TalentX - The Talent Experience Podcast

Ep. 08 - Ron Thomas

July 30, 2020 Fuel50 Season 1 Episode 8
TalentX - The Talent Experience Podcast
Ep. 08 - Ron Thomas
Chapters
TalentX - The Talent Experience Podcast
Ep. 08 - Ron Thomas
Jul 30, 2020 Season 1 Episode 8
Fuel50

In this episode host John Hollon speaks with Dubai-based Ron Thomas, who reveals what work life was like during the lockdown in the Middle East and what long term changes were required as a result. Ron offers great perspective and tips for reimagining the new workforce using examples from what CEO’s in essential services organizations have learnt. 

Ron Thomas is a sought-after speaker and Managing Director of international consulting firm Strategy Focused Group. Find him on Twitter @ronald_thomas, LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/ronthomashr/ or at http://www.strategyfocusedhr.com

For more insightful conversations, visit www.talentxpodcast.com. We hope you enjoy this episode of the TalentX podcast!

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode host John Hollon speaks with Dubai-based Ron Thomas, who reveals what work life was like during the lockdown in the Middle East and what long term changes were required as a result. Ron offers great perspective and tips for reimagining the new workforce using examples from what CEO’s in essential services organizations have learnt. 

Ron Thomas is a sought-after speaker and Managing Director of international consulting firm Strategy Focused Group. Find him on Twitter @ronald_thomas, LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/ronthomashr/ or at http://www.strategyfocusedhr.com

For more insightful conversations, visit www.talentxpodcast.com. We hope you enjoy this episode of the TalentX podcast!

John Hollon:
[00:00:25] Hello. I'm John Hollon and welcome to TalentX, the talent experience podcast. Today's guest is Ron Thomas. Ron is an old friend of mine and is the managing director of the Strategy Focused Group, an international consulting firm based in Dubai and the former CEO of Great Place to Work in the Gulf States.

[00:00:47] He was CHRO of Al Raha Group, which is based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He's also a senior faculty member of the Human Capital Institute covering the Middle East, North Africa and the Asia-Pacific region and he's a visiting professor at the Global Human Resources Leadership Institute at the Howard University School of Business in Washington, DC.

[00:01:09] Ron has a resume about twice as long as what I just said, but that's plenty. And so, again, I've known Ron for a long time, way back to when he was Vice President for Human Resources for Martha Stewart and that was after he'd done stints at IBM and Xerox. Thanks for joining us, Ron, how are things in the Middle East?

 

Ron Thomas:
[00:01:29] Things are good, a little hot today, but things are good. Things are good. Glad to be here too, glad to be here. 

 

John Hollon:
[00:01:35] Well, we are glad to have you here. Okay. We've got a lot to talk about, so let's start with this: I know you do a lot of speaking throughout the Middle East Africa and Asia and even with the global lockdown, you still have been doing presentations via Zoom and other virtual channels. What are you hearing from businesses and other organizations out there? What are their concerns right now during this tumultuous year and what are they doing to address them? 

 

Ron Thomas:
[00:02:02] So that's the way I would present that is twofold. One is for essential workers, because I tend to know a lot of the executives and the essential workers from hospitals and grocery stores, as well as you know, so called normal businesses. Everyone is trying to figure out what the new normal is going to be, reimagining the workforce, and that could be something as simple as are we going to have a full office with a hundred percent occupancy?

[00:02:32] Or are we going to allow people to work from home? So one of the things that's kind of unique in this region, and I don't mean to use a broad brush, but the workforce policies are kind of rigid, not a lot of flexibility as it relates to work from home. And so because of the lockdown, people had to work from home and you had managers who are in a lot of cases, concerned about productivity because it's the first time they had ever experienced this model, but one of the findings was that people were more productive and people enjoy being home. Now the repercussions that's going to come up around from that is that now you're asking people to come back in the office. A lot of people feel ill at ease from a safety perspective coming back into an office environment.

[00:03:25] So what are the policies that are going to change? So I've been advising my clients take your workforce policies, look at them and try and reimagine this new workforce because the workforce you had before is not going to be the workforce you're going to have in the recovery stage and moving into the next modeling of work.

[00:03:50] Because there's been so many repercussions, when you look at disruptors, I mean, it's all over the place from technology. You know, you mentioned earlier all of your interaction with your team members is now over some type of technology. And in a lot of countries this was banned. In Dubai, Skype calling, Skype video, WhatsApp calling, Facebook calling, all of that was banned.

[00:04:17] So the government is struggling with how are they going to open it up? Because on one side, all of the telecoms are owned by the government. So it kinda depends upon the area, geographical region you're working from, but the model of the workforce, I would say is front and center. And how is that? How are we going to make these adjustments?

[00:04:38] Because in a lot of cases, there were wholesale layoffs, Emirates Airlines, which is the premier airline here in Dubai, laid off 9,000 people here last week. And those were people that were basically associated with the plane model, the A380's, which was a big double Decker. Not going to be needing that for a while. A380 pilots and the staff that man those flights were the vast majority of people that were let go. And I think this was their third round and they're not projecting aircraft, the airline industry to bounce back until 2022. 

[00:05:18] So what is the workforce going to look like? So from strategic workforce planning, to talent management and taking in all facets, even something as simple as how are you going to conduct interviews? How are you going to conduct onboarding? Are you not letting people come to the office? If I have to interview five people, maybe I don't feel comfortable doing that. So again, falls back to technology. So everything is going to have to be ripped up and looked at again. 

 

John Hollon:
[00:05:46] Now stop me here if I'm wrong, Ron, but isn't Dubai one of these places that's wired really well. They have good wifi and everybody has it in their home and such. So it strikes me it probably, and I'll use this term as a euphemistic one, they probably had political concerns, which is why they didn't allow for the various things like Skype and Zoom and stuff to be used. 

[00:06:12] Because they certainly don't have the problem we've had here in the United States, which is a lot of people who got pushed home to work at home, found out that their local wifi that was great when they were just at home a couple of hours a day working on it. Doesn't do so well when everybody's at home working eight hours. 

 

Ron Thomas:
[00:06:30] So we had that problem here that first week, the internet was very slow and I called a friend of mine that worked for Etisalat. He said, Ron, think of this, your normal usage during the day, a normal day, would possibly be a, say a thousand people. And all of a sudden there's five hundred thousand and everybody's calling. He said, so we're working to try and boost that up. So that's one point. They were able to overcome that, but what Dubai, and a lot of these regions were being so-called set up to become the modern metropolis they are now. The government drove the telecom industry. We have two telecoms here, Etisalat, and Du, and they're both owned by the government. The same as a utility. So that was kind of one of the reasons, not so much for trying to attempt down dissent and all those kinds of things, because, you know, everybody can get a VPN and you can still do whatever you want to do.

[00:07:29] And I think when I lived in Saudi Arabia, it was really, really tough there. But I'd read some places that Saudi Arabia has the highest penetration of VPNs than any other country on the planet. Because they were trying to circumvent. So yeah, the government plays a huge role. But one of the, there was always discussion around how are we going to do this? Because if you're advertising yourself as a more modern, business metropolis, and you're trying to say, if you're going to locate in the Middle East, Dubai is the place to do that. But then on the other side, you've got all of the technology locked down. 

[00:08:13] So a lot of the so-called big shots of the region were speaking out on that, really speaking strongly about it. And all of a sudden this comes through and everything's now open. So there's a lot discussion in the government now as to are we just going to open this thing up and maybe take a hit. And it is what it is. 

 

John Hollon:
[00:08:31] Okay. Well, I want to get onto something else here, because you were kind enough to share one of your recent presentations with me, and when I was looking at the slides, I saw that one of the things that you're talking about when you do a presentation is the three R's of COVID: respond, recover, and reimagine. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that pertains to organizations in your part of the world? 

 

Ron Thomas:
[00:08:56] Okay. That's a technique I use sometimes that's called a journey map. So a journey map, basically, if you think of the employee, the employee life cycle. The employee applies for the job, the employee goes to the interviews and all of those kinds of things until the time, they leave there. So that's a long period of time. So when you think about the so-called three R's that I came up with, respond, recover, and reimagine.

[00:09:22] What was the first day that you went into total lockdown? You were responding to the virus and all during that time, you know, people were upskilling as, as willing to technology, virtual meetings. How do you manage a team of people? There was all of this uncertainty once it first hit. And then after a period of time, they started saying, okay, we're going to, so the BICE version was this, we're gonna open it back up at 50% with all these restrictions. So that was kind of recover. So companies were trying to figure out, okay, if we opened back up at 50%, the workforce, you can only have 30% of the people inside of the office. So what happens to people that don't want to come into the office? 

[00:10:08] So in that stage, everyone was trying to figure out how are we going to begin walking back to a closer to a normal, and once we were going through that, maybe I think now I'm going to say it's maybe in the three to four weeks, then all of a sudden, now it's back to normal. Now companies are in that stage trying to figure out a reimagining what this new workforce is going to look like.

[00:10:33] And this is what I was talking about at the top of the discussion. Was how's this model going to look, I've read some research the other day that said that CFO's their main concern during this lockdown was cost. But they were thinking do I really need three floors on this expensive strip of land?

[00:10:59] Because if 50% of our workforce is going to be working from home or working from anywhere I can save a lot of costs by cutting the space. So that was a CFO's concern. Marketing concern was that if everyone's locked down and everyone's now doing everything across technology, my marketing model has to be reviewed. Technology: how are we going to enable people to have Zoom meetings and understand all this new technology? That was their concern. So everyone in this reimagining phase is going to have to kind of rethink their function. 

[00:11:37] So there's a slide I use. If you think of a pie and you think of slices in that pie and one slice, this could be IT, one slice could be marketing, one slice could be operation facilities, whatever it is. And then you have the people side of it. So the people side or the people slice, is going to connect to all of those. So when I talked to connecting the dots, all of that is going to have to be put into some kind of coherent strategy in our reimagine stage, which is the stage that we're in now.

[00:12:10] So when I talk about these disruptors, I think there's eight. Those eight segments are going to have to be knitted and weaved together as we try and figure out what the next phase or normal or whatever's going to be. 

 

John Hollon:
[00:12:29] Two other areas that you talk about, I know in your presentations are the boom and bust cycle of the workforce and new skills and competencies. Can you talk about that or talk about those like a little bit, because those are the ones that jumped out at me as sort of really current and right in front of us now that I know a lot of organizations are struggling with. 

 

Ron Thomas:
[00:12:48] Yeah. So I'll give you essential workers, because I interviewed a CEO for a major hospital. And he's told me that he's kind of taking notes every day, every night he comes in, he's writing down what happened, what worked, what didn't work. What could he build upon? Because he's thinking reimagining phase in doing that. So he noticed that there were nurses who were without portfolio, just a normal nurse, stepped up to the plate.

[00:13:18] Whereas a lot of the people that were title managers, supervisor, whatever it is, they kind of slumped back because they weren't used to dealing in that with all this ambiguity. And so that new leader popped up and he said, I noticed those throughout whether it was the people that were cleaning the rooms just took charge and started doing things. He said, these are the people. I'm going to have to think about developing these people because they showed us something here and we're going to have to build upon this.

[00:13:51] That's why I always tell leaders that during this phase, you should be laser focused on the interactions of your people. What they're doing, who's stepping up who may be challenged because a lot of the people you may have in charge did not step up because they're used to a normalcy and all of a sudden when there's all this change going about, they're not comfortable in that environment. 

[00:14:14] So skills, virtual leadership skills is something that you probably would have never thought of years ago. How do I manage a team when I'm used to walking in a room and I've got my entire team, I can spend some time here, spend some time here, but from a virtual interaction, that skillset is different because if I'm sitting at home, I could be distracted easily.

[00:14:37] There's a lot of dynamics that come into play. So virtual leadership skills, that's a capability of all leaders that's going to have to kind of try and figure this out because this is our new way of doing work. And do I have the skills to operate in this new environment? Supervisory level of people that have shown something, these are people you want to begin to develop from a virtual perspective. In a lot of cases, because maybe that's where the new model is going to pan out from there. So skills and capabilities when you look at it from the financial perspective, when you look at the marketing perspective, do we have the skills to change from print marketing or standard marketing to all social marketing?

[00:15:24] Because maybe our skillset was rooted into another time frame and now everything is done, even said, take in terms of the grocers, the grocery stores started online shopping and this was the first time they had really experimented with that. Then there was so many problems so they looked at logistics. Then they said logistics is going to have to be revamped the whole customer experience from the technology that I can go online and order things is going to have to be upskilled. So regardless of where you sit, there's some capabilities that's going to have to be scripted. 

 

John Hollon:
[00:16:02] Talking about skills and such Ron do you find that companies in the Middle East and in organizations, are they thinking and trying to get a handle on having to reskill a good chunk of the workforce to deal with the things that have developed or that they've seen come up out of their response to the lockdown. 

 

Ron Thomas:
[00:16:24] Yeah. Yeah. For the most part, all of them realize that we had no idea. Because see, within a normal and a normal set, a normal normalcy. Everyone is just kind of walking through and day to day you can come in and kind of be blindfolded doing what you're doing. All of a sudden that's disrupted. And now you've got to try and figure it out. 

[00:16:48] So even from a CEO's perspective, you know, I was talking about the difficulty of coming in and you're in panic mode from the time he walks into hospital as the CEO. Or the CHRO says his people look so concerned because they're on the front lines. And people are coming in mask on mandatory, they don't feel comfortable in that environment. A lot of them stepped up to the plate. A lot of these people have shown leadership capabilities and we began to start developing those people.

[00:17:20] Now, the executives that were we're smart, we're watching all of this, analyzing all of this because there's some strong points that came up that they can build upon going into the reimagining phase.

 

John Hollon:
[00:17:35] Well, Ron, I'd love to keep chatting. I could go all day about this. I know you can too, but it looks like we're running out of time. And so there's always one last question that we like to ask everybody who comes on the podcast right before we close that I want to ask you too, and it's this here at the TalentX podcast. We wholeheartedly believe that everyone should have a job that they love. One they're passionate about. So, Ron, what do you love about what you do? 

 

Ron Thomas:
[00:18:03] So our work day, starts on Sunday. And you know, when you ask people from an outcome of our US perspectives, everybody talks about TGIF, but nobody talks about TGIS, TGIM  from the US perspective. I'm kind of the TGIS, I cannot wait for Sunday to come around, Saturday, which is the day for preparing to come back to work. I enjoy what I do. It's not work for me. And I had this conversation with someone yesterday and I said, I'm in the latter stages of my career, but for the past, say seven years, I've been at a point that I absolutely enjoy what I do. And even if I weren't getting paid to do it, I would still do it. And it's just a joy to do what I do. 

[00:18:52] I interact with some of the most interesting people and I travel the world, talking to people in other regions. I was on the phone with someone from China earlier in the week and someone from Singapore yesterday. I have some meetings today with a group from India later this afternoon, and it's just mind boggling and I would have never thought when I was in New York, when we first met that it would've transpired to this. So I say this to people who may be struggling in your career. The thing that you need to kind of focus on is that what do you want to be when you grow up and what do you get more joy out of? Because something as simple as understanding what you really enjoy and try and see if there's a connection there. If you can get over that hump, it's not work anymore. 

 

John Hollon:
[00:19:41] Well, Ron, that has to be the best description of a passionate job that you love, that I've heard of anybody we've had so far on the TalentX Podcast. So thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here today. You've got a great conversation and you gave us a lot of wonderful insights from another part of the world, we really appreciate you being here. So this is John Hollon, wrapping up another edition of the TalentX podcast. Thanks for listening.