MAY 31st, 2009
May has been an extremely busy month for us but I still found the time to meet with Tom Gara of The National to talk about all the exciting things going on at the Etisalat Academy this year.
Tell me about yourself?
I joined the Academy in December 2008. In the last 12 years I have been in and around training in one form or another. My previous job was in the leadership development of 220,000 public servants in the state of Queensland, Australia That involved setting up a leadership conference, which went from front line people all the way through to CEOs. Prior to that I was the general manager for the Institute of Public Administration of Australia. I took charge of learning development and leadership growth, a role I held for five years. The reason for applying for this job was that I have a lot of training experience. The passion that drives me is that I am genuinely interested in supporting the development of people. When I was with the IPA I was able to do that, and I took it to a new level. At the same time I became a strategic advisor to training companies there.
The Academy was here for a while before you joined – were you briefed to take the Etisalat Academy in a different direction when you joined?
I have been given the mandate to take it in a varied direction and to build on the excellent work that the team has done in the past. The Academy used to be inside the company as a cost center, we then became a profit center, and now we are adding a whole range of new services.
Are you changing your services portfolio to be more competitive/commercial?
On the one hand we are continuing to work with Etisalat, and we identify their training needs and provide a proposal with the solution right for them. This happens year in year out. Hand-in-hand with that we are developing new streams of services. We are in the process of putting the foundations in place for this. Essentially, we go in, talk to a client and develop a training programme for them.
Are there any skills that you have to focus more on here than abroad?
The question here is the pitch of the training. The focus from clients - because we are in a developing region - is on qualifications and certified training outcomes. Where in Australia it tends to be more about running courses on particular competencies. The Middle East is in the process of building its foundation skills.
Which training service is most in demand in the industry?
There is huge demand for customer service and sales training - where people interact. What happened in UAE is that there was a huge influx of people with different styles and culture. And this is a big struggle and challenge for companies. Leadership is another area. We have a couple of big projects and one with the Ministry of Interior. We are training 50 of their top people. Here we are answering the challenges of the new world. We are opening our economy, we are interacting more globally, and people are asking for our services – what do we do with that strategically?
Have you had to change the way you train candidates depending on the nationality?
The content always changes. There are two types of training – the off-the-shelf type, where we hope you like it, but here it is. Or there is the style that we like to do, we find out what you need and provide you with it. We look at where you are at, and provide you with the best solution. In the case of the Ministry, we have 50 clients and we have analysed them with a range of psychometric testing. We know where their strengths and weaknesses are, we know the broad context of what they will be doing – global issues etc - and we are able to contextualise that around the needs of the group. I hope for us at least the days are long gone, where you take a product and give it as is. We have translators some times and we have 23 trainers internally and another 60 externally. We can match the right trainer to the right candidate in the right language.
Do you explain leadership different to Gulf nationals than expats?
Everyone has their own definition of leadership. But we look at it in two ways. There is a transactional side and transformational. The transactional side are the management functions you nee to get work done in an organization. The transformational is about vision and how your communicate and inspire people to contribute. All programmes have elements of each. As you get to very senior levels, even in Etisalat, the focus is on how do we build the right strategy, how do we inspire people to understand the strategy. There is no difference in content, but there is a difference in pitch. The programme varies depending on where you are up to in the chain.
Have you learnt anything from working in the UAE?
You have organizations in Australia with structures which perform tasks and that is how you measure performance. Here more flexibility is required because of the importance of relationships. You can get someone from HR working with sales because they have contacts.
How has your leadership style changed within the E-Academy – have you picked up any tips that you would take externally?
One thing I would take away is how to study and work closely with the local culture. Australia is very multi-cultural, there are groups settling over decades where there is a lot of assimilation Here people are coming and going all the time and its such a young nation that the challenge of culture is still there. I have had the opportunity to apply this here and I would take that away with me.
What are the goods and bads about other education providers in UAE vs. outside?
I would say that when you are looking for training providers, you should think carefully on who to go to.
- Look for someone with an established history
- Someone who is there for the long run
- Someone with an established brand
The tendency to go for the cheapest option isn’t always the right one.
What are the opps for training?
There are many opportunities, the first is our scale and scope and the second is our facilities. No-one can offer 58 training rooms or an auditorium for 260, 260 room 3* hostel. That’s an opportunity for us. We have huge numbers of employee training courses. The opportunity for us is that you come to us with whatever you need. We pretty much cover the full spectrum from human resources, leadership development to soft skills training, to telecommunications training to online learning, we can offer all of that. The thing that stands up about the Academy is that we are a full-service provider. Others might occupy a niche but we cover the entire spectrum. From this position we will move into the region. This leads into our 2020 plan – where we want to be present in 20 countries by 2020.
Is there anything that you are missing out right now?
There are many opportunities. We are expanding into and want to more clearly define ourselves more in executive development and are developing new products for this. We are particularly targeting the senior leaders in organizations. We want to do a lot more in the government development space, drawing on my background in government and establishing strong partnerships. We have started a new series called Eye on Government, which we will take across the region. We also want to do more work on HR.
What do governments need here?
In training terms, they require similar skills to the private sector. The biggest challenge for the government is how to provide good customer service skills to a rapidly expanding population with hugely diverse cultures. Also like governments around the world, they are struggling with how do we manage traffic, where are we going with strategic policies, how do you manage a cabinet. All of these forces and issues are part of the same problem and we can help with them.
Is your focus on the UAE or region?
We will start on the UAE, get that right and then expand into the region.
Do you have any targets for how much of your business should be from outside of Etisalat?
Any good business diversifies its income streams. This is why we are moving towards HR and the government sector. This is in addition to skills training, then if revenues one goes down in one sector, then the other may rise. So it’s better to be diversified.
Are there opportunities for different work with Etisalat?
There are two different training programmes with Etisalat one is the scheduled skills programme, the other is for service transformation. One of the ones we are working with is in regulatory affairs, working on making sure we are best that we can be in terms of regulatory compliance. We have developed a range of streams for auditorium and workshop based learning to ensure we are the best we can be.
What is the status with the FTTH training programme?
The Fibre to the Home-Tamdeed project which is the most exciting thing I’ve done so far. It is about creating jobs for people. It has a CSR element in it as well – it is helping the nation. Rolling out the fibre is helping the nation and I am extremely excited about this. We are graduating the first 13 people who are now beginning to work. This is proof positive that even in an economic downturn you can find opportunities by being creative. People are talking negative all the time, you can always find a positive if you think creatively. We had 500 applicants for the first round, which were distilled to 13. We have three more training progammes to go.
Tell us about EasyLearning?
We are working on across the region with Easy Learning. Basically it is 1550 short courses online built and owned by the G7. They are built to be run on a basic computer with 58k modem. They cover everything from programming language to home finance to marketing and project management. We have been associated with this organisation for 5 years. We are the exclusive distributor in the Middle East. We believe this is adding value to this part of the world. We came up with this in conjunction with Serebra, a Canadian company. This is a cheap US$10 online training programme – they work hard to develop the content, we work to make sure it is available across the region. There is another element Serebra Connect. You complete a course in PowerPoint. Then you go to Serebra Connect, which is like eBay for jobs and pitch for jobs. The idea is to take money from first world to third world. There are real life examples where a teacher in Philippines was able to gain 3-month salary from working on this.
Towards the end of the year we have a Finance conference, because there isn’t a lot in the way of finance training or conferences in the region.
We are also holding a Talent Conference at the Atlantis in October.
We are also planning something on IFRS as it is rolling out across the region. In a couple of weeks we have a course on change management and leadership.
MEITSEC is in November.
When you are a young nation, the things that have been developed over many years and are now taken for granted around the world, is still fresh here. So you need to change the pitch accordingly.