In this issue Barry shares his view on international leadership, multicultural working, and professional development, and how his life experiences have shaped his business.
Barry James Cummings (his son, Barry Lee, is also active here in the UAE) is a British, UAE based, business and executive coach and psychometrician. Barry is active in the areas of leadership development within the multicultural workforce in the region, but with a focus on the special issues of Emiratization and cross-cultural working. He is a published author and member of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Journalists, and a regular speaker on the international circuit on issues of profiling & development of senior managers, multicultural leadership, and the design and delivery of leadership and coaching materials, many of which utilise British Psychological Society (BPS) interventions. A former British Army officer with a military career spanning almost 30 years, he served in and trained with many of the specialist units of the British Army and those of its allies, including the United Nations (UN). Barry eventually transitioned from being a computer and missile systems engineer to being passionate about helping people to become the best that they can be.
A self-confessed failure at school, “My favourite topic at school was truancy,” Barry now holds nine degrees and post-graduate qualifications (in Mathematics, Electronics, Psychology, Teaching, Languages, Coaching, Journalism, and Business) and he is deeply committed to ensuring that everyone with whom he works is guided towards the opportunity to find out for themselves who they really are. And, practising what he preaches, he is also in the final stages of completing his research dissertation towards the award of a doctoral degree in the field of international leadership.
1. Tell us about you, your experience, and time in the Middle East.
My time at school was not a pleasant experience and it was only when I left school and realised that being unemployed was my major opportunity that I became aware that telling me what was required, but not how I should do it, was a better way to command my attention! Totally academically unqualified, I took responsibility for my life when I was 16, and all the decisions I have made since then, good and bad, are what make me who I am today. One of my better decisions was to go back to learning – but under my conditions, not someone else’s – and an even better one was, after joining the Army some years later and while serving in Hong Kong, to find and marry my wonderful Chinese wife.
My current home here in Dubai is my 28th home in the 17 countries that my wife and I have lived in during our 40+ years together. How she has put up with me for that long is a mystery to me! I first visited the Middle East region in 1970 (Bahrain), in 1987-88 (Oman), and I finally arrived to stay when I took over as Director of the HCT Men’s College in Al Ain in 1996. This latter role was a natural consequence of studying Classical Arabic at the UK’s Defence School of Languages and my growing interest in the disparate examples of multicultural society that the UAE represented (we had around 200 nationalities represented here in the UAE, according to a 2006 survey in the Khaleej Times).
After 18 months as a college Director in Al Ain, and a further 18 months in Abu Dhabi where I helped to set up the region’s first science park, I came to Dubai to plan and implement the Emiratisation programme for a local oil company. This led to me setting up my own
consultancy, Action in Business International (ABI), in 2000 in the then-fledgling Dubai Media City, where I still work as the Managing Partner, and where my offices are located.
2. What does your business offer?
Some people find their true selves in the extremes of physical endurance, and last month’s Spotlight subject, Adrian Hayes, is an inspiring example of this. Other people find their calling in the world of business or academic effort, and the reward of learning. Some people live for theory and the thrill of discovery, other people value practical tools and applications. Sadly, my work repeatedly shows me that many people never reach the state of knowing who they are, and how best they can represent themselves to the world, personally or professionally. So, I set up my company to assist everyone that I could reach to understand who they were, why they valued some things and not others, and why being different was not a problem but an opportunity.
My company, ABI, provides bespoke support for all levels of personal and corporate leadership development, including keynote speeches, one-to-one coaching and mentoring, short workshops, or longer sessions (often delivered as a series of 2-day workshops); all of our work is in-house, we do not offer any public courses but we do have fun! For the last ten years all of our work has come from word-of-mouth recommendations, which is why you will rarely, if ever, see any public advertising of ABI.
3. How easy is it for you to get direct access to clients and decision makers for your company?
I firmly believe that it is easier to reach the decision makers in the UAE than it is to reach those same levels in the western business world. I can walk into the ruler’s majlis more easily than I can obtain an appointment with my parliamentary spokesperson in the UK – I know, because I recently tried both! One of the essential skills of a business person is to understand how a business is actually run (as opposed to the theoretical outlines so beloved of some text books and colleges), how to locate the person who actually knows the issues that need attention, and who may, as a stakeholder, be at least willing to discuss those issues.
However, in order to reach the decision makers, it is necessary to have the credibility to request their time. Time is important, possibly the most important resource of the busy professional, and wasting time is the surest way to being refused entry or to being removed very quickly. Being prepared is paramount and, in this region where personal introductions are crucial, it means that you avoid embarrassing yourself and the person who is introducing you. Part of that preparation is to know the cultural as well as the business signals that will play a part in any discussion with the decision maker.
4. What are your biggest challenges in the next 5 years?
My immediate personal challenge is to complete the research for, and then to defend the results of, my doctoral research. Many people might find that for someone at my stage of life (let’s just say that I am somewhat older than the typical student) to be still immersed in practical research is a strange situation, but, in following my own dream, I am simply following the philosophy that I deliver to all of my clients. Find a goal doing something that you love, and then commit wholeheartedly to that goal, forever. I do not have a book of answers, but I do have a large and growing book of questions.
As for putting a date or time to my objectives, I think that, with the pace of change that the business world is witnessing, it would be foolish either to wait until a certain date arrived or to cling to the belief that, just because you learned the rules at some previous time, the rules remain the same. I was told a long time ago that, “Rules are for the guidance of wise men, and the obedience of fools.” This is not an invitation to only obey the rules that you like, but to ensure that the rule that you are about to follow is still applicable to the situation in which you are about to apply that rule. It seems to me that applying a rule that was made for a situation that no longer exists is the height of folly, and of professional idleness.
5. What are the skills and competencies that you think are needed in order to meet the regions talent requirements?
The problem that was identified in the world’s press last year as the Arab Spring, the social unrest that grew from disgruntled societies, is one that still exists. Currently, according to government sources, over 55% of young Emiratis are unemployed and more of the country’s youth is graduating each year. Only one in 25 of those employed in the UAE’s private sector workplace is an Emirati, the UAE’s public sector is full to bursting, and this is not a problem that is going to go away any time soon. A recent research survey of 4600 personnel in 5 GCC countries and covering 40 organisations, presented by AON Hewitt, Middle East, highlighted the thoughts and perceptions that will guide the future development of the region, if only because they represent the views of the people who will make that future.
My own current research is targeted at this very topic, and an understanding from the Emirati and the expatriate viewpoints of why this situation exists, and the underlying feelings, perceptions, and competencies within this situation are central to that research. After more than 15 years in the region, based in the UAE, I have had the privilege of working with many of the current Emirati leaders in the public and private sectors from early in their careers, and I can state categorically that it is not a case of Emiratis being incompetent, or of expatriates being supremely gifted, but it is more one of attitude and culture. These are major elements of the areas that I hope to illuminate with my research.