When a group of Kuwaiti entrepreneurs decided to launch a new national financial institution in 1998, they went against the grain in at least one respect – by deciding people were going to be their core asset. Even more surprisingly, considering the challenging business environment faced by GCC finance firms both during the global economic crisis and today, this desire to create a people-focused environment continues to underpin Kuwait’s Global Investment House.
One of the company’s founders, and the trailblazer for the employee-centric approach, is Khawla B Al Roomi, a lawyer by trade who was lured into HR 32 years ago because of a natural affinity for people and problem-solving. The executive vice president for HR, administration and marketing says that, 18 years ago, she and her peers were convinced that putting talent first would be critical to their proposition.
“We wanted to be different from others already established in the market,” says Al Roomi. “To achieve our target, we had to trust our staff. We had to sponsor them. We had to select the best human capital to work with us – those who want to learn, gain experience and add value to themselves, the organisation, clients and investors.”
Today, Global has assets of $3.5bn under management through its portfolios, and invests in listed equities, private equity and real estate, among others. By ‘sponsoring’ employees, Al Roomi says the company has an overall approach to learning that prioritises mentorship and inclusion. “We give everyone we hire a feeling that they are partners in Global. We trust them to be innovative and creative and share their ideas. We give them the freedom to work; that’s what makes us different from others and a preferred employer in the market,” she says.
One example is a programme that encourages employees to submit ideas to management on anything from HR to business strategy. One suggestion, now implemented, was more flexible working hours. There are parameters in place, but staff can start any time between 8 and 9am, and finish eight hours later. Global holds an ‘open day’ every month, on which employees are free to lose the suits and dress down. A complaint box is available for anonymous comments, and social activities are encouraged.
Al Roomi says the firm has a large training budget, with investment in improving people’s skills and knowledge a top priority. As well as traditional programmes and procedures, however, one of the most successful routes is via mentoring, she says. “We have an induction programme for all new employees; we assign a staff member to guide the new person in everything – policies, procedures, where to go and how to go. We really take care of our people and give them everything they need to work well. When someone joins Global, they feel part of this within six months.”
She says the approach has numerous benefits: “Mentorship is part of our culture. When Global was first established, we wanted to have an open-door policy to ensure good work attributes are always well-promoted and transferred to the next line.
“This has resulted in enhancing the sense of belonging, the loyalty to the company and exposure for employees. It has created an innovative thinking culture and improved teamwork with aligned goals and objectives.”
With such a commitment to making staff part of the family of more than 140 people, there is a lot of pressure on getting recruitment right, and candidates have to reach Al Roomi’s exacting standards: “If someone doesn’t have the skills, I don’t have to hire them. We recruit those who are ready to add value, and add value for both sides. Our culture means those who are lazy are already behind and have to leave. Our hiring always depends on selecting the right people.”
Currently, though, hiring is not a priority; instead, plans have had to be slashed in line with the impact of what Al Roomi – who also acts as vice chair of the Arab Leadership Academy – describes as a “financial crisis” caused by wider economic issues.
The manpower plan was cut back in October 2015 and reassessed in January, when it became “really hard to hire the required number of staff”. The most important skill in such circumstances is communication, and Al Roomi’s efforts have centred around ensuring department heads understand why forecast headcount is being reduced, and working with them to establish how existing employees can shoulder the responsibilities, bringing her right back to the reason she entered HR – dealing with people and solving problems.
“When resignations happen, we have to discuss with the manager if we cannot replace [that person] and instead hire within Global or spread the responsibilities between the existing staff in the same department,” says Al Roomi.
“I don’t think it has a bad impact [on motivation]. We are always a family; we all belong to the company, so we have to support it in different situations. We appreciate the managers’ feedback and support and everything is running smoothly. I think we’ve succeed at working with the available staff.”
And this is where Global’s investment in managing a people-powered business seems to have paid off – just as it is loyal to its staff, so too are the employees to the company.