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In Abu Dhabi, the next generation is learning that good leadership blends head and heart

Hamad Al Hammadi was juggling a lot—a full-time job in the HR function of a fuel retail organization in Abu Dhabi, family including two kids, and a master’s program—all while living under the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Still, the idea of pausing to reset was not something that occurred to Hamad. As a leader, he had never felt like he could afford to. But one day during a one-on-one coaching session he realized that burning the candle from both ends does not, in fact, give a lovely light. “If you let all that pressure build up, you become the type of team leader that can't actually lead,” he says. “I knew something had to change.” 

He’s not usually a person who shares too much about his struggles—“I don’t like to get emotional”—but after that session, Hamad knew he needed a different approach. “I realized how important it is to take a break to clear your mind so you can come back to your challenges stronger, and with a fresh perspective.”

Hamad is one of 20 participants who recently graduated from Qiyada Emerging Leaders. McKinsey colleagues together with Aberkyn, a McKinsey company, created the year-long leadership development program as a pro-bono effort to empower and inspire the next generation of purpose-driven leaders in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE’s capital is undergoing a massive economic and social transformation. But today, Emiratis still make up less than 10 percent of its private-sector workforce. “There’s a wealth of local talent waiting for an opportunity to contribute to the massive transformation happening here,” says Rima Assi, a senior partner and managing partner of McKinsey's Abu Dhabi office.

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From left to right: Rima Assi, Maitham Albaharna, and Rawan Albina

After launching in 2020, the program welcomed its second class of participants this month. “The importance of local talent in helping drive this transformation cannot be overstated,” says Maitham Albaharna, a partner based in the Dubai office, and one of the program’s main architects.

Maitham moved back to the region shortly before the 2008 financial collapse—and saw firsthand the abrupt exodus of talent as the economic crisis worsened. “While it is important to attract diverse global talent, it is critical that we ensure we are building the next generation of local talent and leaders who will play a pivotal role in growing the economy,” he says.

Last February, the initial program kicked off with 20 participants—each a manager with three to 12 years of professional experience—who attended in-person workshops and day-long immersions sessions on topics like communicating with impact. They also took part in one-on-one coaching sessions, and hands-on, role play-led training. In March, the program quickly pivoted to online-only learning as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

For some participants, the chance to learn from like-minded peers was the most rewarding part of the program. “I’d never had the chance to talk to so many other young professionals who were facing the same challenges as me,” says Hamad. “The ability to speak candidly without judgment, and know that everything was going to stay in that room, was something I’ll never forget.”

There’s a wealth of local talent waiting for an opportunity to contribute to the massive transformation happening here.

Rima Assi, McKinsey senior partner

The vulnerability of participants was also something that stayed with Maitham. “In our culture, we typically shy away from exposing our fears or weaknesses,” he said. “It was incredibly inspiring to watch these people share their stories and connect over how they were experiencing similar feelings and emotions—it was a completely different kind of bond.”

Rawan Albina, Aberkyn’s hub leader in the Middle East, says Qiyada is unique in its blend of human-focused leadership training with data-driven insights McKinsey has learned from its global work with top-performing teams. “The program allows participants to develop both their heads and hearts as leaders,” she says. “It’s important for us to help these young professionals appreciate how their personality, background, and experiences inform how they lead, make decisions, and interact with others.”

And while the COVID-19 outbreak meant the program had to move online, the pandemic allowed participants to apply their recent learnings on a real-life challenge. “We had just discussed the importance of being an adaptive leader—and then the pandemic forced our young talent to really examine what that meant,” says Rawan. “They also had to learn how to use Zoom in a professional environment, like many of us at the time, and discover how to create impact and connection in a virtual setting.”

Participant Reem Al Zaabi, senior assistant manager at Mubadala, the UAE sovereign wealth fund, heard about Qiyada through her manager. She says the biggest unlock of the program was realizing strong leadership begins with self-awareness. “The journey I went through was something that fundamentally changed the way I listen to others, respond to their feedback, and influence others,” she says. “I’ve learned to appreciate and really believe that understanding every team member’s perspective and background can help us collectively reach greater impact.”

That change is something Reem’s manager, Fatima Al Marzouqi, a senior vice president of development, notices, too. “Reem’s development and growth during the program is evident to everyone working with her,” Fatima says. “She has always been self-driven, however, over the duration of the course, she learned how to communicate more clearly with her team and leadeship and became more agile with existing and new projects.”

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