(408) 220-4680

What does it take to lead a top-notch organization? What do great leaders do that sets them apart? On my radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection, I’ve been talking with heads of top companies around the world, trying to find out how they consistently manage to beat their competition. What I’m finding across the board is that leaders who have a talent focus — who pay attention to the people in their organization and spend time coaching and developing others — are the ones building the most successful companies of the 21st century.

Recently, I traveled to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to present a program on talent and leadership for companies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It was gratifying to see the interest in that part of the world in creating thriving organizations that contribute to the health of their communities. While I was there, I had the chance to be introduced to Suhail Bin Tarraf, CEO of Tanfeeth, by my business partner Mary Pratt. Tanfeeth is a leading customer service management company based in Dubai. (Tanfeeth, in case you’re wondering, is an Arabic word that means “getting the job done.”)

Suhail is one of the few business leaders I know who has risen to CEO status from an HR background, which makes him a real pioneer in the field. He also recently led a merger between the Emirates Bank and the National Bank of Dubai, forming the Emirates Bank of Dubai. Having engaged in past integrations myself, I know how difficult that can be.

I invited Suhail to come on my radio show and talk about how he transformed the culture in his organization.

Teamwork and the morning huddle

I was intrigued by Tanfeeth’s corporate tagline, “Getting It Done and Making It Better.” I asked Suhail what that meant, and why it was important.

“At Tanfeeth, we usually work in groups, three or four groups, to generate ideas,” Suhail replied. “Honestly speaking, two teams were working (on the slogan). One team came up with Get It Done and the other team came up with Make it Better. And when we put it on the whiteboard — because we work a lot on whiteboards and keep scribbling and changing — it looked nice when we put them beside each other. It just hit us.”

Teamwork, it turns out, is at the heart of Tanfeeth’s process. That, and its unwavering commitment to its people.

“I come from HR,” Suhail replied. “What’s my comfort zone? It’s people. If you look at every research (study) in the world, they’ll tell you that it’s your people who make you better than your competition.”

What’s important, he said, is creating a culture in which people can grow and shine and go beyond what they think they’re capable of. “Because a lot of people don’t believe that they can do better than they realize.”

Inspiring constant improvement

I asked Suhail how Tanfeeth encourages its people to continually strive to be better.

“One of our pillars is transparency,” Suhail said. “We’re very transparent about how well people have achieved their targets on a daily basis. … The question we use is not ‘why didn’t you achieve it?’ but ‘How can we help you achieve it?’

“Every morning we have a 15-minute huddle, and at the end of it we ask people, ‘How is your morale today?’ … If I’m upset and you’re my manager, you as my manager should know I’m upset. It might be I didn’t sleep well, or I feel sick today. Or I’m just upset, naturally upset. But it’s a strong tool for my manager to understand. I might let him go home early today rather than pressure him, because I know he will not deliver.

“A person who is not motivated today, he will explode and it will backfire on the customer, the output, everything else. On the person himself or on the team.”

I confessed that I wasn’t sure how many Western organizations would have the courage to ask that question. How can you trust the person’s response, I wanted to know. Maybe they’re just saying they don’t feel well so they can go home. Does that ever happen?

“In the beginning, yes, but later on they’ll actually realize the power of it.” Sometimes, he said, people take the opportunity to talk about their problems. Other times they prefer to keep them private, but either way it’s an energy boost. “It’s just that courtesy of saying ‘do you want to talk about it?’ that makes a difference.”

A new way to assess performance

Suhail talked about other tools his company uses to evaluate people’s work and help them achieve their goals. Rather than conducting annual performance reviews, which rank and rate employees in a traditional sense, Tanfeeth uses a daily, weekly, and monthly evaluation system to assess how well people meet their targets. If they’re having problems, a teammate might work with them and teach them to overcome a particular challenge.

“We’ve actually removed the subjectivity of the manager likes you, so you get promoted,” Suhail said. “We’ve eliminated that.”

“You can identify top talent from day one because it’s a transparent system. From a performance perspective you can grasp immediately if the person is (doing) well or not. My job is to make him succeed and become a leader of the future.”

Get them while they’re young

Suhail told me he prefers to hire fresh graduates, people that the company can help grow and learn and mold to fit their approach.

“The team today is a new generation. The average age within my company is 27. I have 47 nationalities in the company. How can I make a world for them, for every individual there, one that they believe in and they trust? I believe that if it’s transparent and simple, everybody will understand and everybody will trust our system,” he said.

Suhail added that never forgets that his company is built by the team and managed by the team. “I don’t manage anything,” he said. “It’s a system that’s working on autopilot now. … The way I see it, as the CEO, I’m adding cost to this organization. How can I add value and not destroy value? What I did yesterday is not good enough for my team.”

It was refreshing to hear that, because so many CEOs see themselves as the center of the company. When you view the people who are interfacing with your customers as the center of the company, rather than yourself, there’s a big difference in your behavior.

I also believe — and saw when I worked at GE — that if a company has a culture of learning, where people feel they can innovate and grow and aren’t suppressed, they will work for less money. Now I am not suggesting that you should underpay people. People should be paid fairly for their work. But the purpose of work should not be solely a bigger bonus the purpose should be to add value to others. Too many American companies and people have what I call a Wall Street mentality, where most of their efforts are focused in striving for that big year-end bonus. This perspective can drive behavior that is not necessarily in the best interest of the organization or its customers.

I asked Suhail to offer three pieces of advice for aspiring leaders.

“For me,” Suhail said, “the three most important things are 1) believe in your people, 2) communicate the good and the bad, and 3) live your dream. Just live it. If you’re passionate about it, you will make it happen. If you’re not, it’s not the right place for you.”

I think we can all learn something from the constructive culture at Tanfeeth: the importance of creating an environment that helps people improve, rather than penalizes them for doing poorly. Because when you penalize people, you beat them down. They will not innovate. They will not help your organization move forward. Instead they develop a mindset of self-preservation. And that’s not what will bring out their creativity, or create value for your company and your customers.

Be sure to join me next time, when I’ll be talking with Margaret Keane, CEO of Synchronicity, one the top 250 retail banks in the U.S., and Tiger Tyagarajan, the CEO of Genpact, who will share insights on how they transformed their startups into Fortune 500 companies.