Middle East Politics & Diplomacy The Gulf
Event Recap November 8, 2021

Top women execs on leading “deliberate” organizational change, fostering diversity and inclusion, and coping with challenges

By Stefanie Hausheer Ali

On November 2, the Atlantic Council’s empowerME Initiative held a workshop on “Women in senior management: Masterclass in leadership” featuring keynote welcome remarks by US Embassy Riyadh Chargé D’Affaires Martina Strong, a keynote fireside chat moderated by Atlantic Council empowerME Director and Resident Senior Fellow Amjad Ahmad, which featured Mercer President for Asia, Middle East, and Africa Renée McGowan, and a panel discussion moderated by American Chamber of Commerce Saudi Arabia Executive Director Jaime Stansbury, with Mastercard Senior Vice President for Strategy (Middle East) Olivia Bellingham, Splunk President and Chief Growth Officer Teresa Carlson, and KPMG Partner and Head of Inclusion & Diversity Kholoud Mousa.

This workshop is part of the Igniting Women’s Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Saudi Arabia program led by the Atlantic Council’s empowerME Initiative in partnership with the US Mission to Saudi Arabia, the American Chamber of Commerce Saudi Arabia, and Quantum Leaps. The program brings US entrepreneurs, experts, and business leaders together with their Saudi counterparts to build relationships, share knowledge, and develop partnership opportunities via hybrid workshops and networking sessions.

Key takeaways:

Mercer President for Asia, Middle East, and Africa Renée McGowan

  • Factors that contributed to her success: McGowan identified several factors that were critical to her success, such as having mentors and people who invested in her, as well as her curiosity and willingness to raise her hand and say, “I’ll try that.” She explained that when she first started at Mercer, “I didn’t know what an actuary did, and Mercer was the largest employer of actuaries,” so she made it her mission to learn. McGowan also mentioned her “great support at home” and that she “worked eight years in part-time capacity” during time off with her three kids.
  • Best practices for mentorship and sponsorship: McGowan commented that mentorship is being re-defined and is increasingly seen as “multi-faceted” and even “two-way mentorship” rather than one person learning from the other. She explained that “sponsorship is the great equalizer because of the way it shifts mindsets. It’s about empowerment, creating space at the table, advocating for a person, and giving them all of the encouragement and feedback they need to succeed.” She called for “deliberate sponsorship,” which “focuses on identifying key talent, listening to them, and helping them grow.”
  • On how to retain women in the workplace, not just attract them: McGowan predicted that “over the next twelve to twenty-four months, we will see even more focus on retention. We’ve had such profound change in terms of the way we live and work. People are reconsidering and will be more demanding of their workplaces. What we are seeing at a high level is a trend of organizations all over the world listening to what people are saying and feeling and trying to create programs to include them more.” She also called for creating accountability for leaders through clear targets and deliverables and accountability measures. In terms of other ways to retain women and diverse employees, McGowan emphasized the need to “shift to learning and skill development” and the need for advocacy to ensure diverse groups get sponsorship in the organization. 
  • On whether working from home hurts or help women: McGowan said, “It’s got to be deliberate. Flexible work has been in place in many parts of the world for a long time. We’ve learned that there can be unintended consequences of women having flexibility,” such as being less visible or not at top of the mind [of decision-makers] when opportunities come up. She added that there is no doubt that we are in a different era now in terms of how we work and what types of communication we use. She warned: “We have to be deliberate about specific groups to ensure they aren’t left behind and that everyone gets access.”
  • On the importance of women on boards: McGowan said, “Women are not represented on boards enough. Women hold only about a quarter of board seats in the top one thousand US companies.” She added that since women are 50 percent of the population, “we need to see more change. It needs deliberate action. The time for talking about it is over. The time for understanding the value of it is over. We are clear that organizations with a diverse board outperform.” McGowan went on to say that there needs to be appropriate accountability in terms of the board itself or management, as well as metrics to hold executives accountable. She cautioned that “during the pandemic, we’ve taken a step backward in terms of girls’ education and funding for female entrepreneurs. We need to make sure that we are being really focused to make sure we don’t undo the good progress made in recent years and get on track and accelerate” that progress.
  • Advice for new entrepreneurs: “Never limit yourself. We put more limits on ourselves than anyone else will. Never put boundaries around ‘I haven’t done that before or no one else has.’ Dream big. It’s hard to grow a business if you constantly focus on incremental” steps and the day-to-day. McGowan added that “entrepreneurs don’t always know the path to get there,” but their vision helps them find resilience and inspiration to bring it to fruition.
  • Government and corporate policies to boost women’s workforce participation: “There is so much that government and society need to do. We need to give everybody equal access and opportunity, not just saying everybody is equal. We need to give groups a boost upward when needed and have practices that ensure discrimination doesn’t occur or is addressed when it does occur. We also need pay equity” because this is still an issue and can become a lifelong issue for women if not addressed.
  • On how to get women involved in technology/artificial intelligence (AI) development to prevent the perpetuation of traditional biases: “It’s a real concern because gender bias exists among human beings and we don’t want to compound that as we move to AI. We need to focus on the accelerated development of talent in that area.” McGowan mentioned the importance of accelerated education programs and a very deliberate pipeline development of skills that look at what skills are needed, what skills exist today, and how to skill and re-skill to get there. She added that a blend of “organic skilling and re-skilling” plus government and corporate programs are needed.

Mastercard Senior Vice President for Strategy (Middle East) Olivia Bellingham

  • On avoiding getting pigeon-holed: Bellingham mentioned her different career choices over her twenty-year career: she worked in finance, investor relations, and corporate communications. She also took a small career break and pursued her passion by working at a bakery. She loved it, but realized she’d rather do that on the side. Bellingham’s advice to avoid getting stuck in one role is to “never over-plan” and “not be too concerned about the next step.” Her strategy has been to put her head down, work really hard, deliver everything she can, and then trust that good things will happen.
  • On cross-cultural experiences and advice for Saudi and expat women working in the Gulf: Bellingham grew up in a multi-cultural environment with parents from different countries and she lived in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world. She shared that “when you are integrated into a different culture, what you can take from it and build as a strength for yourself is the ability to empathize with others. In the corporate world, you have to engage with people all around the world every day.” Her advice is “work on the muscle of understanding where people are coming from and why they are coming from that perspective.”
  • On coping with a predominately male leadership structure: Bellingham said that she’s been fortunate to work at Mastercard because it “has great gender balance and does a lot to promote gender equality,” so she is rarely the only woman in the room. She added: “There is a lot women can do when they feel alone,” such as “seeking mentors and sponsors to talk to and get support.” Bellingham emphasized that this shouldn’t be limited to women—there should be male and female sponsors. She went on to say: “If you exhaust all the avenues and if your manager doesn’t support you, it’s time to change your manager. You can move on and take a risk in your career.”
  • On policies that shift the needle in terms of hiring women: Bellingham discussed the concept of balanced slates in talent acquisition, especially in markets in the Middle East and North Africa region [MENA], where the talent acquisition team finds candidates that are mostly male. She explained: “We put a policy in place where you have to have a minimum of one female qualified candidate” for interviews and that the interview panel must include at least one woman as well. She said that this change has been beneficial in the positive evolution of Mastercard over the last five years.
  • On how to cope with mistakes and challenging situations: Bellingham noted that women often carry mistakes around on their shoulders longer and urged women to “take the monkey off your back and make the conscious decision to move on.”

Splunk President and Chief Growth Officer Teresa Carlson

  • On how she helped implement new programs to diversify companies she’s worked at: Carlson said that efforts to promote diversity take “time and tracking mechanisms” and that organizations “have to be intentional and not ever walk away” from these efforts. She explained that when she joined Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2010, she saw a huge opportunity to challenge norms and develop pathways that on-ramped diverse employees, not just for AWS, but for partners too. She pointed out “the opportunities in MENA for women to step up and take on leadership roles” especially since more and more women are working in the tech sector but don’t have leadership roles. Carlson also discussed the “We Power Tech” program she started and how critical it is to understand that “diversity in the United States is different than diversity in other countries.” She explained that her leadership team at AWS helped make the program relevant down to the country level, in part by understanding the data correctly. She also highlighted the “AWS Educate” program she created to provide twenty-seven million people with tech skills by 2025 for free.
  • On how to pull off a successful career shift: Carlson explained that despite her degrees in speech and language pathology and her initial start in the healthcare sector, she got introduced to tech when she learned about workflow and document management software and saw the need for it in healthcare. She described this as her “Aha moment” of how tech changes businesses. Carlson said that after her ten years at Microsoft and the opportunity to build business from the ground up at AWS, where she was running a more than $10 billion business in over 170 countries, she wanted more responsibility across more sectors with a focus on growth and innovation, which Splunk offered her unlike some of the “turnaround” CEO jobs she was offered. Though Splunk’s close working ties with AWS have allowed her to maintain fantastic relationships there, particularly with “great leader” Andy Jassy, she said, “It is very hard to change and it feels like leaving a family.” Still, there is “no age that you have that you’re not building new muscles” in the sense of challenging yourself and trying new things.
  • On how to cope with mistakes and challenging situations: Carlson said, “You want to be right a lot, but you won’t be right all the time.” She shared that often women come to her for advice because they get nervous giving presentations as one of very few women in the room, and she tells them they are “building new muscles” when they do this. She explained: “When you do something new, your muscle hurts.” Carlson encouraged women to have a conversation with someone they trust to work through fears and added that “Business is about mistakes. We would have no invention without mistakes. It’s ok to say that didn’t go great, but here’s how I manage that and learn from it.”

KPMG Partner and Head of Inclusion & Diversity Kholoud Mousa

  • On how her journey as the first woman CPA and first partner at a big four professional services firm in Saudi Arabia has impacted her and other women: “My journey was very difficult,” Mousa shared. When she became the first woman CPA in Saudi Arabia in 2006, it was a much more challenging environment for women. She described her journey as “moving from an invisible to a visible person.” She added that she is “so proud she’s opened the door for other women to be in professional services and feels responsible to be a role model and help them achieve their full potential.” Mousa noted that Saudi Arabia today and especially over the last few years has been opening up for women in terms of increased employment in industries that men previously dominated. She pointed out that “the private sector is now hiring women at twice the rate as the public sector” and that “financial institutions, banks, and healthcare are well suited for women to work there but also for women to lead there.”
  • Advice for organizations about diversity and inclusion best practices: Mousa mentioned the guide KPMG has created “for organizations with tools to assess levels of D&I as well as specific actions to take” to drive change. She underscored the importance of support, saying that “no one can survive without a mentor” and mentioning the KPMG mentorship program as an example in the guide. Mousa added that people told her to find a female mentor when she was younger, but in a male-dominated industry like hers, it was not always possible. She said she “always had male mentors that supported her during her journey” and encouraged women to find mentors—whether male or female—who are willing to “invest time in your growth and challenge you.”

Stefanie H. Ali is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s empowerME Initiative. Follow her @StefHausheer.