People with humor can make everything much more enjoyable. In this journey called life, make sure you bring laughter and joy to even the most serious situations.
As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Saana Azzam.
Saana Azzam, the founder and CEO of MENA Speakers (www.mena-speakers.com), is globally-known as a “Chief Inspirational Officer.” An international award-winning economist and professional speaker, Azzam delivers keynotes at conferences and events around the world, also establishing herself as the MENA region’s premier public speaking authority. Her online Experts Market (https://www.experts.market) platform avails a marketplace where a variety of speakers may be booked for events, market their books, provide online courses and client advisory and generally market themselves more effectively. Azzam may be reached at www.saanaazzam.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My career started in the field of banking and precious metals trading and at every job I had, I would always get invited to speak at different conferences. During these conferences in Europe, I noticed myself standing out from others. Not only was I the youngest speaker, I was also the only female and Arab speaker. My prominent presence at these conferences led to me being headhunted by speaking agencies quite early on in my career.
When I moved to Dubai, I noticed that not a single traditional speaker agency existed in the local market which led me to setting one up. Another thing that stood out to me was that there were a lot of highly intellectual and powerful voices but they lacked representation. I noticed that there was a real opportunity to showcase and support these speakers not only regionally but globally, too. It has been a long journey of educating and spreading awareness in the market and thankfully today, six years later, we have single-handedly created an industry that focuses on inspiring others. It most certainly is a very rewarding feeling!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I had just resigned and decided to set up a business that was new to the Middle East.
The expression “speakers bureau” was foreign to people here and I knew I had signed up for a real challenge that my cash flow may not have been able to accommodate. However, in my first month as a start-up, I received a call from South Africa requesting me to organize an event for HE President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa in Dubai with only a few days’ notice. It was a beautiful milestone in my life and it was marvelous to host a humble visionary such as His Excellency. That event single-handedly lifted my spirits and I felt like it was the nudge I needed to assure myself that I was on the right path.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had been invited to join a board in my 20s and during my first ever board meeting, I, unfortunately, showed up right at the time the meeting was commencing so most of the other members had grabbed a seat and there were only two seats left. One right at the end of the table and one seat right by the chairman which happened to be closest to the door. I grab the chair where the chairman is on my right and a former minister on my left. I looked around and could feel the tension in the room, it was like everyone was holding their breath. The chairman proceeds to tell me that it has taken him over 20 years to deserve his seat at the head of the table. It only then dawned on me what had happened and I was completely mortified. But then, the former minister winked at me and told me not to mind the grumpy old man. So, the moral of the story being, don’t sit at the head of the table at your first board meeting.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Success is about elevating others and there were certainly people who elevated me. My friend, Zahid Faqui-Dawood, introduced the ex-president of South Africa at the first event we hosted after starting MENA Speakers. He also allowed me to invite VIPs to an exclusive event and enabled me to really cement the launch of the business. He also helped me redesign my logo and infused me with the trust and confidence needed to set up a business and I will be forever grateful for the help. Now, as my business has grown successfully, I aim to elevate others. If I can do that with great health, compassion and with lots of joy then that’s a job well done.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
They say that proper preparation prevents poor performance. Being prepared soothes me and it indeed does relieve stress. Often you will find me rehearsing expressions and simulating what will be said. So, if you see me talking to myself, then don’t worry too much, it’s just my method and I’m preparing myself for every possible outcome.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I came from a part of the world where quite often, the experts on stage were primarily white men. Many of these speakers were really excellent but I found it very odd that my demographic of both female and the youth were rarely represented. To see Arabs on stage was like seeing a lunar eclipse, it was rare.
It is important to have diversity in knowledge since knowledge belongs to us all. I also believe that by having a similar perspective on stage, societies move towards groupthink which has been proven to be at the detriment of evolution and growth.
Strength lies in differences, not in similarities. By allowing different narratives to be told, we are opening up minds and hearts for more compassion and understanding in our world.
One of the many attributes that makes up a successfully innovative business is diversity. Being able to accept change and variety opens up an unrestricted door to the definition of corporate that is ever so expanding. The emergence of diverse workplaces will undoubtedly influence corporate cultures. The ratios are changing and in that comes an awareness of biological and human elements that are forced to be present. When women came into the workforce, there was this discussion of maternity leave; however, finally the discussion is escalating to include paternity leave that is gradually beginning to include fathers too. Diversity humanizes the workplace. A McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) report shows how advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth. These gender-based discussions have come a long way and they are about justice, profitability, and advancement of our society.
Furthermore, as women started entering the workforce, we saw a modification in the production of goods that were initially targeting men and their biological construct, to one that is now adapted to respect both genders. Most clinical trials published before 1988 included no women and so many older medications on the market were never evaluated for their effects and side effects on women. But now, women manage pharmacies and are behind the doors as chemists developing these medications. Women are also the doctors prescribing them.
We believe that the more diverse a company is, the more they are able to win top talent and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision-making. In turn, this leads to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns. When we hire people that represent the client or customer intel, we understand the needs and wants of the people we are selling to. That was an important aspect for me to remember as I founded and developed MENA Speakers: to not shy away from what is different or unheard of. I was different and unheard of, a young Arab female as a speaker. I have an international team with incredibly different backgrounds, and it is wonderful to see the different opinions and intellectual discussions.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I find inspiration in every human being. Have an authentic conversation with a person and you will get to hear the most beautiful and powerful stories. Have a conversation to really understand what they are telling you. Usually, it is those people that challenge the status quo, defeat the odds or simply live their passion without letting anyone or anything stop them.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
We are professional problem-solvers. Most of my peers have developed an incredible skill of quick decision-making with great precision and strategy, even in the most critical times. It might sound easy, but the more experienced a CEO is, the more I see this skill as being their superpower. Alongside being a professional problem-solver, they have other attributes that support this skill such as a genuine curiosity towards humans and situations, a curiosity to learn and seek out inspiration and a humility to change things very quickly, if needed.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The most common myth is that only extroverted and charismatic leaders make the best CEOs. An introvert can perform just as well, and in certain situations, they perform better. Both personality traits have their strengths, and we shouldn’t limit the making of a CEO to being an introvert or an extrovert.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I joined my first club when I was 6 years old and started training in Taekwondo with my older siblings alongside a group of people across all demographics. Some clubs group people together and you will have all genders, ages, and people of different sizes training together and somehow making it all work. For a 6-year-old, this was not something I would reflect over, it was my reality and that was that.
However, during the competitions, there were no other girls in martial arts so I ended up competing with boys that were in my age group and sometimes I would be included in the women’s competition. I was tiny in comparison to them all. I remember that I lost every single fight, but I also remember being really supported and cheered on by the whole community. What an experience!
The statistics on women’s gender equality movement is appalling and increasingly more research is showing us where the imbalance lies. Whether it is the fact that female entrepreneurs are underfunded because they get treated worse during the fundraising process or whether they are generally underpaid and undervalued, we are entering the workforce at a disadvantage, and we often don’t receive the well-deserved medal. The male workforce will have a hard time empathizing because they are often at the benefitting end of capitalism. But hopefully, we will find better and more fair corrective measures to this inequity as we progress into a more modern era.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The difference between being in a corporate environment and running my own business is that I am able to live my values. They are not just words in employee handbooks, but they truly are our ethos and way of living.
There are a few expressions you will hear quite often when you come into our office, both from junior and seniors and it describes us perfectly. We rise together and Feedback is our Fuel. They are at the core of who we are. We are collaborative within the team, with our extended community and always open to work with people. And we are always listening closely to how we can improve on an individual and professional basis.
Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Anyone that has the motivation and the drive to be an executive with team members can upskill themselves and learn how to do so. For some, it will be difficult and for others, it will come more easily. However, if you want a standardized approach to your job then this is not for you. If you want to grow in your career then trust that you will learn and meet all parts of yourself because as you grow, the more exposure you have and the more you start realizing where you must enhance your own skills to be able to keep up with the organizational requirement. Being a high performing executive requires you to be a generalist that has a sound understanding around several domains and can make good decisions.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
High performing teams do not consist of those that come from the best schools and had the highest scores in their exams. It is dynamic. We have a lot to learn from Google and their research in Project Aristotle. In 2012, Project Aristotle managed to study 180 Google teams, conduct 200-plus interviews, and analyze over 250 different team attributes. First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ On some teams, everyone spoke during each task; on others, leadership shifted among teammates from assignment to assignment. However, in each case, by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount. Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions, and other nonverbal cues. There is a culture of trust, a high degree of trust. The most important factor noted is “psychological safety,” a term coined by Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson. It affects organizational culture and team effectiveness. To quote Michael Jordan — Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
“It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
One of my favorite thought leaders, writer and poet is Maya Angelou. I read her book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and this quote is so closely linked to the core of my business, MENA Speakers, where we know that a great speaker can make you alter your path in just a moment.
Spoken words are incredibly powerful when directed as a force of good. My hope is to have improved some lives by giving them the knowledge to independently lead compassionate and successful lives. I also aim to get more global speakers from the Middle East and Africa so that we showcase the renaissance movement that is present here too. If that also happens to be female voices, then I would truly have made the impact I always wanted.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Revisit your notes from accounting class. It may seem like something you won’t need but Cash Flow management is crucial and you will have to understand it inside out not just for your business but for your personal expenses.
- Reject difficult clients. Nothing is worth jeopardizing your peace of mind and difficult clients tend to create a ripple effect of negativity which is depleting.
- People with humor can make everything much more enjoyable. In this journey called life, make sure you bring laughter and joy to even the most serious situations.
- Work on your storytelling and storyselling. It will accelerate your sales process.
- Outsource as much as possible. One person cannot do it all efficiently and you certainly won’t be able to manage everything on your own so make sure to outsource repetitive and time-consuming tasks. Your time is valuable and there is an opportunity cost to everything.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Normalize therapy. We spend a lot of time and money on how we look on the outside but not enough to improve how we feel on the inside. It would be wonderful to remove the stigma around mental health issues. “I went to see my therapist” should be just as normal as saying “I went to the gym”.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The proverb ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. As an entrepreneur and someone who is constantly living outside my comfort zone, some of my tasks can look very daunting but it helps remembering that small actions can lead to great results.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Huda Kattan, the self-made Iraqi-America mogul who is ranked as one of America’s richest self-made women. She is inspirational, forward-thinking and not afraid of making bold decisions that are outside of her comfort zone. I am impressed by how she turned her passion into a multi-million-dollar business on a global level and now every woman you see is wearing at least one of her products! I, myself, am wearing her lipstick “Trendsetter”.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.