Tell us a little bit about what you do Shatha.
I’m currently the Country Managing Director of Protiviti in Oman. We’re in the business of business consulting. We cover different solutions, ranging from finance optimization to risk management, compliance, audit, HR consulting, etc. We are positioned against the big four like PWC and Deloitte. Sometimes people ask us, what exactly do you do and how are you different from the big four? We do everything under the umbrella of business advisory except attestation and taxation. This is good for me because doing attestation and taxation is not creative and I like to expand my creative side. I’m also the key salesperson in this organisation at my level. People ask me if I’m the MD, and I say ‘No, I’m the saleswoman’. The sales responsibility skyrockets.
You are a country leader, which is a position of seniority and responsibility. What changes did you have to make in your mindset to get to where you are?
I’ve been fortunate to be in this field for over 20 years and there has been a beautiful natural evolution in my skill sets, competencies and in my natural traits. I started with loving what I do as a consultant. And when you love what you do, you evolve into somebody who can sell the solution, who can listen to the problems, who can come up with recommendations and who can make the client feel that we are hearing their pain. We can then shape something to help take away that pain. It makes you a good diagnostic reviewer. However, listening to them and coming up with a solution doesn’t come naturally unless you have a lot of work experience in that space.
My sales strategy is to be a good listener. Just keep listening. The more you listen, the more information you get. The more information you get, the better position you are in to shape a solution. Clients need to know if you are listening to sell, or are you listening to solve a problem?
Sales has got a bad reputation. People use euphemisms like business development and consulting. But you seem to be proud to say that you sell. What made you make good friends with selling?
I won’t lie, selling was not a smooth process. It wasn’t easy especially when I’ve been bouncing from one country to another. One thing that makes sales easy is when you have those relationships that you nurture over the years. After being here for 12 years, I can say now that I have invested a lot of time in building relationships. I invested a lot of time listening to people and socializing with people. I invested a lot of time not selling but listening. My sales strategy was to be a good listener. Just keep listening. And the more you listen, the more information you get. The more information you get, the better position you are in to shape a solution.
Tell me a little bit about how you build good quality, strong client relationships.
There are relationships that happen before sales, during sales and after sales, and it’s a whole cycle. Before the sale, people need to know who you are as a person. They need to know what you are offering on the table. Are you genuine? Are you patient? Are you listening to sell? Or are you listening to solve a problem?
During the sales a lot of people struggle as far as dealing with relationships. And for me, I have a very different strategy, which I am proud of – I don’t do negotiations. I’m not here to play numbers. I have a number on the board and I’m very transparent about what this number looks like, what it is going to serve, etc. So, when people call and ask for a 50% discount, I tell them that I’m selling a service, I’m selling my time and I’m selling a solution to you. I had an enlightening moment once where I told a client this. I was so aggravated by their ridiculous discount request where they said – the job is mine if I gave them 50% discount. I told them that if I give them the 50%, there’s two parts to a problem. Number one – I ripped them off by 50% because I will obviously not do a job at a loss. And in the world of consulting, we don’t make 50% margin. If we’re lucky we make 10 to 20%. Number two, if I give the 50% because I want to get my foot into the door and expand the relationship later, then we’re talking about unethical pricing. They would be making me deliver something, and they’re not compensating me for that work. So how do they feel about that? And believe it or not, to my surprise, we got awarded without negotiations. Even my team was shocked as they thought I had blown it because I used the word unethical pricing. But I believe that it is part of my job to educate the other side. I’m sure they’ll take this with them, when they go to their next negotiation and if somebody offers them 50%, they’ll take a step back, instead of getting excited.
Could the reason the customer gave you the business be because they found value in what you were delivering?
Hundred percent. I’ve been in situations where a salesperson comes to me and says this is my final price and you can take it or leave it. It makes me think twice when they say that because they are very confident and are not willing to compromise on the price. So, I start to wonder if maybe that is the market price. I tell my clients to go out into the market and meet the people. I ask them to talk to others. If they don’t like what we’ve technically proposed, and they don’t like the team that they’ve met then we can look into it. But usually they say they don’t want to change anything and to proceed.
Value creation is the foundation. If we create value, then the price conversation tends not to happen. Tell us one or two things about what you have learned about value creation.
We always try to have these conversations with clients before pitching. Let me give you a reverse story to address the value creation. I had one of my team members in my previous job who came to me and said that he got me a lead and I should go meet the client. He said it was a done deal. He told the client about what we do, and they were ready to buy, so all I had to do was sell. I asked him if he knew what their problem was, and he said it didn’t matter as they were ready to buy. I went and spoke to the client and realised that it was not something they needed. My team member heard about the call and asked me why I was shutting the door on the leads that he was trying to bring in. I told him that we don’t open doors by just closing one deal. It is easy to win a deal today and make everybody happy, but it does not create any value for the client and it’s not what they need. When I spoke to that client, I told them that this was not what they needed, and I offered them what would add value for them, and I converted it into a $300,000 deal. The client was happy and asked us to come in and do the job. They understood that I would not sell them something they didn’t need.
The whole point of my job is to create value. It doesn’t matter whether it’s $5,000 or 5 million. I need the client to remember me after the sales, after the delivery, after the payment and even after the celebration. I want to hear a good story after its been implemented. To hear the client say that the reason they are here today is because of Protiviti and because of the conversations we had with them.
In sales, does it matter that you’re a woman? Tell us a bit about that.
Men have been in this field for the longest time, and it’s still dominated by men. But there have been enough studies that suggest that women excel at B2B sales. Men have a different approach and when we combine men and women in the workplace, we can get the best of both. We all have to learn something from each other. I’ve learned a lot from my male colleagues. And I hope they learned something from me. I know that the men appreciate what I do. But in their perspective, women always take much longer or spend way too much time. If we see the metrics, a woman is definitely spending at least three times more time. I personally do spend three times more building a relationship versus a man. A man will lose patience after the second or third meeting, but I will continue to meet even after a year. I can give an example of a client that I kept meeting for three years. Everyone pointed out that I was wasting time, and nothing was happening. I said I’m aware of that, but I believe it is part of my job. I calculated the hours spent on this client and it added up to 150 hours. When you look at the sales that happened after those 3 years, it was $4 Million. That is a big amount and a big deal for us. People might still say that as an MD, I should not spend so much time, but the client remembered me. It was a large organisation and the board, the C level executives, the middle management and everybody I met remembered me. Nowadays when they want something, they pick up the phone and call me first. Even if I don’t have the answer, I tell them that I will check with my colleagues. They don’t feel the need to call anyone else.
So, men are definitely faster at turning, but I don’t know if they are as good as women in nurturing relationships. I think we are special in that sense. There is a compassion that we show. I’m not here to ditch men in any way. But we do invest a lot more time. And of course, if people look at only the general performance metrics, they will say that it took me more time to convert that opportunity. But I tell them that I’m not only converting an opportunity, but I am also creating a sustainable relationship.
There is competition everywhere. How do you work on being differentiated?
My work tempo is quite high. Clients come before anything and sometimes even before my health, which I would not advise. But with good relationships, they take care of me too. I know from client feedback that one thing that definitely differentiates us is being extremely responsive. Clients tell me that whenever they try to call a partner, or an MD in any company, it usually takes them at least a week to 10 days to fix a meeting, but with us it is much easier. We have very simple rules in Protiviti, and I tell my team this as well. If a client reaches out to us, if it’s an email, they need to respond within four hours maximum. I don’t care what happens during the day, they must respond within four hours. If the client contacts us at around 5pm, then they should at least acknowledge the email and let them know when they will hear back from us. I personally don’t have patience, so I always reply within 24 hours. The other thing is if a client says they need to urgently meet me, I’m ready to meet them right away. I will reorganize my meetings and my schedule and prioritise them. I will not forgive anyone if the client has to send us a reminder. The client needs to know that we are there for them and we will get back to them and we must honour that commitment. I learned all this from our former Chairman who unfortunately has now passed away. When he tells me that he will get back to me by 10am, he would get back at 9.55am. He has never failed in that. I tell everybody that the Chairman has set the communication standard and if he can honour his word, then there is no excuse for anyone to fall short.
You are the Country Managing Director now. What kind of biases did you face in your journey?
There were internal and external biases. Internally, we must invest in our relationships. I tell every woman that men are actually very simple creatures. Especially in a dominated workplace, they are very simple, they’re not difficult to please, they’re very focused on numbers and getting things done. They don’t want to beat around the bush, they don’t want too much information. They only want to know if you can do the job or not. But a man will take a woman on his shoulders and even on top of his head, the minute he thinks she adds value to the business. They are not concerned about what else you can offer like the softer non-tangible things. Those don’t excite them. They get excited by tangible results. So if you tell them that you managed to get your foot into the door and managed to get a meeting with that board member we’ve been trying to meet for so long, then all the men will be very supportive. But if you tell a story about all the challenges and issues, they don’t want to hear it.
Externally, of course, there was a lot of bias. First of all, for me, I guess I looked too young. I was 32 or 33 when I became an MD and I looked very young. In this part of the world, if you are an MD or partner, you need to look senior. So, I felt I did not get the respect that I was hoping to get. But I told myself that earning people’s respect was part of my job. Instead of going with my job title, I need to show up with my brains and present to the client what I have to offer. A plus point for me was coming from the US. That helped me a lot. When they know that I worked in the US, there is a huge shift. I don’t like doing that, but I felt I had to. When they ask me what I was doing before Protiviti, I tell them I was with PwC in the US, and I can see they are more willing to listen to what I have to say. So, I focused a lot on my technical capabilities to earn that trust.
There is bias that a woman can’t be technical, or she can’t be in the space of IT, or she won’t understand internal audit, finance, etc. In the first 2-3 years, I spent a lot of time building relationships. I was not focused on anything else. And I learned so much. I am able to talk about internal audit one day, corporate governance the next day and then on finance optimization. People wonder how I’m able to do that, but it is because I have put in all this work. I’m not the deep-rooted expert, I am a generalist. And I know what I’m talking about, and I know who to bring on board to serve the client’s problems.
Would you say your competence, as well as the connections you established helped you thrive?
Yes, I would say so. Also, one important thing is that I don’t have a big ego. We all have some ego, and a little bit of ego is healthy to drive us. But I don’t let my ego overtake my sensibilities. I can tell you a little incident that happened not long ago. My colleague and I were having a conversation with an elderly gentleman who was being a bit stubborn. I don’t think what he was saying was wrong, but it was annoying. My colleague was starting to get irritated, and I was trying to tell him on the side to let it go, but he felt the client was being unreasonable. I knew he was right, but we have to handle the client in the right way. I could tell it was all coming from a place of ego and suddenly these 2 men with their egos started battling each other. I jumped in and I told the client that if it takes 10 or 20 workshops to satisfy him, then we are not the right people. He paused and asked me what I was suggesting. I said that one or two workshops is enough for us to solve their problems. And all of a sudden, the demeanour of the client changed. He started laughing and said he loved my confidence. I said I’m confident because we are pitching for something that we are comfortable to do. We are good at influencing his entire team, so they understand what we are trying to solve here. So, if it takes me 10 workshops to do that, then either there is a problem on my side, or there is problem on his side, and I don’t think there are problems. And he completely changed. It was one incident of making him feel like the most important man in the room. My colleague said he wanted out and did not want to deal with this client anymore. I told him to leave it with me and that I will handle it.
This is a wonderful anecdote. How did you build that level of emotional maturity?
I think we women are gifted! I have not done any courses on this, but I’ve done a lot of reading. I don’t read to develop a skillset, I read to reflect on interesting points. Half the time when I read something I note that I’m already doing it. So it feels good and reassuring. I’m also an empath, an introvert and a strong observer. When you take the time to have empathy, observe and be a good listener, your emotional intelligence increases as you tend to exercise those muscles much better than someone who does not have those.
What have you learned about creating more high performers in your team?
I remember doing some kind of a psychological assessment with my entire team. It had many aspects around leadership – our needs, what we do, how are we socially, how do we handle optimism in the office and our need to be noticed by others and so on. An occupational psychologist conducted the assessment, and the results were very interesting. When it was time to share the results, nobody wanted to go first. They didn’t feel good about what they saw. I could understand that because my leadership score was a 4 out of 10. My need to be noticed score was zero but my social and optimism scores were 10. Ten or five years ago, I would not have got these scores, but I could understand why I got these scores now. I asked the psychologist to put my scores up and I told my team that like them I am also a team player. I cannot only be a leader with a score of 10. There are so many things to do in our jobs and I contribute to everything just like all of them. My need to be noticed is zero because I already feel noticed. I’m either writing business articles or attending events. I don’t need to be noticed any more than I already am. My social skills is 10 not because I’m a social person but because I make an effort. I get a 10 for effort. Once I shared my results and my thoughts, the whole team’s mindset changed, and they all wanted to talk about their scores.
I have been extremely transparent with my team. I take even the trainees to board meetings and client meetings. This is not very common, but when are they going to learn? When are they going to build their confidence? So I take my trainees to meet the CEO unless the CEO has a very confidential discussion and wants to talk to me alone. And I can see that my clients have a lot of respect for that. They understand that I take care of my people. I tell them my only reason for bringing this person here is I want them to learn how to listen, to see how great our CEOs in the country are or to take minutes. This person doesn’t have to talk or do anything. I can see that my team has built a lot of confidence that I didn’t have 15 years ago. Their level of confidence is 50 times higher than mine, because I’m giving them everything that I didn’t get. So, now they’re natural salespeople.
I got this great advice from my market leader in the US. She said that her boss gave her this advice 40 years ago. So this is a 60-year-old piece of advice that she was giving me. She said that to be a good consultant, I must go meet the clients and I must come back with at least 3 opportunities. These don’t have to convert to sales, but I must identify at least three. If I’ve not identified at least three problems or three opportunities, then I need to reflect on what would make me a better consultant. So I passed this advice on to my team, and I was very impressed by the younger people. They started to fish for information among their clients and they would come back to me with information about them – what their plans are, what they are struggling with, that they don’t have money, their problems, etc. So I pass on any gems of advice that I have got from my bosses to my team.
To know how well invested you are in yourself is correlated to how well invested you are in your people. My time is split 50/50. At my level it should be more with the client and with the market. But 50% is therapy and having talking sessions with my team. When I see my team, I put my laptop down, I switch off my phone and I have conversations with them.
You are doing so much. How do you take care of yourself?
We all go through these waves of overworking and then something happens. You crash and you get sick. I have had a couple of incidents that served a good purpose. One incident was when I was misdiagnosed with cancer, and it went on for 3 months, but it helped me reflect a lot. I remember even when my biopsy was being done, I asked my mother to bring my laptop to the bed. My mother wondered what was wrong with me, but I wanted to reply to an email because my client was expecting it. My mother said we need to find out what this is. The treatment is going to be long term and I need to recover. She felt I was adding stress, and this will make me sicker. I ignored all that. My mother’s prayers were answered, and it was not cancer. The doctors said that my body was reacting to something, but it was not cancer. One day when I was out with my mom, I was reflecting, and I said that this is a message from my body that it had had enough, and I need to take a step back.
I am not ashamed to say that we women are not good at delegation. My journey of delegation started after this incident. I was being a perfectionist. I was overdoing it, including reading every line in a sales pitch, telling them how to behave in a client meeting, how to shake their hands, etc. I was a bit too much. And delegation was a big challenge for me. I went through the waves of change. With delegation you have to be patient, you have to allow them to make mistakes. You have to allow them to ask silly questions. I always tell people who are not familiar with delegation, to be prepared to go through all that. It is a growing pain. But you will be happy in the long term. I always tell my chairman, that if anything happens to me, don’t worry, this practice is self-sufficient. They like to rely on me. They like having me around. But they don’t need me. They can manage without me and that gives me comfort and relief that when the going gets tough, we will be good.
Only a few months ago, I went through an emergency surgery and for the first time I decided not to read my emails. And it was very peaceful. Now I understood the level of stress I put myself under and I need to sit back and relax. My team did a good job, even those who are not good with emails, they said to me that they have learnt a lot about staying on top of emails and they understood my views about being responsive to clients.
I think it’s good to have these conversations with people and with the team. I would never want anyone to crash. If I see someone is getting edgy, snappy or looking tired, I know something is wrong. When people take time off, I tell them that I don’t want to hear from them and that we can pretend that they don’t exist. I tell my team that we need to respect those who go on leave whether it is for half a day or for a month. We need to learn how to be self-sufficient.
When or how does Shatha decide when she needs to move up?
To a great extent my mother planted the seed. She asked me what is my ultimate dream? I had recently gotten out of college, and I said I wanted to be a manager with a salary of $5000 per month. My mother said that I had got it all wrong and if I’m going to be working in a consulting company like Anderson, then I must aim to become a partner at minimum and that is the only way to grow. From that moment, the seed had been planted in me and I started working on autopilot. My focus was to be a high performer year after year and explore strengths that I could draw into the job and excel at. I left for a few years and joined the industry. I joined Shell and it was a good experience to learn and understand what it feels like to be in the client’s shoes and own a risk. I used to give consultants a hard time – Why are you here? How are you going to add value? It made me realise that I should have thought about these things when I was a consultant. We usually advise clients on risk, but we do not know how to own it. So by leveraging my experience with Shell, I’m able to help clients in sales as I can assure them that I know what it’s like. I went back to consultancy as I missed the interaction with people. The work was also routine and comfortable, and I did not want to be comfortable.
I have been blessed. It is men who took care of me and promoted me year after year. If you have belief in yourself and you don’t let your fears play in your head, it is amazing how many doors you will open for yourself. And nobody can close those doors on you if you are focused. The country leader position is a big responsibility and later they become advisors, or subject matter experts to support the business after the age of 60. Prior to that, they give us interesting assignments to lead for the region. For example, in the last year, I was assigned to develop an internship programme, do a mentoring programme, social media strategy, etc. I am comfortable with where I am today, and they keep me on my toes by assigning interesting tasks and letting me lead at a regional level.
How did you discover your purpose in life?
It is a very big question. If I tell you what my purpose is, it would not be what you would typically hear. For me, it is helping my community and adding value to the community. It is like a religion to me. This could be business or personal. I have strong work ethics. It surprised people when they told me to make a general presentation and I said we need to be clear on what this presentation is about. I am not going to come and waste the time of 50 people, which is 50 hours wasted with no value addition. Then the organisers came to me and asked me to help organise the event in the right way. I told them that people’s time must be respected, and everyone must walk out by learning something new. They must be able to reflect and say that this will serve the best interest of their company, people or practice. So in short, it is to have a positive impact on any community I serve whether it is on the business side, charity side, youth empowerment, students, etc.