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Exclusive: Q&A with Aramco HR director

Huda Al-Ghoson speaks about how oil giant fosters its talent

ADNOC, Aramco Saudi Aramco, Huda Al-Ghoson, Kuwait, Oil and gas middle east, Oil and gas projects Gulf, Oil and gas Saudi Arabia, Oil revenues Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Saudi Aramco's HR Policy & Planning Department, Industry Trends
Huda Al-Ghoson says that women are increasingly interested in taking on challenging roles.
Huda Al-Ghoson says that women are increasingly interested in taking on challenging roles.
Saudi Aramco's technical workforce is gradually attracting more women as policies take effect.
Saudi Aramco's technical workforce is gradually attracting more women as policies take effect.

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Huda Al-Ghoson, director of Saudi Aramco’s HR Policy & Planning Department, speaks exclusively to Oil & Gas Middle East at the Women’s Global Leadership Conference

Are leadership events effective in recruiting talent?

I think it is very important because it is a good opportunity for networking, learning from experiences of others, especially if it includes companies from different industries. These events can showcase private companies, state companies and not for profit agencies.

It gives a better platform for networking and learning about the best practices in the market, and sharing concernand sharing ideas. The effect lasts longer than the conference because I found I was able to build really strong relationships with some of the participants, even after I go back to the office.

How have things changed at Saudi Aramco since you joined?

Things have changed big time. When I started with the company 28 years ago, there were only a few Saudi ladies working, although the company was encouraging college graduates to join the organisation. We wanted to have a lot of professional jobs to be filled by Saudis, but Saudi women did not at that time really have the courage to work in a work environment like Aramco.

But now I see it is changing more, the new generations are more passionate about work, about seeing change, energetic and patient, if they want something they want it now. This also helps the company move towards change rather than maintaining the status quo; whether that is the way we do business, our strategies, our technologies. So that opened the door, and on top of that the company also started sponsoring high school students - men and women – and sent them abroad to different parts of the world to study in key areas where we needed to build expertise, and the pool of women increased for the company to draw from.

It really has been a big change. Also we find more women now keen and accepting to work in technical areas and engineering areas such as petroleum specialist areas, much more so than before, so that has been a big change.

What more that could still be done to encourage women?

In the intake and the sponsoring, career development, learning and the training it is equal, but we are yet to see it penetrating in the board room, to see at the top of the leadership areas, so that area is lacking. But again, the number of women is very small compared to men, so if you have a few candidates for a certain job you will find more men with longer experience in the industry than women.

Having said that, I think it will change. We see that leaders at the top they realise it is very important to have that other perspective of running the business, men and women they have different things to offer to the business, and they look at things from different angles. If you have both, you get a well rounded approach to any issue. Management is putting a lot of emphasis on accelerating the development of women at the training level, so they become qualified and can compete on an equal footing.

Is the retention of female staff a problem at Aramco?

Aramco, historically if you look at the past 20 years we have had the lowest attrition levels in the industry and the country. The attrition level is very low, for different reasons. Two decades ago Aramco was the only player in town. People who join Aramco are there for job security – they are there for life and the company will take care of them, from the moment they are recruited until they retire. That encompasses their families, their children, education, benefits, and health care and a good pension plan.

Nowadays wee see, especially in the past few years, as the private sector starts expanding with smaller companies, these companies don’t have the time to take people to put them through the training and development for six or seven years until they start seeing results, they want people who are ready now. So where do they look?

They look at Aramco where you have ready people and they start offering them big packages to join their companies, they are trying to attract the crème de la crème. The company looks at this in different ways: On one hand it hurts, but at the same time it is helping the local economy, and by helping the local economy. This competition raises the level of professionalism and management skills, so we look at it as a win-win situation.

We have a huge pool of qualified candidates, so it doesn’t have a negative impact on our operation. Attrition for Saudis is in the 3% range, and that includes involuntary attrition which is normal retirement – age 60. So if you remove this and look at voluntary attrition, it is very very low.

How have you adapted the traditional employment structure to support women?

We have what we call family friendly policies for women, they get maternity leave, where their jobs will be there for them when they come back. It can go up to 100 days. We have part-time jobs when they come back after they give birth so they have reduced hours, just 6 hours, and the company facilitates in the compound day care centres for the children. Management is also flexible with women who have small children.

Have you noticed a shift in societal rights for women in Saudi Arabia?

When we find fundamental changes - and fundamental changes usually takes small steps at a slow pace, but they are ingrained, they are not changing, they are genuine changes. These changes are encouraging women to be part of the decision makers, to be part work force.

They are starting to realise the economic situation is not like before, the cost of living is going up and small families will not be able to survive with just one income, societies now are demanding quality in everything – education, healthcare, jobs, lifestyle – and that costs money. By excluding women from the equation you are really neglecting 50% of your horsepower.

I use the example of somebody to running a race with one leg and expecting them to win – it is impossible! Now Saudi society is realising that and they are starting to accept women to be part of everything in economy, businesses, education, government, and also to participate in all the reforms that the government is calling for in our systems.

What’s your biggest challenge?

I think these are very exciting times. A lot of changes are happening. When we do interviews people usually ask why the change is so slow, why Saudi Arabia is not doing something about it. If you look at some countries their reforms are faster. I always say that each country has their own needs, their own characteristics, societies are different and we should not adopt someone else’s model, we adopt the model that suits us the best and the one we know is going to be long lasting.

It is going to have a positive and profound movement and progress, rather than having something that will shock the people and shock the system. That can shatter everything around you with backlashes. Whether it is Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt or the US – each country they has their own values, their own cultures, and whatever they reform should complement their values and culture of the people.

Huda Al-Ghoson, Director, HR Policy, Saudi Aramco

On Womens Issues

“Recently, we are witnessing an awakening of the governments and business communities in the region as they realize that 50% of the skills, talents and potential of their populations have been ignored and neglected.

"Marginalising women’s roles and power is costing our young economies dearly, and is incapacitating and inhibiting our ability to compete in a rapidly changing global environment. 

"The private and public sectors have no choice but to empower women and provide them with job opportunities and better choices in order to reap the benefits of their contributions and productivity in the local markets. 

"I see women playing major roles in the advancement of our societies, progress of our economies, and the reform of our education systems.” 

On Leadership

“Leadership is a state of being, not doing!  It is about the best you can be for others, not for yourself!  The domain of true leadership goes beyond formal power hierarchies of “leaders” and “those led”. 

Leadership is not about positional power.  It is about creating an environment in which people subscribe, commit, and believe in a common goal; and collaborate and participate in shaping the future.  Ultimately, leadership is about the choice to serve others with compassion, fairness and responsibility to create new realities and shape our destiny.”

Advice to Young Talent

“To succeed in a competitive world, young professionals need to establish order and discipline at the beginning of their career to help them focus on items of substance and raise their own and their management confidence in their abilities.  They should take the time to develop their technical knowledge and understand the business of their organizations. They need to pursue continuous self-development and be willing to venture in new territories. They should take the time to observe before acting, and not to be discouraged or disheartened by setbacks and failures. They should find a way to learn from past mistakes, and stick through the tough learning period. Sometimes the best teachers are the negative experiences.”


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