INSEAD Participant Interview

Experiencing a Culture Like no Other at INSEAD

Abdullah Al Mutrif

Corporate Development & Governance Manager 
Al Tamimi Holding Company
Saudi Arabia

June 2016

"The INSEAD culture is totally different when compared to the other schools I’ve been to. There really is an excellent atmosphere at all levels: from the faculty to the programme coordinators; from the very start when you arrive at the airport, to the very end. Everyone is very kind and treats you all as equals." 

Can you please introduce yourself?

My background is in entrepreneurship. I founded an IT company and ran it for 12 years. During that time I won two local and one international business awards, recognising my entrepreneurship.

Towards the end of my time running the company, I realised I wanted to focus on helping family businesses in the region reach the best level in terms of both family and general corporate governance. I could see the importance of this and so decided to devote my professional time to this task.

I am now Corporate Development & Governance Manager at Al Tamimi Holding Company, which is the major shareholder in Tamimi Global (TAFGA), the largest catering company in the Middle East, Tamimi Markets, a dynamic and diversified food retail company and Tamimi Power and Industrial Holding Company, which is a dynamic conglomerate and a major provider of turn-key power generation solutions.

As Corporate Development & Governance manager I am responsible for developing, and managing, the group’s corporate governance practices. I set policies and controls, ensure that directorship is separated from ownership and review boards practices to ensure board effectiveness.

I sit on the Board of many companies, some of which are part of the Holding company, and others which are external.

Aside from this, I’ve attend the G20 on three occasions as part of the official delegation for young Saudi entrepreneurs.

Finally, I am an alumnus of INSEAD and an executive committee member of the National Alumni Association in Saudi Arabia and the ambassador for the IDP network in Saudi Arabia.

Why did you decide to come to INSEAD and what programmes did you complete?  

My friends joke that I am addicted to INSEAD! I’ve completed three programmes, starting with the International Directors Programme, followed by Finance for Executives and finally Leading for Results. I am now a holder of The Certificate in Global Management. I am also coming back for my fourth programme, Negotiation Dynamics, which I’ll attend in Abu Dhabi in November. Deciding to enroll on Finance for Executives and Leading for Results was a direct result of my experience on the International Directors Programme.

With regards to the International Directors Programme, I looked at many business schools looking for answers to my questions. I wanted to cover all aspects of governance: how to become a good board member and how to introduce the best practices into the boardroom, for example. I felt this was important not only for the company for which I work, but also because I consult with others to help them become better board members.

What made the difference with INSEAD was the ability to become a Certified Director in Corporate Governance. I saw this as a challenge and knew it was something I wanted to work towards. I wanted to become part of a select network of previous ‘IDPers’, people who are board members or becoming board members. It was a network I saw as being of very high quality.

I also felt the network would give me the international exposure which I don’t have right now.

During the International Directors Programme we spoke a lot about value creation and decision-making, as these are important considerations for any board member. Both have financial implications. As a board member it’s important to understand how our decisions create value from a financial point of view. This led me to the Finance for Executives programme. 

When I began researching the programme a little further, I read the testimonials from past participants and saw that the Finance for Executives is a CFA approved programme and even CFOs attend it. It confirmed that the programme really attracted experienced individuals, just like the International Directors Programme. This was confirmed once I was enrolled. Some of the other participants were already CFOs, or on their way to becoming it. Others were preparing their companies to go public. They all chose Finance for Executives to help them.

What did you think of the modular format of the International Directors Programme?

I really enjoyed it. It allows you leave each module, practice what you’ve learnt and then come back to INSEAD to go over your findings. You can work on your projects bit by bit as the modules go by. As a result, the learning is more complete and stays with you.

The modules are designed to give you information and then in between, work on your projects. Put together and they give you a complete set of tools as well as knowledge that makes everything much clearer.

After the first Module 1 I started working on my Certification paper. I had an idea in mind and thought I knew the direction I wanted to go in. By the time I had done all three modules, my entire thinking and strategy had changed. The International Directors Programme and my INSEAD experience made me question everything. Things would become clearer after each module.

Did you find that the programmes complimented each other and what impact have they had on your work?

It was a very rounded educational experience which contributed to changing the way I approach my work. For example, I recently launched a policy which was widely accepted in the company, something that can be quite hard to achieve. This was because I approached its implementation differently. This new approach was influenced by what I had learnt at INSEAD.

Indeed, during the International Directors Programme, Prof. Ludo spoke a lot about how to influence culture and thinking. His advice was to change the language of the boardroom. He explained that by changing the language, you will break down the boundaries that can exist between the board and the rest of the organisation.

I took his advice on board when implementing my new policy. As a result, everyone wants to be part of it, from the very top down. People feel they own the policy and that they were not pushed into accepting it. They are engaged and very keen to start working on it. People want to be part of new initiatives that involve change. INSEAD have helped me introduced a new language which can support my initiatives. Before joining the International Directors Programme this did not exist in my organisation. On the other hand, CEO performance evaluation was a major subject in International Directors Programme, were we have learned the how to link the performance to value creation instead of judging CEO performance by numbers (i.e., net profit), which could be misleading.

Finance for Executives helped me understand how to evaluate the CEO performance and how to recognise value creation or destruction from a financial point of view. Finance for Executives also helped me to take a financial decision and be 100% sure it would add value and not destroy it. It gave me the knowledge and the confidence to be able to speak with my peers in accounting and finance, even up to CFO level. The good thing about the programme is that it doesn’t matter if you have a finance background or not because the programme starts from scratch, from the basics.

Ultimately, Finance for Executives helps board members understand the answers to their financial questions, or as Prof. Ludo says it “to be able to know when you hear the “right answer” to your question.”

As far as Leading for Results is concerned, I liked it because it taught me to survive the political dynamics in the corporate world. This is very important to me as I am a policy maker and a change agent. Without having people on board, I can’t do my job. In this respect, Leading for Results was a game changer. It gave me strategies and how to use them.

In what other ways have the programmes helped you?

There was a huge change in my life after Leading for Results. It helped me think about what I want in life and what decisions to take. I see things differently. I care more about my wellbeing and the stress in my life. It helped me understand what was right and wrong. For example, I was used to overcommitting because I wasn’t able to say no. Leading for Results helped me to say no. I’ve really grown on a professional and personal level.

In fact, Leading for Results came at a time when I was making some major career decisions. The 360 feedback that I received helped me to realise what I needed and wanted to do. It guided me. It confirmed things I already knew, and helped me put corrections into practice.

How developed is corporate governance in the Middle East and how great is the desire to grow it?

We are going through a change process in the Middle East and there is a desire to see corporate governance develop. Family companies have to transform into global companies and we have to have governance and internal controls in place to allow us to do this.

People recognise it is important to adopt best practices. It will take time, but the good news is that people are motivated. The 2nd generation family members have all the knowledge at their disposal to make the right decisions and they speak the right language. They are able to continue the initiatives the 1st generations have started.

Programmes such as the International Directors Programme can only help accelerate change. Following International Directors Programme, I encouraged two decision makers of my organisation to attend Value Creation for Owners & Directors, a Board member and the CEO of one of the major business sectors. They came back speaking the same language and with a new mindset. They wanted to do a lot of things I was pushing for, but didn’t have support. When they came back, they were able to help me implement change. They became my change agents.

It created a new dynamic. I believe that if board members and family members attend the International Directors Programme and other governance programmes, it will help a lot when it comes to taking new steps. They will be ready for any kind of future change.

What did you think of the participant mix?

It is definitely an added advantage. When I advise friends to join INSEAD, I tell them that they won’t only learn from faculty; they will also learn a lot from the others in the class with them. For example, if there is something you don’t understand, the other participants are there to help. Everyone is engaged and asking questions. You can really benefit from their professional experience.

After finishing the International Directors Programme, a big reason for joining Finance for Executives was the participant mix and my experience of that on the International Directors Programme.

You mentioned you friends joked you are addicted to INSEAD. What is it about the school that keeps on bringing you back?

The INSEAD culture is totally different when compared to the other schools I’ve been to. There really is an excellent atmosphere at all levels: from the faculty to the programme coordinators; from the very start when you arrive at the airport, to the very end.

Everyone is very kind and treats you all as equals, as students. This is very important. By the last day of the International Directors Programme, we were like family members. Even those who were not working towards the Certification were made to feel part of a big family. You leave the International Directors Programme wanting to stay in touch with the faculty and the other participants for the rest of your life. I’ve not had this anywhere else.

How important do you feel the International Directors Programme Certification is?

Being Certified means you are part of a very select network of very experienced individuals. It has introduced me to people I would have never met otherwise. It helps create very strong connections, both locally and internationally.

How surprised were you by the knowledge you gained on the programmes?

Very surprised. The International Directors Programme changed the way I look at board effectiveness. The programme helped highlight practices which could be harmful to board operations.

I was able to relate many of the learnings to the Middle East and I feel confident in being able to help others avoid these practices. You really leave the International Directors Programme a different person.  

Leading for Results really taught me a lot about heuristic models. Sometimes, for the greater good, you have to say no to other people. As a result of Leading for Results, I believe I am in a stronger position to help others with positive thinking in their lives.

Finally with Finance for Executives, the new policies I have launched are the product of that programme. It gave me the ability to see financial information in a different light. 


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