Across the globe, public sector leaders share many of the same leadership challenges.
We conducted research to explore leadership challenges, gaps, career derailment factors, and opportunities within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), with a focus towards leaders of public service. We shared our findings in a white paper on Saudi Arabia public sector leaders who participated in programs with us.
The data illustrate KSA leaders share many of the same challenges and opportunities as other government leaders we’ve worked around the world. Our data further suggest that even though KSA leaders are facing a rapidly changing world, they are reasonably well prepared to manage these changes with a strategic skillset, knowledge of doing what it takes to achieve key results, and the ability to influence the thinking and actions taken by leaders at higher levels in the hierarchy.
Similar to leaders in other countries, Saudi public sector leaders face challenges related to leading themselves, leading their teams, and leading organizations. Further, the study reveals important leadership gaps around selecting and developing others, self-awareness, and negotiation. These gaps could have an impact on leadership capability in the future.
The data suggest that leaders pay attention to the low ranking on importance and effectiveness of various critical leadership competencies including resiliency, risk-taking, work-life integration, and managing globally dispersed teams. The 2 most important risks that are related to the possible career derailment of Saudi Arabian public sector leaders are not meeting business objectives and maintaining too narrow a functional focus.
Saudi government leaders, like their public sector colleagues worldwide, operate in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Our data reveal that Saudi public sector leaders face many of the same challenges that other government leaders face at similar levels around the world.
To be successful, government leaders must possess skills to survive in this uncertain world and to perform their jobs while under constant observation from a range of sources — from their own colleagues to the media and the private sector.
Understanding the challenges facing these leaders, in addition to the gaps in their leadership development, will help Ministry officials develop initiatives that will help leaders cope with these changing needs and create world-class government leaders in the KSA.
To help leaders identify the best way forward for leader development, this report explores the skills government leaders need to be successful in a VUCA environment. We analyzed data from 2 different databases. First, we examined data about leadership challenges from over 166 surveys of KSA government leaders who participated in our leadership courses.
Second, we analyzed 360-degree feedback reports of over 192 KSA leaders, of which 20% were from leaders working in government. In reviewing these data sets, we focused on 3 key questions:
- What are the major challenges Saudi public sector leaders are facing?
- What competencies do raters believe are most important to the success of a Saudi leader?
- How well do government-sector leaders perform in the competency areas most critical to success?
Leadership Challenges Faced by Saudi Arabia Public Sector Leaders
Prior to attending our leadership programs, Saudi public sector leaders described 4 leadership challenges they were currently facing.
- 19% reported challenges with leading self (individual awareness and style, balancing multiple priorities, time management).
- 46% reported challenges leading others (e.g., leading a team or group, influence, leading across multiple groups, and leading people).
- 32% reported challenges leading the organization (e.g., talent management, strategic issues, and business operations).
- 4% reported challenges with the external environment (e.g., regulatory, economic challenges, technology).
These challenges are similar to challenges facing public sector leaders around the world. The nature of being a leader in the public sector illustrates key transition points among leaders who honed their skills as technicians and eventually then moved into management often based on their excellent technical skills. Moving away from the technical and managerial areas and into leadership, particularly executive leadership, can create challenges around self-awareness, teamwork, and organizational understanding.
Leadership Strengths and Gaps for Saudi Public Service Leaders
We also used our 360 Benchmarks database to identify factors that would increase the risk that a Saudi public sector leader will derail based on 5 career derailment factors that decades of our research demonstrate can stall or break a manager’s career:
- Difficulty adapting to change;
- Difficulty building and leading a team;
- Failure to meet business objectives;
- Lacking a broad, strategic orientation; and
- Problems with interpersonal relationships.
Each of these 5 factors have been shown to limit a leader’s effectiveness and long-term success. Our research found that the most salient derailment factor for Saudi leaders in our database is the failure to meet business objectives.
These findings were consistent with data from other government leaders who have attended our programs. Failure to meet business objectives reflects a government that demands and expects high performance. When there is insufficient evidence of sustained high performance, the risk of a leader being reassigned or removed increases. The second highest-ranked derailment factor has also been seen in our other studies of government leaders. When we performed a similar analysis on leaders working for the US government, we found that this was the number one reason for derailment.
Leaders join a government agency that reflects their technical specialty. They are then promoted based upon their technical ability, until they become managers. When that occurs, they may find they are ill-prepared like other first-time managers for the wide range of responsibilities they are called on to perform outside of their technical specialty.
Closing the Gaps for Government & Public Sector Leaders in KSA
To close these leadership gaps, it is important to understand the specific skills and behaviors required for future leadership success, how these skills are developed, and how they can be applied in the workplace. Here are 4 starting points for the development of leadership skills most critical for the Saudi public sector leader:
- Understanding Leadership as a Collaborative Activity: Effective leadership creates 3 important outcomes: Direction, Alignment, and Commitment. Each of these outcomes demands agreement from the leader and the led. Using the strength of communication clearly demonstrated in the data, a strong team orientation, and a feedback-rich environment will support the culture needed for adapting rapidly to the changing VUCA world.
- Creating High-Performance Teams: Developing people, understanding complexity, and having the resilience to sustain productivity are all important to success in a rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected world that requires group cohesiveness and performance, versus individual leader heroism. Creating teams that are dedicated to the success of each person on the team and the team overall is clearly important.
- Risk-Taking: Although at first glance this competency at first may seem counterintuitive to good governance, it is actually a key to effective service. Risk-taking is the first step towards innovation and creating new ideas for service to the country. Although frowned upon by many, rewarding risks through simple efforts can increase productivity and employee engagement.
- Resiliency and Work-Life Integration: Resilience, not more authority, is the key for greater productivity. Resilient workers are able to work longer, harder, and with greater engagement than those leaders who do not utilize the tools of personal resilience.
The data summarized here should be used as a promoter of dialogue about the future needs of public sector leaders in Saudi Arabia, and government leaders more generally, rather than as a definitive prescription for next steps.
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We have decades of experience developing government and public sector leaders around the world, including in Saudi Arabia, through our Government Practice and our team of experts serving clients based in the Middle East & Africa.Download Article