How a culture of high performance has driven Dubai to new heights

The book Leadership Dubai Style, which was recently honoured as the First Finalist – 2016 International Book Awards, tells the story of how Dubai went from a fishing village to an international city, charting the habits behind the emirate’s success. For every copy sold during Ramadan, the author, Tommy Weir, a chief executive coach and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Centre, will donate a copy to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s “Reading Nation” campaign, which will provide 5 million books for refugee students and students in need around the world.

The excerpt

One morning during his post-Fajr prayers monitoring the city’s projects, Sheikh Rashid noticed progress had stalled on a particular construction project – the building had halted on the first floor. He took a hands-on approach to governing Dubai and was obsessed with checking on the progress of the development of his city – not only government projects, but also those in the private sector. Given the Sheikh’s obsession with progress, the situation with the project was unacceptable, and something had to be done.


Later that morning, the owner happened to walk into Sheikh Rashid’s majlis, where the heads of the merchant families were gathered. Sheikh Rashid called him to have a seat beside him.

“How’s your family?” Sheikh Rashid asked. A lesser leader would have put the building owner on the spot, but Sheikh Rashid was above that mentality. Instead he asked more and more details about the owner’s family, life, and business. After this “idle” chit-chat, he casually asked about the status of the building. The owner replied something like: “It is going superbly.”

“Really?” Sheikh Rashid responded.

“Yes, it is up to the third floor.” What was the man doing lying about his project, to the Ruler nonetheless? It was bad enough to be behind schedule, but to exaggerate the results surely seemed like the kiss of death.

Instead of ripping the owner to shreds, however, Sheikh Rashid replied: “Wow. You must have the best contractor in the universe.”

“Well, thank you, Your Highness, but why do you say this?” queried the owner.

“When I was there a few hours ago,” the Ruler said, “the building was just on the first floor.”

The owner quickly came up with excuses. “Every day, I get reports from the contractor telling me how well the building is progressing …”

“Don’t rely on what your contractor or anyone tells you,” the Sheikh interrupted, making a clear point to anyone who could hear him, which was everyone. He leaned forward to garner their attention. “Go and see for yourself. Monitor the progress if you want to achieve results.” Effectively, he said, “Follow my example.”

The owner received the message loud and clear, as did the other leaders present. And the legend of the story lives on today.

Micro-monitoring

Researching for this book, I was told this story more than a dozen times. When I first heard this story from Tariq Lootah, Minister of State, I asked: “Do you think Dubai would be what it is today without this type of monitoring?” The immediate reply was “no”. Monitoring is leading Dubai style.

When I first heard this story, I immediately thought of high school hall monitors; ie, “robocops”, who try to maintain overall good conduct in the hallways by preventing rowdy behaviour and enforcing the school’s rules. Unsurprisingly, hall monitors are universally unpopular. Whenever you run into one, you’re sure to be questioned, assuming as they do that you’re “guilty until proven innocent”.

Then I realized what Sheikh Rashid was doing was different. He wasn’t being a “corporate hall monitor.” Sheikh Rashid was “micro-monitoring” in the best sense of the word. He knew that for Dubai to succeed, he had to shape high-performance behaviour. He accepted this was his responsibility and made it his priority.

“Micro” is, of course, a five-letter-word in management-speak, conjuring up images of dreadful “micro-managing” bosses. These “leaders” observe to control, excessively so, the work of subordinates. A micromanager gives too much attention to the minor details, telling his employees what to do and then how to do it, every tiny bit.

Micro-monitoring, on the other hand, isn’t a desire to interfere; it’s a tactic to make sure people are delivering. Sheikh Rashid’s motive wasn’t to denigrate the owner for underperformance. No, it was to prod him forward to deliver according to the plan. Sheikh Rashid never set out to find people’s faults. And, neither should you. Like the Sheikh, you should instead be obsessed with seeing everyone succeed.

Micro-monitoring is what leaders do proactively and informally to make sure their employees, teams, and organisations deliver. Obviously you can’t know everything that’s going on inside of your business, but you must make sure everyone else is obsessed with the details. It is your responsibility to walk the shop floor so you can help people succeed. As we will see later, this is a means of building their capability and behaviour.

The confusion of this point is in the difference between micro-monitoring, which is a positive leadership action, and micromanaging, which, as I noted before, is a management curse word. The micromanager frequently requests unnecessary and overly detailed reports as a means of “checking up”.

Think about it – an after-the-fact report merely states what’s been done or not done. At this point, there isn’t a thing you can do other than state the obvious – you didn’t deliver. Wouldn’t employees already know this? Of course they would. Still, micro-managers tend to require constant and detailed performance reports focusing excessively on procedural trivia rather than on overall performance, quality, and results, which is what Sheikh Rashid was focused on.

This focus on “low-level” trivia clouds overall goals and objectives, confusing the worker about what’s genuinely important, thereby delaying actions. Many micro-managers accept such inefficiencies in hopes of retaining control or at least the appearance of control. By contrast, the micro-monitor gives the control away, keeping his concern on creating an environment for others to deliver.

Perhaps most importantly, a pattern of micromanagement suggests to employees that a manager doesn’t trust their work or judgment. It is a major factor in triggering employee disengagement, often to the point of promoting a dysfunction in which one or more managers, or even management generally, are labelled “control freaks.” Disengaged employees invest time, but not effort or creativity, in the work they’re assigned.

There’s one other leadership “micro” you need to be aware of – “micro-doing,” where leaders take “control” to the extreme and actually do for their employees what the employees could do for themselves. In the midst of frustration, seeing that what should be happening, isn’t happening in the way he or she wants, a manager becomes a “worker” again and performs the duties assigned to an employee. When a boss performs a worker’s job more efficiently than the worker does, the result is merely suboptimal. The organization suffers lost opportunities because the leader would serve the organisation better by doing his or her own job.

I’ve learned that when I initially present the concept of micro-monitoring to my clients, there’s an immediate backlash. “But micro-monitoring is wrong,” they exclaim as they confuse it with micromanaging. So, we need to again draw a distinction in terms – micromanaging is telling your team how to do something. Micro-doing is doing the work for them. And micro-monitoring is ensuring that the “what” – the outcome – is being accomplished.

Why did the minister of state so empathetically declare that Dubai wouldn’t be what it is today without micro-monitoring? Because micro-monitoring is the “daily” engine that drives Dubai’s success.

Monitoring shows you care

In Dubai, being “micro-monitored” can actually be a source of pride. Gerald Lawless, the president and group chief executive of Jumeirah Group, which owns some of Dubai’s premier hotels, recalled a late-night phone call from Sheikh Mohammed with a smile.

“It was 1am and a voice came on the line. It said: ‘Speak to His Highness.’ Sheikh Mohammed came on the line. ‘How good are the lights in the new ballroom at Jumeirah Beach Hotel?’ he asked.”

Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the first of Jumeirah’s properties, had just opened on Jumeirah Beach Road, near the storied Chicago Beach Hotel. Though way out of town, the Chicago Beach Hotel had helped usher in the tourist industry in Dubai, offering resort-style accommodation and guaranteed sunshine. A government event the next day would be one of the first to take place in the new hotel’s ballroom.

Lawless replied to the Sheikh: “We invested significantly to make sure we have the best possible lights.”

“Great, I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes,” responded Sheikh Mohammed.

A walk-through in the middle of the night: shouldn’t Lawless have been boiling with rage? After all, he was the CEO of Jumeirah Hotels. Lawless put on the suit that he leaves hanging on the back of his bedroom door for such “emergency” calls and rushed right over to the hotel, making it in eighteen minutes.

His Highness strolled in at 2am, chuckling. “Wasn’t it nice of me to let you sleep a few extra minutes? Now show me those lights.”

After walking up on the stage, the Sheikh inspected the lights, asking his entourage how they looked. Then he walked back over to Lawless, saying: “We are going to look great tomorrow when CNN is here. Thanks and have a good night.”

Micromanaging or micro-monitoring? Did Sheikh Mohammed tell Lawless how to do his job? No. Did he do it for him? Definitely not. He wanted to make sure that Lawless, Jumeirah, and Dubai would look the best they could the next day. He was proactively monitoring to make sure success would come – removing any margin of error.

What struck me most about this story was the way that Lawless smiled when he told it to me. He wasn’t upset by it, didn’t feel personally offended that Sheikh Mohammed was inspecting in so much detail. Actually, he was rather happy about it. You could see it in Lawless’s eyes as he retold this story almost two decades later: The Sheikh cared so much about every detail that he called me in the middle of the night. The Sheikh’s actions left an impression on Lawless, and today this story embodies the pride of leadership, Dubai style.

* From the book Leadership Dubai Style by Dr Tommy Weir, copyright © 2015. Published by arrangement with EMLC Press.

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