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BCG partner Dr Leila Hoteit on work-life balance and beating sexism

BCG partner Dr Leila Hoteit on work-life balance and beating sexism

The authors of Game Changers speak to Dr Leila Hoteit, partner and managing director of Boston Consulting Group

As partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, Dr Leila Hoteit provides strategic leadership advice to high-profile clients across the Middle East’s government sector.

She specialises in areas including policy planning, strategic planning, organisational development and business model design. A reputed contributor to many international publications, she was named as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum.

Leila holds a bachelor’s degree and a PhD in electrical engineering from Imperial College, London and an MBA from INSEAD, France.

Who did you want to be when you were a child? Did your aspirations change with the years? What is your experience?

“At school, I excelled in mathematics, physics and sciences—the so-called STEM subjects. As a young girl, I remember showing leadership qualities early on especially among my circle of friends. And while I didn’t exactly know what my chosen profession would be, I still had very high career ambitions from a young age. I knew that I wanted to be successful in whatever field I would eventually decide upon. This vision is what drove me to always be at the top of my class.

“Once I began approaching my high school graduation, I knew that in Lebanon high-achieving students were expected to either become doctors or engineers, so I chose the latter. The truth is, my entire life, from adolescence to adulthood, I have maintained a determined, can-do attitude when it comes to my career. I believe that, even today, this outlook pushes me to continuously strive for success as a consultant.”

Are you content with your life? What else are you aspiring for now that you have already accomplished so much?

“I am very content with my life. I have a wonderful, happy family despite the fact that both my husband and I have quite demanding jobs. If I look back at my aspirations as a 14-year-old girl, I can say with confidence that, today, I have achieved more than I could have ever imagined back then. I hope to continue to grow in my current position at Boston Consulting Group and deliver strong results for clients in the field of education and human capital development.

“I also want to continue to serve as one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders, which entails spearheading key initiatives and drafting thought leadership pieces on gender parity and education. On a personal level, I am proud and honoured to be a role model for my children.”

What would you say is your most valuable asset, character trait or skill?

“I have strong analytical skills, which have served me fairly well throughout my career. I also believe that my ability to communicate effectively has definitely enabled me to build strong relationships—both personal and professional.

“My sense of professional resilience has guided me and allowed me to rise beyond obstacles or challenges. Throughout my professional life, I have learnt to remain persistent, take criticism in my stride and use it to further fuel personal ambitions.”

Tell me one thing about yourself that most of your colleagues or peers don’t know

“The scar on my face is from a piece of flying debris that erupted from a car bomb in Lebanon. I was just two years old when it happened. I actually love my scar as it reminds me of how lucky I am to be alive and that I’m a survivor.”

Do you believe in the term ‘work–life balance’? If yes, how do you maintain it?

“I believe that finding that balance is a very personal journey. At the end of the day, I don’t allow anyone to judge or dictate what should be considered acceptable and what shouldn’t. If I feel happy and content working long hours and spending less than ‘normal’ yet quality time with my family, it is my prerogative. What matters to me is that we are all happy and healthy, regardless of societal pressures.”

Tell me about your career choice and path. Did you always know you would do what you are doing? Did you study for it, plan for it or was it accidental?

“My career in consultancy was not my original plan. I studied electrical and computing engineering at London’s Imperial College where I was one of four girls in a class of 35. I was also one of the few girls to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering at Imperial College. I subsequently worked in research and development, and developed a couple of patents along the way. At that stage of my career, success was measured based on your inventions, publications and patents.

“After being offered the role of R&D programme manager, which entailed managing a team of researchers, I became curious about the business side of things and decided to do an MBA at INSEAD. It was there that I learnt the ins and outs of management consulting. And the rest is history.”

What inspires you to do the work you do?

“I enjoy waking up every morning knowing that the opportunities for growth are endless. Each and every day I work hard to make sure that I am learning, enhancing my knowledge and building relationships. It inspires me to know that I am solving my clients’ most complex problems and resolving issues that could significantly impact the region’s socio-economic context. I am also incredibly grateful to be working alongside some very talented individuals.”

What is your personal leadership style and philosophy for success?

“Be truly passionate about what you do, strive for excellence and remember to always empower your team so they too can reach their full potential.”

Who is the male or female figure that inspired or supported you the most when you were growing up?

“My maternal grandmother lived with us when I was younger and we had a very special bond. She was a teacher by profession so it was great to have her around as I was a child full of intellectual curiosity and had a strong desire to learn more about the world. Her love, support and wisdom were crucial to my early development.

“My inspiration is my father, who came from a small village and built a successful career as a commercial pilot for Lebanon’s national airline. He later rose to become the general manager of operations for the airline. He worked very hard, almost never took time off and fought to ensure the airline’s survival throughout Lebanon’s civil war. I absorbed my strong work ethic from him.

“In terms of support mechanism, we are missing a big dimension here — one which focuses on the home front. I believe that, in this part of the world, one of the key decisions that you make as a woman for your career is your choice of partner. I made a conscious decision to marry someone who I knew would support my career choices and not be fazed by the Middle East’s societal expectations.

“It is equally critical to build a strong network of support. For example, I have a great nanny for my children and she helps me better achieve a work–life balance.

“Sometimes, when I am travelling, my children’s nanny sends me a photo of my daughter’s homework so I can check it, ensure it is well done or explain what it lacks. It may not be an ideal situation for everyone, but it does work for us. In fact, I think it has increased my children’s level of self-confidence and helped them become more autonomous. Of course, you need to have a very well-organised system of support in place to make it work.”

Did you ever have a mentor? What role did he or she play in your life?

“Yes, a couple of years ago I had a mentor who gave me one key piece of advice: he urged me to invest in my own brand equity. Until today, those words remain the best career advice anyone has ever given me.”

In your view, which part of the world is the most advanced in terms of gender diversity and equal opportunities for career growth and leadership?

“I believe that Northern Europe is the most advanced in terms of the economic empowerment of women, which is supported by various gender parity indices.

“The reason for their success goes beyond the policy support that is offered in terms of maternity leave and quotas for women in executive roles. They have also focused on allowing men to be whoever and whatever they want to be as well—for example, a man taking on the role of family caretaker is celebrated and parental leave is split evenly, so fathers can do their share and spend time with their babies, while the mothers have more leeway.”

How do you see the current status of Arab women as opposed to 30 years ago and 100 years ago? How do you see it evolving?

“I believe that Arab women are progressing fast, despite the challenges they face and any setbacks arising from the Arab Spring.

“On the education front, they have surpassed their male counterparts; across almost every Arab country, women outperform men at universities. There is, of course, work to be done to better direct them to the right industries, based on the needs of the economy. However, the talent is there.

“On the labour front, the region has one of the lowest female participation numbers but these are increasing every year as more and more women complete their higher degrees. After all, these educated women want to make use of their degrees and join the workforce.”

“In terms of leadership positions, I only have to look at the various organisations I have worked with in the region to spot rising female talent. They are now in level two positions, which is just below the CEO and are involved in key decision-making processes. And, in some cases, they have already reached top-level positions. In terms of entrepreneurship, women also lead a large number of the new ventures being launched in the region.

“All in all, there are still major challenges facing Arab women today. However, we do have some strong advantages over our Western counterparts: most of us have a large network of support at home between family members, maids and nannies. As a result, I am very optimistic about the future of Arab women in the workforce.”

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

“The unequal share of caretaking responsibilities at home is probably the single largest issue for women in the workplace. In the region, and to some extent globally, there is the additional challenge of breaking into an old boy network when trying to develop new business opportunities for your company. In addition, women try to achieve twice the results of their male counterparts to further prove themselves. Often, they cave into pressure because they feel ‘motherly guilt’ and conclude that they simply can’t have it all. That is why they put their careers on the backburner. The truth, however, is that the definition of ‘all’ is the wrong one: there is no such thing as the perfect mother who can take on most of the caretaking load, be a perfect spouse and have a great career.”

How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys network?

“One word: resilience. You have to want it badly enough to keep going despite the challenges. I have been studying and working in male-dominated fields since my high school years when I focused on STEM subjects. When I specialised in electrical engineering at university, worked in research and development, and delved into management consulting, I was also mostly surrounded by men. At this point, I got used to it.

“As a woman, however, in order to fit it and reach a leadership position, you have to go above and beyond what is required. That way, there is no question that you deserve it. So, to be considered a thought leader in my domain, I not only worked to spearhead new studies but also made sure to talk about any new developments across leading media platforms and channels.”

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Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career, and tell me how you handled it

“Throughout my career I have received strong encouragement and support from both men and women and, unfortunately, also encountered sexism on some rare occasions.

“In the Middle East, some men still have an issue with seeing a woman reach their position or – worse – rise above their level. I used to let their envious reactions get to me but my husband told me to consider it a compliment. Now, I just ignore any negative, sexist comments or behaviours and keep doing my work.”

Why is it important for companies to invest specifically in women’s leadership?

“Today, diversity is no longer just about doing the right thing. Senior business leaders are leveraging diversity as a point of strategic differentiation and as a key driver of growth. After all, with the growing number of female customers, clients need to build a diverse leadership team that can connect with and understand all audiences.

“Women make up half of the pool of future leaders, so why not tap into this league of top talent? It is important to note that a diverse team can help enhance innovation and retention. Companies, for their part, must better communicate the business case for investing in women and the positive return on investment that can be reaped from such efforts. Investing in women is not solely about establishing quotas; it is about ensuring sustainable growth.”

What does Islamic feminism mean to you?

“To me, it means that the push for women’s rights, gender equality and social justice can be grounded in an Islamic framework. The fact is Islam, in its original form, was actually a strong proponent of women’s rights.”

What advice would you give your 14-year-old self?

“Don’t sweat the small stuff. I was so focussed on achieving success and aiming high that I would sometimes let small failures and harsh criticism get to me. It is important to remember that failure can shape future success.

“Young girls should also know that if people talk badly about you when you’re successful, especially if you are a woman, they are either envious of your success or judgmental about your lifestyle because it doesn’t suit theirs.”

Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future is published by Motivate and is available at several retail outlets and booksarabia.com

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