Noor Shabib
Chief Transformation Officer (CTO) at King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Center

Would you please give us an overview of the various roles and milestones in your professional career so far?

I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering from the American University in Sharjah (AUS). Then I began working at Schlumberger (SLB) Drilling & Measurements (D&M) as their first Saudi female field engineer in 2003. That role involved work in varied locations and cultural settings such as Malaysia, UAE, India, and Australia. Work stints included weeks on off-shore rigs.

I later obtained an MBA from the University of Oxford in 2008 and joined Rawabi Trading & Contracting in Khobar as Deputy Services Manager. I later joined Saudi Aramco in 2011. In my 6-year tenure at Aramco, I took on various roles within Petroleum Engineering, the Young Leaders Advisory Board (YLAB), Strategic Planning Department, New Business Development, and the Strategic Partnerships Office.

In 2012 I co-founded the Qudwa non-profit group which aims to foster dialogue and raise awareness about gender differences in the workplace. Qudwa ran for six years and grew to over 5,000 members, 77% of whom were men. Qudwa conducted over 60 dialog events and workshops, established mentorship programs for young women, which were later adopted by Aramco’s Diversity & Inclusion Division. I also obtained a second Master’s degree in Oil & Gas Leadership from the Graduate Institute of Geneva in 2013, and then was inducted as an Eisenhower Fellow in 2015.

Later on, I joined the Center for Strategic Development in 2017, which is a semi-governmental think-tank whose mission is to provide decision makers with evidence-based research on socio-economic development issues under the Ministry of Economy & Planning. In 2018, I moved to the Saudi Industrial Development Fund (SIDF) as Vice President of Strategy & Business Development where I led the strategic transformation of the fund in alignment with KSA’s Vision 2030. Last year, I assumed my current role as the Chief Transformation Officer (CTO) of King Faisal Specialist Hospital & Research Center.

What is your personal definition of resilience?

I see resilience as the ability to be self-driven and self-motivated when things are very difficult, to go on despite what is happening around you, and to pick yourself up and keep going when the world seems to knock you down.

Could you provide an instance from your life where you demonstrated resilience?

I don’t know if it’s considered exceptional resilience, stubbornness, immaturity, or just not knowing any better at the time. When I was about 24 and working for Schlumberger D&M I was assigned to work in India. Living in India was a great experience, and it’s a country I suggest everyone should visit at least once in their lives. Having said that, it was tough. The culture was very different to mine; the values and standards were very different than what I was used to. Those two years, I poured all my effort into my work. I had zero balance in my life, work was my whole life, and work was hard.

We used to work 3 weeks on and 5-10 days off on average. My longest stretch on a rig was in India, I did 7 weeks, most of which were night shifts. That was tough. It was tough physically and mentally. On the physical side, the quality of sleep you get during the day is not the same as that which you get during the night. Imagine doing that for 3 or 7 weeks straight; your body is exhausted. On the mental side, the oil field is the second most dangerous place to work, after a nuclear power plant. It is a very high stress environment due to safety risks and high costs.

Back in the early 2000’s, the daily rate of a rig was around $500,000, that means every minute wasted cost the client around $350. Time is money. Decisions need to be made quickly, safely, cost effectively, and with little sleep. I guess resilience is that I survived to tell the tale. Reflecting on that experience, I’d say that staying on mission, preserving your core values, and adapting in an alien environment is one facet of resilience.

Throughout your career, you have demonstrated a capacity to thrive across a variety of roles, organizations, and market domains. To what do you attribute your success in such varied environments?

I think the desire to always be better than yesterday. When I was working for Schlumberger, I loved certain things about it: the excitement, the travel, the culture, the professionalism, the high standards, the focus on developing people and growing them, to mention a few aspects. I am beyond grateful to them; they raised me professionally. They gave me the foundation on which I built everything else, however, drilling wells was not my calling.

My goal was to love my job, I wanted to wake up every morning excited to go to work. I didn’t know where I wanted to go but I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I didn’t. That was the start of my self-discovery. Many people told me this was not possible. That a job is a job, and I should just accept it.

I wanted to wake up every morning excited to go to work.

11 years, 2 master’s degrees, and 3 organizations later, including numerous successes and failures through trial and error, I can tell you I love my job because it is the intersection of my strength, what I love, and what is needed. Luckily, someone is willing to pay me for it, and that is the definition of purpose. So, in a sense, staying open to learning from each work or cultural setting and setting eyes on what else can be gained in terms of knowledge and practical experience is key to adaptation, but also priming one’s senses to what else is out there is important.

I can tell you I love my job because it is the intersection of my strength, what I love, and what is needed.

How do you define strategic thinking, and how do you approach it?

Strategic thinking for me is setting an ambitious goal and methodically contemplating how to achieve that goal. It involves understanding my current situation, looking ahead, understanding the environment we will operate in, the capabilities, building on the strengths, and addressing the weaknesses i.e. gaps to achieve a clear set of goals that are measured by specific indicators. These would include leading indicators for measuring capacity building, and lagging indicators to measure how successful the desired outcomes are, all of which enables us to adjust.

If I take the analogy of bowling, I would ask: how many pins can I knock down if I aim really well and draw the perfect path? The pins are my objectives, the ball is my effort, and the path is my strategic plan. Leading indicators would be my performance during hours of practice sessions, and how I compare to other champions (or benchmarks).

What are the key characteristics of resilient institutions? How can resilience be developed and integrated into a business’s operating model?

I believe the most important organizational trait is continuous improvement and alignment with both current and changing times i.e. you improve to manage for the future trajectory; a growth mindset if you will. This entails an organization being open to change, and one that updates its policies and culture to align with the latest developments. I think the way to integrate resilience into institutions is to make continuous improvement and looking outwards, and inwards (or reflecting), a part of the culture. It is essential to have leaders be held accountable for this learning process and ensuring that the necessary investment in time and resources are secured, deployed and tracked against milestone achievement.

How do you view the ever-increasing prominence of Saudi women in terms of their participation in the national labor force and in building a resilient local economy? Who are the women that inspired and empowered you in your own journey?

We have made huge strides in Saudi Arabia when it comes to women’s participation in the workforce. We have actually exceeded our 2030 target already (35% actual vs 30% target). I’m extremely proud of how far we have come. I hope the next step is to focus not just on participation but also on representation of women in leadership roles and decision making.

I hope the next step is to focus not just on participation but also on representation of women in leadership roles and decision making.

Personally, I’ve had many women who have inspired me. The first one would have to be my mother, who set an example of values to aspire to. Mom taught me many things. I will pick my two favorite, and those I think are two extremely important leadership traits: she taught me persistence and kindness.

I remember when I was applying for a scholarship in 2005. My dad was busy and so I needed to go to the Ministry of Education in Riyadh by myself and apply, alone. This was a very different time. They wouldn’t let me in. My mother told me to try again the next day. They still didn’t let me in. She said keep trying, ask the security guard to help. Call anyone from the gate and see if someone can help. I didn’t end up getting it, but if it wasn’t for her, I would have turned back from the first challenge. Nowadays, I’m usually the last one to give up. I just keep trying and persisting. 9/10 times, I succeed. 1/10 times, it doesn’t work, so we change course and keep moving forward.

My mom always used to say do good and don’t look back, as in don’t ask if they deserve it. Don’t ask if they appreciate it. The deed reflects you and your intention. This seems pretty simple but it’s something I try to apply with people. There are many women who have honestly inspired me, some who came before me, some with me, and some after me.

My mom always used to say do good and don’t look back.

What are your hopes for the next generation of aspiring Saudi talent? What’s one piece of advice you would offer to Saudi youth joining the national workforce?

I hope they can continue what we started and build on what we have achieved. I hope they are better than us and achieve more. In terms of advice, I would urge them to prioritize their personal and professional growth. Listen to feedback no matter how harsh it may feel or who it is coming from. Look inside yourself and ask yourself if it’s something you can improve, and if so, put in the work to make it happen.

What legacy would you like to leave behind for Saudi women and men entering the workforce in the decades to come?

It’s very simple actually, I hope I can leave a place better than the one I found, and people more developed than when I first met them. When I say better, I mean in every and any aspect. This could be culture, a change in policy, governance, business practice, or honestly anything. It’s important to say anything for the sake of improvement, and not just for the sake of change. In some cases, making a place better could mean reinforcing existing values and setting an example.

What are some of the learnings you’ve captured as a result of your role with Qudwa, especially within the “Celebrating Failure” series? What lessons would you like to impart to the next generation of Saudi young professionals entering an increasingly co-gendered marketplace?

The point of celebrating failures was to change perspectives. To stop looking at failures as negative, but rather as gained experience. You rarely learn when things go right. Conversely, you learn a lot when things go wrong. It’s easier said than done, but my advice is not to be afraid to fail, as fear of failure often entails inaction which gets us nowhere.

You rarely learn when things go right.

Obviously, this is easier to do in an environment that affords employees the room for mistakes. With regards to entering a co-gendered workplace, I have learned one important lesson: diversity is strength. Diversity means more ideas, more perspectives, and more solutions. Men and women do things differently, and that is a strength not a weakness.

Diversity means more ideas, more perspectives, and more solutions. Men and women do things differently, and that is a strength not a weakness.

As for a lesson I’ve learned: the times you feel least resilient, the times you feel the weakest, and you manage to go on one more day, those are, actually, your strongest moments. You just can’t see them yet. I write this as a sleep-deprived but extremely grateful new mother who doesn’t feel particularly resilient. So those words ring true for me from the beginning of my journey up to the present moment, and I’m sure will hold true going forward. I believe it was Les Brown who said, “you can’t see the full picture when you’re in the frame”.

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