Saudi conglomerate SABIC taps Thunderbird for custom Executive MBA

Vibrant colors fill the aisles Dec. 13, 2013, as country representatives line up for the International Parade of Flags during Thunderbird’s winter commencement in Arizona. Sandwiched between standard-bearers from Palestine and Slovakia, Executive MBA graduate Abdullah Al-Sufyani ’13 carries the green banner of Saudi Arabia.

“The green color of our flag represents prosperity and growth,” Al-Sufyani tells the audience when he reaches the platform. “Both are functions of learning and exploration.”

The passion for learning and exploration that drives Al-Sufyani also permeates the company where he works, Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC).

Some organizations sponsor their high-potential managers when they enroll in graduate programs, but SABIC has gone further with a custom Executive MBA designed and delivered by Thunderbird. The long-term commitment to talent development requires close collaboration between SABIC executives and Thunderbird faculty, who have worked together since 2011 to develop a one-of-a-kind program that blends traditional and specialized content.

Al-Sufyani is one of 26 inaugural graduates from SABIC, a petrochemical conglomerate with 40,000 employees in 40 countries.

As Al-Sufyani talks about his two-year Executive MBA journey — which has included coursework in Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and the United States — he quotes a Saudi proverb: “To seek knowledge, travel to the farthest place.”

The same wisdom now guides 28 high-potential managers in the second SABIC cohort, who started their customized program on Jan. 18, 2014, at the SABIC Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

C suite support

The Middle East is a brand conscious region that values quality, and companies such as SABIC can afford to work with the best partners for executive education.

To separate itself from the competition, Thunderbird built upon the success of a custom Executive MBA that it ran for South Korean electronics manufacturer LG from 2005 to 2010. Once Thunderbird made its case, SABIC opened the C suite to its new partner to ensure the development of a relevant program that fit its needs.

“Our faculty needed to understand SABIC’s global leadership challenges so we could customize the content,” says Thunderbird Professor Graeme Rankine, Ph.D., co-academic director of the SABIC program and former academic director of the LG program.

Thunderbird Professor Paul Kinsinger serves as the other academic director, and Thunderbird Executive Education Managing Director Beth Stoops oversees the client team — a role she maintained throughout the LG relationship.

“SABIC senior leaders made it clear from the start that we had their full support,” Stoops says. “The true meaning of partnership has been there every step of the way.” SABIC executives, including CEO Mohammed Al-Mady, help handpick program participants and make sure their work schedules do not conflict with their studies.

SABIC executives also serve as sponsors for strategic projects built into the curriculum, and they sometimes participate in the classroom as guest speakers.

“If you could design your dream client, SABIC is what it would look like,” Kinsinger says. “A company can commit to executive education at different levels, and SABIC has committed to this program at the wow level.

Immediate application

Some company-sponsored programs require professionals to step away from their jobs while they study, but SABIC envisioned a degree that blends theory and practice.

“It’s a smart move,” says Khalid Al-Salem ’13, a program graduate who now works for Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Petroleum. “The company gets the benefits of work and study, and you are not isolated for two or three years.”

SABIC manager and program graduate Swailem Al-Swailem ’13 says the format gives participants an immediate platform to test what they learn in real situations. “If you learn something in class and apply it the next day, you are more likely to retain the knowledge,” he says.

SABIC students also learn to cope with the challenge of balancing work, school and family pressures.

SABIC manager and program graduate Hassan Abu Aisha ’13 says this forces participants to learn time management and other skills necessary for lifelong learning. “We are stretched to the maximum,” he says. “This MBA program gives us the strength to continue our learning on our own.”

Global perspectives

Although participants come from the same company and share the same culture and languages, Thunderbird and SABIC work together to insert global perspectives into the curriculum. One way is through the selection of participants from diverse functional areas across SABIC’s six business units.

Abu Aisha, for example, works in information technology. But other program graduates and current participants come from backgrounds in manufacturing, marketing, human resources and finance.

“SABIC is a big organization, so you still share the classroom with people from diverse backgrounds,” he says. “The result is total cross-silo collaboration.”

Mohammaed Al-Asmari ’13, another SABIC manager and program graduate, says Thunderbird professors also bring diversity to the classroom.

“We capture different cultural perspectives from the professors because they come from different countries,” he says. “Everything we discuss in class is global.”

Al-Asmari says the strategic projects create additional opportunities to draw participants out of their comfort zones and broaden their views.

“We work with team members from different backgrounds and do projects not related to our areas of expertise,” he says.

SABIC Global Learning Manager Salah Al-Eissa ’15, a current program participant, says the development of global mindset has been a major goal of the program from the beginning. “SABIC has emerged as a global organization,” he says. “Our leaders must be prepared to manage diverse teams across the globe.”

Building the kingdom

SABIC also sees the custom Executive MBA as an extension of its social mission within Saudi Arabia.

“The thinking at the top is that we are not just investing in our company, we are investing in our country,” Al-Eissa says. 

Although SABIC is the largest public company in Saudi Arabia and has a financial obligation to investors, 70 percent of shares are owned by the Saudi government. SABIC began by royal decree in 1976 as a way to harness value from the kingdom’s oil byproducts — while carrying the load of social responsibility.

This is why Al-Salem received encouragement to pursue his new position within the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum while still enrolled in the SABIC program. “The investment in executive education is a social contribution from SABIC,” he says. Academic directors Rankine and Kinsinger say the dual focus of their client is one complexity that Thunderbird professors have had to consider as they prepare for each course.

“Thunderbird faculty have had to stretch themselves to understand the culture within SABIC,” Rankine says. “It’s the kind of challenge that Thunderbird faculty love. The learning has gone both ways.”

Staying flexibleThunderbird faculty also must stay flexible as SABIC adjusts to political and industry trends, which can affect program delivery and content.

“It’s not just, ‘fly in, fly out, deliver your same old course,’” Kinsinger says. “You have to stay flexible throughout the learning journey.” While the 2013 cohort completed most of its coursework at the SABIC Academy, the program’s second iteration will include Arizona modules in May 2014 and January and December 2015. Current participants also will benefit from the input of pilot program alumni, who stand ready to serve as mentors.“

We have lived the experience,” Al-Swailem says. “We have a lot to offer.” 

Brand ambassadors

Program participants also stand ready to represent Thunderbird in Saudi Arabia and beyond. “We are eager to join the Thunderbird family,” SABIC manager Mesned Al-Shammari ’13 says. “It’s a great opportunity for networking.”

Kinsinger says the impact could be far-reaching for Thunderbird, SABIC and Saudi Arabia. Already several participants have received promotions within SABIC, which speaks to the program’s strength.

“This company has done it right,” Kinsinger says. “In another five to 10 years, the people leading SABIC will be people who have come through this program.” 

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