A friend of mine working in media asked me: “What has changed in your administrative work with Prince Mohammed bin Salman?”
I told him that my modest experience of working in the state and the Royal Court has firmly established bureaucratic practices that could not be violated as if they were sacred traditions we inherited with respect. We could hardly dare to amend or change such practices. We thought that government work had unchangeable standards that are passed from generation to another as if we were isolated from the successively changing and developing context surrounding us.
There are terms and concepts in management that we did not know nor even recognized. We only heard about them in the media. We quickly scanned them without interest, such as management, planning, strategic analysis, performance measurement, project management and other developments that were believed to belong to the private sector with its volatility.
The most embarrassing and perplexing situation in my humble career was my first meeting with Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, after assuming the Presidency of the Royal Court. He asked me “What is your strategic plan at the Media Monitoring and Analysis Center?”
“A strategic plan!” was the reply with which I wanted to answer his Highness question. I thought that such terms are marketing idiomatic terminology! We work around the clock, and then a range of various and huge achievements crossed my mind – based on my calculations of course. I was prepared to describe them in a proper, orderly and interconnected manner.
I believe that His Royal Highness found about my confusion and made it easy for me, saying: "I mean, where were you 3-5 years ago; where are you today; and where will you be after 3-5 years?”. I spoke at length elaborately with great pride about where we were and what we have achieved. As for where we would, I had to be frank telling His Royal Highness that I had no idea.
He had the following questions for me: “How did you know you succeeded? What was the standard you scientifically used? I have been baffled and hesitant: “Your Highness, these are the achievements and accomplishments I have personally witnessed, and are confirmed by many ministers and officials” I answered. He replied calmly: “So is the criterion, Saud, your impression or their personal impression? Do you think that personal impressions are the standard in assessing the success of institutions or departments?
What should I say? How should I respond? In a quick manner I said:” No, of course Your Highness President, you may advice the referral to a neutral arbitrator.”
“How is it going to arbitrate?” He asked. “Who will draw up the measuring standers? Who will approve them? And I am not referring here to the Center in specific, but asking about your opinion in general.” I was bewildered, and he felt it. One of my flaws is that my body language always reveals my feelings, a flaw from which I could not release myself.
Noticing my bewilderment, he told me very politely that he wants me to conduct a research, one that I conduct myself, not assigning someone else to do it. The research was about strategic planning. “I want you to completely devote yourself for this task,” that’s what he said when I was about to tell him that I was too busy doing more important things. He then lowered his voice and continued, “This is important to me personally, and I do not want anyone to know about it.” He made me feel that it is a huge classified task; he discussed with me the sources he read and liked in this field with the spirit of a colleague, not a superior. He discussed certain courses that he attended or that he watched online, many of which were so advanced. His language was encouraging, which gave me the impression that the research I am about to conduct will be the final say. He also gave me the impression that the outcomes of this research will be continuing our successful work style, and throwing whatever new terms we heard, as employees, to the wastebasket.
I had a conflicted set of abjection feelings against the new terms we heard from the prince, terms we have never heard of. We know what we are doing, we work very hard, and this is just a theoretical talk. I am going to prove it to him using this research! This is what I was telling myself at that time, so were my colleagues in the Royal Court and other ministries.
So what happened?
Amazement, delight, and self-criticism, this is simply how I felt when started working on the research. It forced me to look into many aspects, including vision, mission, values, strategic objectives, executive objectives, operational plan, and performance measurement. It also forced me to dig deep into other aspects, such as strategic management and project management. The prince has always insisted during every meeting on having a project management office (PMO), he asked me and others about it. Yet, our response always was “this is a private sector work, our work is confidential, and we are no company!” I then studied PM thoroughly; it amazed me. So I looked for the best PMO trainers, and organized a special 40-hour-course for my colleagues and myself. This was three years ago. A month ago, we organized another course at the Center, a project management professional course, and I attended it once again.
I finished my strategic planning research, attended one of the online courses the prince mentioned, and I believe that I read most of what was written in Arabic about this subject. It was a work mission. At the beginning, back in my mind, I was aiming to insert what I believed is the right management approach, but the experience turned into a joyful one. I greatly value discovering new things, and expand in understanding them whenever I was convinced of. I requested all strategic plans drawn by universities and governmental bodies to read them. Why have not I done so before? Because I used to say that they are nothing but essays and a waste of time and effort, and I was right! The various plans of different governmental bodies I read led me to a certainty that the prince is totally right. Strategic planning is important and vital, and we cannot ever succeed without it. We, however, do not apply it. And who ever did, they did not do it right. I went back to the prince, excited about strategic planning as if I invented it. I talked to him with enthusiasm about the subject and how it was not applied here, telling him that it was necessary to be applied. I was carrying the strategic planning study he asked me to conduct. I proudly handed it to him thinking that I came up with something no one has ever came up with. 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 am going to answer Your Royal Highness, I just need three months. "No”, he replied. “You first join the (….) committee, which will draw up the strategic plan for (….).”
I joined to this committee with enthusiasm, and later joined a second and a third. Those who worked on the committees have had already worked with the Prince and have 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, which I was honored to join its board, that is full of professionals coming from both the government and private sector. 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 with an elite of Saudi colleagues. Today, I saw the initial presentation to update the plan after three years of the previously adopted one. And I recalled the fateful meeting with the Prince.
Now, I recall my joy and my pride of my research in strategic analysis when I presented it to His Highness. How naive I was. I did not realize that he was preforming “Change Management” on me very effectively that I could not imagine it.
How was I 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 indicator (KPIs) with me wherever I go; it is always on the iPad. Moreover, we are currently working on developing it and make it 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 the following:
If you want to work with Prince Mohammed bin Salman then you must have the knowledge, professionalism, an accurate understanding, and the 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
- Change Management
Then you must integrate this knowledge into thinking outside the box and continuous improvement for the work process, and more importantly self-improvement. You must also follow up the latest theories, ideas and techniques, as well as the never-ending love of endless challenges, and the well-known professional national work. Therefore, if you do not have these elements of professional, it is better for you to excuse yourself from working with the Prince.
Working with the Crown Prince is a duty; he will not compliment you; he will detect your mistakes, measure your performance, and foresee your work path. The Prince is a reference in these sciences, which are strange to our government culture. I have seen it many times.
I do not mean that we were wrong in the past. Other times, other manners. In the past, the government had its way to manage its work in light of changing variables. Now, Saudi Arabia, surely, is renewing and adorning with our young Prince 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. “Sky is the limit”. So said the Prince. This is who we are.
Saud al-Qahtani is the General Supervisor of the Center for Studies and Media Affairs at the Saudi Royal Court.