KEO International Consultants' Donna Sultan on leadership and women in the workplace - Gulf Business
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KEO International Consultants’ Donna Sultan on leadership and women in the workplace

KEO International Consultants’ Donna Sultan on leadership and women in the workplace

The authors of Game Changers speak to Donna Sultan, CEO at KEO International Consultants

Donna Sultan has held the title of CEO at KEO International Consultants since 1991. The firm focuses on the delivery of planning, design, engineering and project management solutions for some of the most prestigious building and civil projects in Asia and the Middle East and North Africa region.

Sultan has more than 40 years of experience in the Middle East. Born in France, and raised in the United States, her background includes strategic planning and management consulting.

Who did you want to be when you were a child?

“I don’t recall that I ever sat down and thought about what I wanted to be. What I recall was this sense since I was a child that I aspired to be a leader—in what, was undefined.”

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

“I am content with my life. I do appreciate and am thankful for the extraordinary life I have — both professional and personal. But on the other hand, I never feel that I have achieved all that I can.

It fuels me to focus and challenge myself more on how to propel our organisation to even greater heights of success and continue to be relevant as a part of nation- building teams. There are no limits to what you can achieve if you set your mind to it. The only limitation is your imagination and of course time. There are other aspirations outside of my professional life I have recently been thinking about, which I would like to devote more time to.”

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

“I am blessed with an energy level that can keep up with the demands of my job. I am also a strong believer that to get anywhere in life, you have to be willing to work hard – very hard.”

Do you believe in the term ‘work–life balance’? How do you maintain it?

“Women cannot escape this profound dilemma of work life balance: always having to think about how to handle family and work demands. It’s not easy. Whatever choice you make, there are compromises and conflicts that arise. I have an amazing husband who has never believed that there was any other option but to be fully productive professionally. He has been a great support, as have my children. Having a demanding career was part of our family norm. But I also allow time for daily exercise and my passion for cooking, agriculture and gardening.”

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?

“Nothing was ever planned. I certainly never had a goal to be the CEO of a major professional consulting firm competing in the global market place.

“As I look back on my life, I see it being a string of taking advantage of opportunities that came to me.”

As a very successful and internationally recognised woman, what do you consider the most enjoyable and most challenging aspects of your job?

“Without hesitation I would say there are three most enjoyable parts of my job. One is when I get to participate in an actual project and be part of the creative process. It is such a high to be among amazing planning, design, engineering or management talent as they conceptualise a project, start to give form to it and develop road maps of how best to deliver a great project or services for a client.

“The other is to be in a position to stimulate or mentor the professional growth of individuals to achieving success and their full potential. And of course, the sheer joy of winning new work after hard efforts against tough competition.

“Challenges have differed over the years while being CEO. Since 2008, I would say that the most challenging part of my job is the decisions I need to take to keep the firm financially viable while not compromising the high level of service we must provide. It has been a very tough time not just for us but also for all businesses to survive the economic downturn, and while many will say there is an upswing in our markets, the reality is that there remains strong competition for work and a marketplace that is very price driven.”

What is your personal leadership style and philosophy for success?

“What I push most is the idea of organised delegation of responsibilities and authorities within a context of commonly understood boundaries and expectations. My role then is to monitor and mentor, which is my preferred way of managing people and the business.

“I try not to get in the way of the potential of those working with me or for me. My job is to support them to be successful and to increase their experience and confidence. But at times, depending on circumstances, I must also be prepared to be very much hands on. I would say my leadership style adjusts to prevailing conditions to deal with an unexpected challenge or threat that needs to be met.

“I think it is important to know when to adjust your style of management and apply what, using your best judgment, is correct to protect the interests of an organisation. However, I hope that I would be ultimately judged as having an inclusive leadership style, preferring a consultative approach.

“My philosophy for success is that it must start by having confidence in yourself and your abilities. It is a truism that people will view you as you portray yourself. If people believe that you are confident, they will entrust you with responsibilities and opportunities.”

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

“A personal ethos of modesty, not letting your ego be a driver in anything you do. A true leader realises that success is defined by the successes achieved by everyone in the organisation and the role you have to play as a facilitator of success. The second characteristic – which I think is so important – is having a genuine respect for people, no matter their social, cultural, economic or organisational status.”

Who is the person that inspired or supported you the most when you were growing up?

“My father. He never saw my gender as any kind of limitation. He dealt with me in such a way that I felt I could be an equal, intellectually, to achieve whatever it is I set out to be even from as far back as I remember as a child. One has to put context to that, we are talking about the 1950s and 1960s when role-playing was strictly preserved. He gave me space to become an independent individual and not judge my decisions. That special relationship with my father continued until he passed away. There was a profound yet unstated understanding between us, and deep mutual respect.”

Did you ever have a mentor? What role did they play?

“Yes – an exceptional one. Someone who influenced me tremendously and believed in me and my potential as a leader. Someone who was passionate about people and being a consummate professional. Someone that came along in my career at a key time when I was transitioning from a mid-level to higher managerial position. Someone I owe a great deal to as I went further into my career as an executive. He challenged me to think more broadly, to approach problem-solving with wider range of possibilities.”

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

“There is no question there has been a profound change in the status of Arab women, all due to exposure to education including university degrees by both men and women in the last 30 years. With social media and the internet, there is far more dialogue on the status of women, which has had a positive impact. Speaking to my industry, there are more women entering degree programmes in architecture and engineering. Over the last 10 years I have personally seen far more women in our profession in the region, especially on the client side, taking on major roles in project delivery. And they are very good at what they do.”

What are the biggest challenges that female leaders face today?

“Regionally, it is the quality and quantity of opportunities that is available to them. Our markets are not large. The private sector has limited opportunities, often due to family-run businesses that still prevail. The alternative of government sector positions as a career path can lead to mixed results.”

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

“Overcoming prejudices and not being disadvantaged by discrimination. Another issue is that women are held to different standards in the workplace—higher standards.”

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

“By not ever seeing that being a woman was material to how well I do my job and not making it an issue in any of my dealings. The other is to be serious in what I do; it is very easy to lose reputation and credibility. Peer recognition comes from mutual respect, which is gained from hard work and remaining focussed.”

What do you do to invest in women and/or help young women rise in their careers?

“I make sure that our organisations have recruitment and mentoring policies that are colour- and gender-blind.

“The construction industry, especially the architectural and engineering consulting domains, is male-dominated. Just looking at some recent statistics in the US, women make up less than 10 per cent of the construction industry population, out of which only 10 per cent of women are executives. So, it’s not surprising that regionally we would see a similar pattern compounded by a lesser pool of available qualified female professionals. Yet I am pleased to say that women make up more than 16 per cent of KEO’s population and 25 per cent of KEO’s executives are women.”

What advice can you offer to an individual looking to start a career in your industry?

“If you can, choose the best academic programme or university that will provide you with a solid technical background and give you a head start in the recruitment of trainees. Choose your employers wisely. Know what kind of work culture and mentoring they have, and the kind of job training they provide. Choose an employer with a solid reputation and that can be a stepping-stone to greater opportunities in the future. Be prepared to put in the hours and work hard.”

Game Changers: How Women in the Arab World are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future is published by Motivate and is available at all good retail outlets and


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