McKinsey Quarterly

Stay visible—but don’t be needed: How Alain Bejjani is leading through the unexpected

Alain Bejjani is CEO of Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), a Dubai-based holding company that operates shopping malls, residential properties, supermarkets, movie theaters, and other ventures in 16 markets, primarily in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. In his five years as CEO, Bejjani has redefined the company’s purpose as creating “great moments for everyone, every day,” brought digital technology to every part of the company, delivered stellar financial performance, and ensured that MAF has several years of liquidity. In this interview with McKinsey’s Gemma D’Auria, he reflected on his “CEO moment” and explained why the work involved in that transformation came in handy when COVID-19 hit, what it’s been like to manage through the crisis, and the two leadership behaviors he tries most to embody.

The Quarterly: Tell us about the change journey you have been leading at Majid Al Futtaim.

Alain Bejjani: When I became CEO, the first meaningful action I took was to redefine our sense of purpose. I wanted us to have a customer brand that would be meaningful 25 years from now. I personally don’t think 25 years is very long term, but, still, it is long term in the world that we live in. And if you want to look 25 years ahead, you have to have a clear answer to the question “What is our purpose?” We needed to crystallize what drives us as individuals and as a company. So we engaged the organization at large and came to define our vision as “great moments for everyone, every day.” Then we asked, “What are the values we must live to support such a vision?” We had always been a values-driven organization but had never crystallized our values; we finally articulated them as “bold, passionate, and together.”

The Quarterly: Why did you feel that it was necessary to reappraise the company’s purpose?

Alain Bejjani: The balance of power has shifted over the last decade. Once, our future was determined by the result of our strategies, our operational excellence, our ability to deliver our financial results. There is much more to it than that today. Now, the customer decides. Social media and access gave our customers a great voice, and that very loud voice is what defines the future of the organization. The reality is that continuing to be in business is now simply the result of the customer giving us license to be in business. So you need to earn that trust on a daily basis, with every interaction. At Majid Al Futtaim, that means creating “great moments, for everyone, every day,” so we can continue to be in business. It was a holistic transformation to take the business from a good place to a great place. We had to rewire the organization, we had to deliver operational excellence—but it’s done with purpose, and a North Star. [For more, see sidebar, “Majid Al Futtaim’s ‘great moments’ transformation.”]

The Quarterly: So has this transformation helped you weather the COVID-19 storm?

Alain Bejjani: This is a scenario that you could have never imagined possible, even in our worst-case risk and business-continuity planning [exercises]—to shut down the business for an indefinite period of time, with no idea whether people are going to come back to you or how much they will consume if they do come back.

Had this happened to us in 2016, we would have been left on the curb. But because of all that we have done in the past few years to accelerate digitization and drive a step change in our understanding of our customers through data and analytics, we have been able to continue to serve our customers in the best possible way, continue to be their option of choice despite the difficulties.

Our rewiring of the organization was extremely handy—we have a high-performing online business; we continue to be the number-one grocery retailer for this part of the world; and we are growing at scale. We wouldn’t have been able to do that in 2018 or ’17 or ’16, even if we had all the money in the world. It’s not about money. This is about the ability of your organization to shift gears dramatically, 180 degrees, in a span of ten days.

We continue to have a physical, brick-and-mortar network, and our customers will come back to that. But if we didn’t have well-developed digital capabilities, we would lose out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire customers and establish a strong bond with them. The biggest problem in digital is the cost of acquiring a customer. Now, the customer is coming to us and saying, “I want to be your digital customer.”

The Quarterly: You talked about tremendous uncertainty. How do you try to interpret what’s a speed bump and what’s a real, permanent inflection point?

Alain Bejjani: In times of uncertainty, you just have to do the right thing and forget that there are speed bumps. You cannot be defined by the speed bumps you may encounter on your path—we simply plan for the worst and work for the best. The only thing that you can actually control in this situation is your costs. You can’t control revenue or profits. Anything beyond that is just luxury, and you can’t afford luxury in such times.

The Quarterly: How do you cuts costs in a way that’s consistent with your purpose?

Alain Bejjani: It’s actually very simple. The reality on costs is that in a growth environment, you develop a higher tolerance for costs building up. You live with a high cost base, and it all makes sense. But then this kind of situation comes along, and it’s a great opportunity because it gives us the ability to ask, “What do we really need?”

The first cost to slash for most organizations is people. When companies are not clear about their purpose, they simply cut people first, because other costs you have to negotiate—you have legal obligations, you have commitments, and so on. We’re very clear: people are our most important, precious asset. With people, we can rebuild. Without our people, we can’t. So we have committed that we’ll have no layoffs or cuts to basic salaries because of COVID-19; however, we may let people go during this time, due to performance issues. Other organizations are slashing people and saying, “I don’t need you today.” You can’t treat your people as fungible assets.

The Quarterly: How resilient has MAF been during this crisis?

Alain Bejjani: If you haven’t built resilience during good times, you’re not going to find resilience during bad times. You have to build an organization to withstand adverse economic conditions. Being prudent is critical.

The most important buffer right now is liquidity. When you lose your liquidity, all the financial markers become red and everything gets impacted. We have developed, over time, a buffer of about 36 months of liquidity, which we did not need during good times, but now it will prove very critical to our ability to weather the storm and thrive after it is over.

This is not the last pandemic. Companies should think about that as they reflect on what they did before COVID and whether they were prepared or not. Companies should ask themselves, “Why don’t we have more liquidity on hand? What actions did we take in the past that were short sighted, and where did we trade our future in order to save our present?” Guess what? Sometimes it rains in the summer. I think people are going to discover, during COVID, the benefits of being prudent from time to time.

The Quarterly: How about your employees? How have they responded to COVID-19?

Alain Bejjani: We’ve been making a big bet on localization for about ten years now. That’s important because suddenly you are a local company in these countries. People feel that it’s their company, not a foreign company operating in their market.

I am so impressed by how willing people are to go above and beyond for the organization—frontliners putting themselves in harm’s way to serve our community and customers; people working 20 hours a day, doing things that they have never done before.

On one hand, we experienced a big spike in demand for online grocery, while, on the other, we had malls and cinemas that were shut down. We redeployed some of our cinema employees into groceries, online, and the fulfillment centers. In two days, we reskilled 1,000 people. They went from doing something that they understood to doing something they didn’t know anything about. It has been amazing.

The Quarterly: Will people have the option of working from home or an office in the future? How would the organization evolve if that happens?

Alain Bejjani: We are going to be working more from home because we have realized it works very well and people enjoy it to a certain extent. I think workplace dynamics are going to change; the workplace is going to be much more transient. This trend is a fantastic opportunity because it may give us the opportunity to tap into global and regional talent. In the coming 12 to 24 months and beyond, we’ll be hiring people from Scotland or Maine or Tokyo—and they won’t have to relocate. I’m very excited about that prospect.

The Quarterly: Then what happens to the in-person experience?

Alain Bejjani: The in-person experience will always be important, but it’s not an either/or. Let’s say we have been relying, notionally, on a 100 percent in-person experience. Now, we’ll probably move to a 60/40 in-person/out-of-office experience and, eventually, to 40/60. Obviously, if you are in charge of a location-based activity, you have to be in that location. If you run a store or a cinema or a shopping mall—if you are in customer service—you will have to be there. But we will need to review our activities and be much more strategic and mindful about where an in-person presence is required and where it isn’t.

The Quarterly: As you look out at the future, what are the qualities in leadership that you’re looking for? Has COVID-19 changed that at all?

Alain Bejjani: Going forward, resilience and agility will be extremely important—they were somewhat important before but are becoming much more so. I think we’re moving from a world of specialists toward a world of generalists. Generalists have been very underrated. We need more of them because the issues that are being raised by technology, AI, and machine learning are complex, and the problems we will need to solve are multidisciplinary in nature. Leaders need to adapt to all kinds of different circumstances, and generalists can succeed when life is so fast and volatile. We’re in the midst of a disruption no one anticipated, and I believe we will need more generalists to lead in disruptive times, whether they’re caused by technological shifts or this unimagined pandemic.

The Quarterly: What has changed most for you as a CEO during the COVID-19 crisis? And related to that, what are the unique things that only you, as CEO, can do to help the organization through this?

Alain Bejjani: There are similarities between leadership in normal times and leadership in crisis. However, during a storm, there is an accentuation of certain qualities. For example, you always have to be calm. But calmness is more appreciated when there is a tsunami than when the sea is calm.

I’d like to drive the organization to a point where people forget that I exist—they go about their lives, and they don’t need me for 99.9 percent of their decisions, but they know that I’m there if they need me. That’s an organization that is fit for purpose, that has the ability to lead itself without having to escalate all decisions.

So in my view, the CEO has to do two important things at once. You have to be calm, driving optimism and inspiration, and at the same time you have to vanish into the background. Managing in the background doesn’t mean that people don’t see you—but it does mean that they don’t need you. There’s a difference between people seeing you clearly and people needing you. If people need you, you’re a bottleneck. If people see you, you’re an inspiration and represent their North Star. That’s extremely important. In this time of crisis, I’m trying to be very visible but not needed.

The Quarterly: What challenges exposed by the pandemic should CEOs as a group come together to help address?

Alain Bejjani: I am a big advocate of rebuilding the partnership between the private sector and the public sector and making sure that business, government, and civil society have a truly constructive dialogue to drive things forward. In this kind of situation, we are all naked. We need institutions and constructive dialogue. That’s why multilateralism is going to come back, and much stronger. It shouldn’t come back in the same old way. Multilateralism matters even within a single society.

This crisis presents a great burning platform to bring people together. Employers have a big role to play because employers enjoy the highest level of trust compared to governments and even NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. This capital of trust is very important and something CEOs should leverage going forward. We should be at the bridgehead for change. Governments cannot win, cannot deal with the complex issues of our time, without business. Business, in turn, cannot win without government and civil society.

The whole world is going to go through a rethink of the structures that sustain the global economy. We will even address issues like “What does value mean?” and “What is true worth?” Today we think in terms of returns and value. We don’t think about worth. For the past decade or two, many traditional businesses have had the least value allocated to them. But now we’ve seen that these sectors are the most worthy: healthcare, agriculture, food retail. This crisis has shown us that the greatest drivers of economic value creation are, in fact, the essentials, such as strong health and well-being. What’s really important in life if one cannot get a cucumber or a tomato?

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