Antony Thomas is no stranger to handling large HR projects, but his current position as HR Director for the AJES/Washington Group consortium in Qatar – putting together a workforce from 25 countries to build one of the world’s largest sulfur-recovery plants – is easily in a league of its own. Especially so because of the opportunity it gives him to make a difference in the lives of a lot of people.
“My job right now is recruiting 3,000 workers from places like Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India to come here to work,” Thomas said. “One of the great things about this job is seeing the excitement on the face of a person from a poor country when you offer him a chance to work in a good environment and take home good wages. I tell my HR staff that this is what our purpose is all about.”
Thomas, a native of India, has lived with his family in Dubai, the commercial capital of the Persian Gulf, for the past 11 years, heading HR operations in the retail, shipping and electronics sectors prior to joining his current employer, Al Jaber Energy Services. He has been instrumental in the development of HR as a professional operating model for his Middle East employers – and that has been no small feat. “Most of the companies here are family-owned,” he said, “and they come from a very monarchial sort of management tradition where everything is based on loyalty. They have had little need for HR.”
That tradition, of necessity, has been changing with the huge influx of foreign laborers and managers needed for the endless construction projects taking place in the oil-rich Emirates. Expatriate HR professionals like Thomas find themselves in demand, with a range of expertise (in recruiting, compensation, training, performance management and the like) that is still in short supply indigenously. “The sheikhs who own the companies are very successful at making money,” he observed, “but they have not yet developed a localized professional management structure. So, they take advantage of management leadership worldwide.”
Thomas took the opportunity to further improve his leadership skills during a visit to the United States, attending the Assessment Certification Workshop (then known as the Benchmarks Certification Workshop). “I was looking for a good leadership development program, and a friend who works for Microsoft in Singapore told me that CCL was one of the best places to go,” he said. “I cherish my two days at the Center and wish more leaders from the Third World would attend and get exposed to the reality of leadership training. The emphasis on self-awareness and growth could particularly make a difference in my part of the world, where people tend to see weakness or failure as fate rather than part of the learning process.”
The wealth of insights and lessons, both cultural and professional, he has amassed through more than 25 years of working and living in Southeast Asia and the Middle East is putting Thomas in the spotlight as an expert speaker these days. He was the sole HR professional from the Middle East to address the World HR Congress in Singapore in May. He is among the distinguished speakers scheduled to address the Middle East HR Summit in Dubai in September. Also in September, he has been invited to present a communications paper at the World Congress of International Industrial Relations Association/ILO in Lima, Peru.
In all that he does, Thomas characteristically frames his career in terms of the effect it has on people. “It is a good feeling to think that through your leadership you can influence someone’s quality of life and help improve the world of the next generation. We talk about how small the world is becoming. Even better, it is becoming a connected world.”