, its past and its present. To work for a company that embraces a culture of corporate responsibility by allowing and encouraging their employees to participate in this and similar outreach programs made me feel proud to be part of that culture, and company.

I salute Deloitte and all the companies that care. I salute Injaz Saudi Arabia who translates and channels this care into action. I salute my fellow volunteers for keeping the dream alive and for nothing less than helping to shape the future.

By Elham Barghouty, Human Resources Manager at Deloitte in the Middle East

One thought on “What 11th grade Saudi girls taught me about “How to be a Leader”

  1. It is time for organizations to take place developing communities, yes we are a profitable organization but I believe organizations working to develop communities are those drawing their sustainable business. Salute Deloitte :).

    Thanks Elham for sharing.

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