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Developing the Workforce of the Future – Manale El Kareh

Manale focuses on the large transformation of Middle East governmental institutions, in particular the defence and education sectors. She also drives A.T. Kearney’s diversity and inclusion initiative for the Middle East, AND heads the firm’s sustainability (social, economic and environmental) efforts in the region. Manale is an engineer by training, and had a full professional career as a fintech entrepreneur before moving into the consulting industry!

We talked about the workforce of the future – what are those skills we have to develop in ourselves and our children to be “future-proofed”. We discussed the impact this is having on education, and what the upcoming educational trends are from Finland to the UK to Singapore. I asked Manale about what A.T. Kearney is doing to retain women and she talked about their innovative, all-encompassing DIAL program (diversity, inclusion, apprenticeship, leadership) and how they are holding leadership accountable for its implementation. Finally, we talked about what Governments can do to help move the needle.

Oh – and where you hear the letters KSA, that’s short for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Manale’s book recommendation was “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera.

If you’d like to reach Manale, you can find her on LinkedIn.

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas: (00:00)
Hello friends. A question I get asked a lot is: don’t you feel you’ve wasted your time studying Engineering if you’ve never worked as an Engineer? And the answer is a big no. Of course, when I started my degree 23 years ago, I didn’t realize that it would open lots of other doors for me or teach me highly transferable skills like teamwork, logic and problem solving. But luckily, it did and it turns out these skills are relevant to what they today call “the workforce of the future.” Other skills that I would put into that bucket are adaptability, resilience, and emotional intelligence. So what does this mean for our education system? For years, I felt that an overhaul is due in a world where information is in abundance. Why are students still required to memorize anything instead of analyzing big data in a world where creativity is the ultimate currency? Why do we confine our children to classrooms and screens for long hours despite its reputation? I think the education sector is going to be one of the most exciting ones to watch over the next 20 years because I anticipate massive innovation. During this episode of When Women Win, I got to chat with Manale El Kareh, a dynamic Management Consultant who focuses on large transformation of Middle East governmental institutions, in particular in the defense and education sectors. Manale also drives the A.T. Kearney’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative for the Middle East and heads the firm sustainability efforts in the region so we could take a really holistic view of the workforce of the future from skills to education to inclusion to sustainability. What are those skills we have to develop in ourselves and our children to be future-proofed? What is the impact this is having on education? What are the upcoming educational trends from Finland to the UK to Singapore? Given that diversity and inclusion are a critical component of corporate sustainability, I asked Manale what A.T. Kearney is doing in this domain and she talked about their innovative, all encompassing dial program – dial for diversity, inclusion, apprenticeship and leadership – and how they’re holding their leaders accountable for its implementation. Finally, we talked about what governments can do to help move the needle. By the way, Manale is an Engineer by training and had a full professional career as a FinTech Entrepreneur, before moving into the consulting industry. Oh, and when you hear the letters KSA, that’s short for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. So let’s get into it.

Rana Nawas: (02:40)
Thank you so much for coming on When Women Win, I’m delighted to have you on the show!

Manale El Kareh: (02:45)
It’s a pleasure for me too, Rana. Thank you for having me!

Rana Nawas: (02:47)
We’re going to get into the bowels of corporate culture, but before we do that, I’d like you to tell us a bit about your grandmother.

Manale El Kareh: (02:55)
Yes, yes. So my grandmother is one of those ladies you called most ladies, just 60-70 years ago. So my grandma or my family, my mom’s family, comes from Palestine and they fled the country. She was still very young and like most of the girls of her age, she also got married very young. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away pretty early and she realized she was out there with four daughters that she had to work with. And she had that brilliant idea, that nothing could stop her during that time, to actually have her own thing. And so my grandma became an entrepreneur very quickly in a country she didn’t know. And then suddenly, she inspired her younger sister to go continue her studies. She became a Laboratory Technician and her daughters as well. My mom is a lawyer, my other aunt is a doctor and I think my mom chose a man who would appreciate that a lot. So I keep on thinking about this he-for-she kind of thing and I say, “Oh God, that’s my dad.” So it’s kind of cool. I am very privileged and very lucky to be part of that family. I hope they are proud of me.

Rana Nawas: (04:05)
I am sure they are! So you’ve had a very varied career. You went from corporate to entrepreneurship and then back into corporate and you’ve navigated many sectors. So what are these transferable skills that listeners can work on to be able to move seamlessly from industry to industry?

Manale El Kareh: (04:21)
I think that we need to take a step back and understand how you learn. And that starts with; do I know how to do research? And that’s a skill that’s transferable. You need to learn how to look for information, how to analyze the information and potentially how to problem solve. When you have that set of information and once you start focusing more on that, you would be able to do it practically every single time. And to do it, you need to change your mindset. I’m not asking you to be an expert on all information. I was just talking about this before and we said, I don’t need to be the insecurity encyclopedia. You’re not Encarta anymore. Google is out there, you know? But if Google is out there and information is so accessible, the question would be how do you use this information? So it is quite important to learn how to build that skill. And I think that the background I have in Engineering is about that process and methodology and you need to integrate that more and all other parts, in order to know how to dissect a problem, no matter what type of problem and understand the core issues. You’d be surprised, but consultant taught me that most of the issues always come from the same group of things, the same problems, whether it’s in healthcare or finance or in Telco or in utilities. It’s actually the same, the same backbone, if you want.

Rana Nawas: (05:38)
Like what do you mean with the same problem?

Manale El Kareh: (05:40)
The same problem will always be about either the pressure of the economy or you think that there is something wrong with the strategy or you think that there is something wrong in the way people are executing those things and it to be very real. These are the three big buckets. Now, it’s about digging a bit more and doing a bit more analysis of that to figure out what exactly that is. Now, I’m not saying that the industry doesn’t tell you or that doesn’t imply a few of those problems, but at the end of the day, if you dissect them completely, you feel that the steps are almost the same.

Rana Nawas: (06:12)
I completely agree on the engineering degree. I have an engineering degree myself, I’ve never worked as an Engineer and people ask me, you know, “do you think it was a waste of time? It was such a valuable degree.” I would advise anyone, you know, listeners or your children to do engineering because it’s exactly what you said. It teaches you methodology, logic and problem solving…

Manale El Kareh: (06:35)

Rana Nawas: (06:35)
…which serves you in every aspect of your life.

Manale El Kareh: (06:38)
So, this is quite important honestly, because I think that if we keep on looking at that and if we talk about those businesses today, this is almost what you need for the future. This is all you need in order to work in the next 20-30 years, in this world. So we need to understand a bit better what that really means.

Rana Nawas: (06:56)
So, let’s come back to education. The bedrock of any economy and you work in education, both in public and private. What are the special challenges that Gulf countries face in the sector?

Manale El Kareh: (07:10)
In order to know what education you really need in the GCC or elsewhere, we need to look at what the workforce of the future looks like, right? So in the next 20-30 years, what are the jobs that will be out there? What do we need to do? And based on those jobs, what skill sets need to be there. And then you take it backwards and you start thinking, as of today, what needs to be introduced in the education system as a curriculum or as a soft skill, to understand how that job will be wonderful? So today, we are at the verge of the 4th Industrial Revolution and very close to starting that. We hear a lot about digitization, we hear a lot about AI and we are afraid. People say, “Oh My God, we won’t have any more jobs. We are not sure of the type of job we will do.”

Rana Nawas: (07:55)
Well, I think what’s scary is that nobody has a clue what jobs will be available in 30 years’ time because technology is changing so fast.

Manale El Kareh: (08:01)

Rana Nawas: (08:02)
So how do you determine what skills you need when you don’t know what jobs will be available?

Manale El Kareh: (08:06)
We need to define, usually at a nation level and even at the regional and worldwide, and kind of start thinking about the trends of the future. So you do studies, we at A.T. Kearney have a global policy GPPL or a NTI, which is a Think Tank, that thinks about what the future could provide you. And some of the analysis we have done is to understand what the market actually looks like. What does it mean to work in 30 years? And those jobs could be defined. So we already know that there will be a lot on research and innovation, no matter what happens. That’s what the First Industrial Revolution is telling you. There will be a lot on technology, not the IT technology, we are going to have certain types of technologies that are pretty different and they need a lot of data. They need a lot of analysis. So we already know that the future is more on the Tech, Data Analysis, Environment and Sciences. Now, this brings you a notch back and then you say, “okay, what type of people can perform those jobs?” And here you have to think about two things. The hard skills as in what are the skills that you need to learn, as technical skills. The other question is, what type of person you need to be. And then you have to take a notch back and say, I have to define the hard skills. We just talked a bit more about how you need to be a problem solver, a good data analyst and a good project manager because this is what the future is telling you. But then on the soft skills, you need to be more lean, more adaptable and more able to sustain yourself as an individual. And then you take that a notch back and you say, “okay, let’s think curriculum. Let’s think education framework.” For example, you could look at Finland where all that creativity will be extremely important for the business of the future. And as such, they change the way schools are operating to include a lot of shorter time at school and more time outside. Why? Because that brings a creative environment to the children who will learn how to connect the dots within their brain. So psychology comes in and psychology would actually really tell you what that needs. So Finland did that change. It’s bold because now we say, “oh, we don’t look like them at all or we’re not doing…” but they are building this creativity.

Rana Nawas: (10:18)
When did Finland introduce this?

Manale El Kareh: (10:19)
I think they started working on it 6-7 years ago. Now the shorter days are just starting, or at least it was agreed that this will happen and creativity will be part of that program. Now, if you think about the UK and the US, they are also changing their approach at schools because education is not only the hard skills as we said, it’s also how you are treated at school. So, in the US for example, instead of sending someone to retention during the weekend, you offer an hour of mindfulness. Same in Singapore, for example. So those hours are really changing the behaviour of children and helping them focus a bit more .So already, there is a tendency to change how people think about things.

Rana Nawas: (11:00)
This is really encouraging. I was talking to my son’s teacher, my son is 4, and I asked her, “what do you do when he’s being silly in the class and disrupting?” Like obviously he does that at home. I assume he does that in class. And you know, I want to make sure that me sending him to the bathroom and looking at the wall is the right way forward. She’s like, “no, no. What we do is not timeout, we do quiet time,” which is what you’re talking about, which is basically mindfulness. She makes him sit down for one minute to think about why she’s upset.

Manale El Kareh: (11:33)
Yeah, that’s very effective. In the UK right now, I think some of the schools, some of the areas, have started one hour of mindfulness as part of the curriculum. So we see that this is definitely going into that way. Those children will be different from us and they will need a higher education that is different from ours. So yes, engineering is cool, but what should engineering include to actually help you be that person in the future?

Rana Nawas: (12:00)
I’m thinking more of the refugee children. So if we think about Syria and children, they’ve been out of school for what, 7 years now? And there aren’t enough functioning schools to support them. Is there a solution here, through technology that could deliver education to these people?

Manale El Kareh: (12:19)
Definitely. There must be some ways, but there should be a will, again. So education is provided by governments, it’s provided by public sectors to actually allow a few things. So there are few elements that need to be put in line for this to actually happen. A lot of NGOs are working on the bottom up approach, which is actually providing some education in some areas. I know that there is schooling in Lebanon where the public schools have split their times in the morning. They receive the Lebanese children at night and they open and give sessions to the Syrian children. But those are one offs. Again, the solution cannot be a one off. As I told you, education is a business. You need to understand what part of that business needs to be an investment in those children, 7 years away from a real cycle of education. And you start wondering what do I do with this unskilled or not ready to go to school kind of…

Rana Nawas: (13:21)
Yeah, what do you do? What do you do with a 14 year old who has not been to school for 7 years?

Manale El Kareh: (13:24)
Exactly. So you need to start thinking about an approach that is rather bigger. I know that the UN is trying to work on a few things on that front, but again it’s an NGO concept. We need to start thinking, if we want to transform it, how to integrate it into a more sustainable strategy, for that requires willingness of higher leadership as well.

Rana Nawas: (13:44)
Let me shift gears a little bit because you lead the diversity initiative at A.T. Kearney in the Middle East. What can business leaders do to retain women?

Manale El Kareh: (13:54)
Oh listen we, this is a topic that we’ve been studying for quite some time, right? Not only here in the Middle East, but A.T. Kearney Global has actually thought about it and we realized that there are two things that are extremely important. After our analysis, we realized that if we keep on talking about diversity as an initiative, it’s not going to work. If we keep on ignoring the unconscious biases and not understand that not everyone has an equal opportunity, equal access to opportunity or equal opportunity, then we are also not finding the right tools in order to fix the problem. From that perspective, 3-4 months ago at A.T. Kearney, the leadership, the partners, have met and decided to include and to make a clear stream of our strategy on diversity. And we call it “DIAL.” D is for diversity, inclusion, apprenticeship and leadership, which includes both ideas; how do we actually celebrate the uniqueness of everyone and not only women. That means less represented, the people who are apparent versus not apparent, the backgrounds and nationalities. We have, at A.T. Kearney, people who are Engineers, others who come from business and others who are Artists. How do we celebrate that in a better way and make the best out of it?

Rana Nawas: (15:08)
And extract the value from everyone.

Manale El Kareh: (15:09)
Absolutely. This was extremely important. When we talk about DIAL, it’s not about making women more there. We’ll talk about initiatives – they are there – but it’s more about introducing that into the DNA of the firm, not the culture. It’s much more than the culture, which means that people need to change. How do we do that? Processes need to change. How do we do that? Relationships and values will have to be altered in a way where things should become unacceptable at some stages, which means policies are going to change. And how do we do that today? There is a range of activities that we are grouping under this umbrella, in order to reflect this. Now, yes, there is a women consulting network, which is actually more about helping women be in consulting and at A.T. Kearney because consulting is also a business that does not necessarily include a lot of women, at this stage. Then we kind of look at it from different perspectives and say “okay. What do I do with parents?” Parents can be men or women, it doesn’t really matter. So we have a “Path To Parent”, which is a program that runs 6 months to 1 year…

Rana Nawas: (16:16)
Path To Parent?

Manale El Kareh: (16:16)
Path To Parent…deciding whether you would like to come back for an internal role during that time, to be closer to your child. And that is applicable for a man or a woman; you just have to make that decision.

Rana Nawas: (16:26)
Generally, issues with programs like that are that you take the time off, you come back and you’re stigmatized for life.

Manale El Kareh: (16:33)
Exactly. So we have actually flipped that and said that after that there will be a program of reintegration, which means that our partners are committed; they did a pledge last October to ensure that this will not play against you in any way. And that pledge has metrics and performance and you can actually look at how it’s being deployed. Now, usually we have a lot of attrition for women at an associate level, which is a bit mid-level, or at manager even, they leave and they never come back. What we’re doing right now is trying to reach out to those alumni and propose a program of 3 to 6 months, to reintegrate them into consulting and to actually help them see how they can come back to work and still be a parent.

Rana Nawas: (17:22)
So, it’s motherhood that’s pushing women out?

Manale El Kareh: (17:24)
Probably motherhood or getting married and moving with the husband, following rather than being followed, is also something that we’ve noticed. So it’s about bringing them all back into possibility. A.T. Kearney is a global mobile firm. Do not leave us to move. Why don’t you join office x? Right? And the same happens when you’re a parent. If you want to be a parent, we will find a local project. If not, you can go part-time. But that means partners and principals like me need to be committed that this would be a possibility and we need to integrate that into our project norms. This is why I say dialogue is important. So yes, it’s very nice to put the policy out there. But if I don’t integrate it into the way I will have a project known in the future, this wouldn’t necessarily…

Rana Nawas: (18:09)
Okay, so let me ask you, as an ex-consultant myself, and you’re a partner staffing a project, why would you staff a part-timer or someone you believe, for whatever unconscious or conscious biases you have, would make it difficult for her to travel, etc. Why would you choose that person? Because if I’m putting my practical managerial hat on, I wouldn’t…

Manale El Kareh: (18:32)
Because consulting is not only about what’s easier, it is because this is the right expert for it and I want that person on board and if that person is important to be on board, I will do whatever it takes to have that person on my team. Consulting is a people’s business. It’s a people’s business with expertise, not availability only. So, I would say I would definitely look for the person who will make sure that whatever content I’m providing to my client is the best, right? Then I would go with whatever it takes to do that. But here, we as a firm should look at it and say equal opportunity means more awareness in certain areas for those women, more coaching. That’s why also as a firm, we have a sponsorship program for women who are growing into leadership roles. Like myself, I’m a sponsee myself who actually helps grow those women in a different way because clearly there is a navigation within the company that is men-led because the majority of the partners are men, in a certain manner. So, you said in one of your podcasts that it’s a man corporate created by men for men, and this is exactly it. But now we are making it to that level, which means we need a push that is different from others. So, a man would be pushed in a way and women need to be pushed in another way and that should be okay. It’s called equity. I always take that example. I say if there is a ceiling you need to reach, literally in a building or in a room and one of us is shorter than the other, isn’t it just normal to say that you will give the shorter one a small table to stand on? That’s what we’re doing. If the opportunity is that ceiling and we both are allowed to go there, it’s okay to have that table.

Rana Nawas: (20:14)
And I use a similar example, but mine is horizontal. So I always imagine two runners, you know, everyone says, “oh, we’re a meritocracy. Whoever runs faster should win the race,” that’s fine, as long as you’re starting at the same starting point.

Manale El Kareh: (20:26)
Absolutely! So you went to the…

Rana Nawas: (20:27)
Great. All right, we’ve talked about corporates, what roles do governments have in promoting women?

Manale El Kareh: (20:37)
I think that governments are extremely pivotal and critical in that change of mindset. And if we take the example of the region, the GCC, mainly the UAE and KSA, there is a wonderful vibe right now about that. And I think it also comes from the outside with all the major changes that’s been happening like #MeToo, the change in corporate and women’s speaking up. Those countries clearly have that ambition; the UAE has clearly set an ambition at target to be in the top 25 gender diverse countries by 2021. KSA wants 30% of its workforce to be women by 2030. The ambition is absolutely there. And at the same time you look at it a bit in an internal way and you say, okay, how are we getting that and ambition to that vision? So that means we need to change a few of our internal policies. The UAE has worked on a lot; some of them are maternity and they’ve been working, since 2015, on board members and on how to actually create some kind of quota for local and international companies in the country? KSA has lifted the ban on driving. People think it’s more of a basic ride but I’d say it’s a major change in how the future of the workforce would look like because what hindered women from going to work is actually that problem.

Rana Nawas: (21:59)
Transportation as a basic problem.

Manale El Kareh: (22:02)
Now if you scratch a bit below that, you still realize that it’s not a diverse environment as you want it to be. And, both countries still rank pretty low on the sub-index.

Rana Nawas: (22:13)
We are talking about the UAE and Saudi Arabia?

Manale El Kareh: (22:14)
Yes, UAE and Saudi Arabia because all of those initiatives that are done either by the government or by the private sector or NGOs are so disconnected that you’re starting to wonder if they are even pushing in one direction? I mean the vision is out there. Are we all going right there or are we dispersing this effort in a way that we’re not getting to what we want to get to? And one of the things that could be helpful and what other countries have done, because we’ve done a study at A.T. Kearney on that, to understand why this needle hasn’t moved as we say, is to actually try to understand what happened. We are spending so much effort, so much energy, so much money on that topic. And we realize that most of those countries have looked at it in a different way, rather than going bottom up where we are all joining forces, there should be one goal, one integrator that helps you push that forward in one way. So, governments are trying to do a lot, but today the effort is not enough. Now should we stop being active? No, but let’s just align. What’s the goal, in order to be active so that it makes sense to do such an initiative?

Rana Nawas: (23:22)
What about start-ups? Actually I wanted to ask because you know I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs and start-ups and they say, well we’re too small to pay attention to the woman agenda and gender parity. What would you say to them? How can they promote parity?

Manale El Kareh: (23:35)
There is a pretty easy way for start-ups. I think of an entrepreneur as a pretty innovative person and I’d say to look at what those women can do that you never thought is important. Women in start-ups are key. They are actually the people who are the do it all kinds of people. They are the action people. When you’re starting your business, you don’t specify jobs for people. You don’t tell them, “hey, you are going to be responsible for data only,” in a start-up. That data person should do 15 other things for it to work. Otherwise it doesn’t. And yes, it’s a stereotype, but we are better at doing a zillion things at the same time than other than our men colleagues. So in reality, it might be economically efficient, more efficient than effective for those start-ups to hire more women who could do more in that job.

Rana Nawas: (24:32)
This has been super action packed, Manale. I’m loving it. I’m loving it. I’m going to wrap it up with some rapid fire questions. I’m going to bring it back to you. What is your biggest fear?

Manale El Kareh: (24:42)
Wow, a lot of them, but one main one I’d say…at A.T. Kearney, we say reaching your full potential is a journey, every single day. I say, “I hope I didn’t reach my full potential.” You know, I just don’t want it to end right now. I just don’t want to think that this is it and I need to find that next step. This is something that keeps me awake at night, I would say.

Rana Nawas: (25:07)
What is a book you recently gifted someone?

Manale El Kareh: (25:11)
Oh, I always get the same book to all my juniors, my clients and my bosses. You’ll be surprised, it’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” by Milan Kundera, which I think has a wonderful philosophy, [German saying] excuse my German, which means things happen one time, you don’t get a second chance in reality. Let’s try to understand what that really means for each one of us because you’d be at your best when you know there is no second chance.

Rana Nawas: (25:42)
Okay. On my list. Manale, this has been a lot of fun and I’ve learned a ton. Thank you so much. Where can listeners find you if they want to reach out with questions?

Manale El Kareh: (25:51)
Definitely! You can send me a message through LinkedIn.

Rana Nawas: (25:54)
Thank you. Excellent. Thank you for your time!

Rana Nawas: (25:56)
I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’d love to hear from you, so please head over to to give feedback. While you’re there, you can find all episodes and show notes and sign up for our monthly newsletter. Wherever you’re listening right now, do remember to hit the subscribe button to be notified of future episodes and please write a review when you can, to let others know what to expect. Thanks, and have a great day!

End Of Transcript