From niqab to miniskirt

My greatest challenge by Management Consultant Svend Lind.

Articel by management consutant Svend Lind

The phone rings on a Thursday afternoon: 'Our British Project Manager has been deported for winking inappropriately at a local woman. We have to migrate a telecoms company's billing and CRM systems to a new platform. Your clients are Arabs, you will report directly to an Irish executive, your subcontractors are German/Austrian and the local suppliers in your organisation are mainly Indian and Lebanese – and by the way, you need to be in Kuwait City for a meeting at eight o'clock Monday morning.’

It sounded like a hopeless mishmash and it nearly was, but management involves a lot more than simply having the basic tools at hand. It is good for you to take on assignments where in addition to using your specific project expertise you are also challenged to manage a wide variety of people and cultures contributing to the project.
After spending the first night in Kuwait on the sofa in the home of a lovely Indian family, I arrived rested and refreshed at my new workplace on Monday morning, where I was served the first of many challenges: We want you to present an integrated plan to the company board this Friday. The plan has to include all aspects, including sub-activities, finances and commitments from all stakeholders involved in the projects.

As a manager, you just have to hide your reaction, smile and say ‘Sure, thanks.’

Working in an Arabic country can really eliminate a lot of the prejudices we Europeans often have. One day I sat opposite an extremely well-educated female Arabian engineer and had a technical dialogue with her that lasted several hours. She was wearing a traditional niqab, so only her eyes were visible. You forget about that quickly enough and listen to the intellect instead.

The day after, I was buttonholed by an extremely provocatively dressed woman wearing high leather boots and a short miniskirt, her face fully made up. My jaw dropped when she referred back to the dialogue from the day before and I discovered that it was the same woman. I could not have seen that coming. Now when I am in Denmark and hear debate about whether wearing the veil is a violation of women's human rights, I think: 'If only you knew what they are wearing underneath. I am convinced many Middle Eastern women wear the veil due to the weather and their culture, in the same way we wear raincoats and wellies.

I've now been in the PM industry for many years and all over the world. In my experience, while of course you have to have your basic toolbox in order and know your stuff, it is at least as important to learn how to get on as a "people's manager" across many different cultures. In these cases, the technical challenges more often fade a bit into the background.

If I cannot get all parties to work together towards a common goal, the fancy non-conformance reports still mean that I have not delivered what was expected to the client.


@ Contact If you have dealt with a fascinating problem that colleagues might learn from, write to the editor: jmw@prodata.dk.

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