Think Tank Management Consulting: Discussing Consulting in Kuwait with Manal Al Hasawi

Manal Al Hasawi shares her assessment and overview of the consulting industry in Kuwait and presents Think Tank Management Consulting. The consulting firm provides companies with several services and programs, including: management consulting, strategic design, strategy implementation, strategy monitoring, coaching, research, corporate training, strategic planning, personalized learning experiences, etc.

Interview with Dr. Manal Al Hasawi, Managing Partner at Think Tank Management Consulting

Manal Al Hasawi, Managing Partner at Think Tank Management Consulting

What is your assessment and overview of the consulting industry and the economy in general?

There have been a lot of changes in the economic situation in Kuwait in general. Our economy is heavily driven by its oil revenues. There has been a big push throughout the years through our National Development Planning Initiatives. We have been trying to diversify the way the economy looks. 90% of government revenues come in from the oil sector or from our oil assets and that has proven extremely fragile when it comes to trying to build a sustainable economy for the country with all its different components. We are not just talking about the private sector, but the economy as a whole. There have been so many different initiatives and so many different voices speaking out to the fact that we need to start looking at those different components of the economy and try to empower them, try to make sure that we are not solely relying on one source of income. Now, especially with all of the changes and the complexities of the world and everything that has been happening, we are starting to realize that we are hanging by a very thin thread. We started thinking about how we can make the private sector a bit stronger, how we can attract people for foreign direct investment, and we have entities in Kuwait that were set up specifically for that purpose, such as the Public Private Partnership, the FDI Authority, etc. Their sole purpose is to make sure that different sectors of the economy are empowered, that all challenges and obstacles are waived and dealt with so that this part can function properly, it can have a decent contribution to GDP, it can have a decent contribution to the work economy, and bring in more nationals to be part of this. It has been very volatile because of the way that we have structured our economy, but it is moving now more towards trying to get those different parts to work together smoother than before.

In terms of the industry itself, it has been what we would call a luxury industry. If you were a large company who had a little extra cash to burn, then you would call some consultants to bring them onboard and get their opinions on matters. But now, because people have to watch what they are paying for and the clients have become a bit more educated on what they expect from a consultant, the whole business model of the consulting industry is shifting. Whether companies realize it or not, we are moving away from the idea of this ivory tower type of consultant where I come in, sit with you for a few hours, give you an 80 page document that says I have done the analysis, flex my muscles a little bit in your office, and get paid for that. Now, we are shifting away from that model because the clients have become smarter and they have realized what value means to them. They are not looking for somebody to come in and do something on their behalf or just give them a document. They are looking for real partners, real facilitators of change. So, that makes the industry look absolutely different. The clients are different. The services are different. This logical algorithm that we used to work on where I go to a client, I close the sale, I produce, this does not work anymore. Clients want to see that you can actually understand their business, that you have true appreciation of what they are doing, that you actually have a workable solution and not just a theory or a framework that we based our entire advisory around. They want to know that you can pull on different resources, that you can actually make a situation better for them. The industry is changing. It might have shocked us a little bit because now, the changes that we had expected to happen in the next five to ten years have happened in six months thanks to COVID. But, it is those changes that make it very exciting. It tests the fluidity of an organization and how dynamic an organization really is because you will be able to see who can adapt, which company can move forward, which company can quickly and with agility shift its business and shift its business model and not play catch up but actually build new pathways for how they want to interact with their clients.

What makes Think Tank Management Consulting different? What are some of your competitive advantages?

The word “competition” brings a lot of different emotions to different people. When some people hear the word competition, they get nervous. Some people feel like they have to keep an eye out for the competition and what they are doing. They feel like their innovation and their transformation is going to come from someone who is doing something in a different company. As a strategist, I am not from the competitive advantage school. I believe that even though I might have a competitive advantage, it could be my own internal competitive advantage, but it might not be what the clients want. I could be really good at doing something, but that is not what the market is looking for at the time or it is not what the clients are looking for at the time. For me to get stuck in this mentality, to look at what this large company is doing and try to see if I can follow in its footsteps, to see what has worked for them, that limits the scope of opportunities that I can have. It is not about watching them. To me, it is about building something different. I like my competition. I actually partner with my competition. I go up to different companies who do the same work as me and I try to find what kind of competitive advantage they have and partner with my competition to go and deliver a project that would be well suited for my clients. There is a place for everybody in the market and the type of market that I would like to be in is what is going to dictate the sustainability as a company. Ten years after I founded the company, if I can still be here and still do projects and still work with people, that means I might be doing something right. One of the biggest advantages or assets for Think Tank is the fact that that I know I cannot do this alone. We know that Think Tank cannot be a standalone company. We are part of a larger ecosystem. The faster I realized that, the easier it became for me to see that I can get this project because now I have this IT muscle on one hand, I have this financial muscle on the other hand, and all three of us can go out and get this. So, it is a win for everybody.

What is the history and the inspiration behind Think Tank?

The idea started in 2014 or 2013. I grew up in a consulting firm. My father used to own a consulting firm called Index Consultancies that he started in the 90s. I used to be the copy girl, I used to be the typing girl, I used to do coffee and tea, I used to staple papers for them, and I loved it for a very specific reason. I loved the fact that they worked on something different all the time. I loved how they got really close to the people that they were working with and how all these great minds came together to find a solution for this one company. That stuck with me. That made me feel like no matter what I do in my life, that is the result that I want to get, that is where I want to be, and I want to be working with different people trying to help them go through this. I knew that someday, if I did start my own business, I would be facing all of this. How great would it be to have somebody who is unbiased, whose whole purpose is to guide you and help you get through this? I watched my father work in this company and I watched them do a lot of great work. When I returned from the US, I worked in the oil industry for about three years as a Vice President of Strategy. I was contacted by the government at the time to be a strategy advisor. I started realizing that I have a specific way of working. I think differently about strategy and about how strategy should be done. I believe that to be a successful business person, it is all about understanding people. If you know how to deal with people, if you know how to understand behavior, if you can leverage this to their advantage and your advantage, you can always create this win-win situation. So, I asked my father if I could take over his business. He very happily gave up control very quickly. I rebranded and a lot of people ask me why I chose Think Tank as a name. To me, the idea of Think Tank is what really is at the core of my business. A think tank is a group of people from different backgrounds who bring their expertise together to solve a specific issue. That is what I wanted to do. I want Think Tank to be this house of expertise where it is not just about me, it is not just about the company, but you can get great minds to come together and support you through your business. It was my way of actually visualizing the name. I wanted to have something that I can spiritually attach myself to and to have it be the foundational value of what Think Tank really is.

What kind of services do you offer?

I find myself switching from being this traditional management consulting or strategy consulting to where we are more on personal terms with our clients. We are trying to have a true impact in your growth and your success story.

We used to be extremely traditional as just an advisory in terms of the services that we offered. You would see the same structure as in any management consulting. We did the advisory part, we did the research part, and we had the training and coaching elements. Now, in terms of the advisory, I focus on strategy. A lot of the work that I do revolves around strategic design, strategy implementation, monitoring, setting up key performance indicators, working with different organizations on setting directions, working with companies who would like to shift their positions, working with companies who are going through mergers or acquisitions. Things that have to do with larger strategic shifts in an organization are what we love to focus on because it is a time of change and that is something that we do very well because we include a behavioral element as well in all of our services. We affiliated our services with different experts in psychology and organizational behavior because all of these different projects are big shift projects. If you are trying to grow or expand into a different market, if you are looking for investors or you are thinking about a merger, an acquisition, a buyout, any of that brings with it a large amount of change. Just going through with my experience, I found that it is not the project that fails, it is not because you do not have the right system, it is not because you do not have the right policy; rather, it is because the culture and the people are not on the same page as this document. A big part of what we do in our advisory is bringing in this element as well. We do a lot of coaching with our advisory, we bring in people, we try to work with different biases, we work with different cultural elements within the organization. We also do research. One of the most interesting research projects that we have done was for the industrial sector in Kuwait. We did a skill gap analysis for the sector and that has helped one of the organizations who is focusing on the industrial sector called the Kuwait Industries Union. They have about 300 plus members of industrial companies and organizations. We did this study for them because they wanted to understand how they can tailor their learning and professional development to what is actually needed in the industry. It makes me very proud to say that they have been working based off of the results of this research for the past few years. All of their learning and development has been geared towards the futuristic look of what the industrial sector should look like in Kuwait. My favorite part of everything that we do is the training and coaching. We do corporate training where the company calls you and you go out and do a specific training program. But, I always felt like that was taking power away from the learner. I can come in, stand up for three hours, give you a PowerPoint presentation on strategic planning for three days, and the learning outcome is probably going to be about 10% to 20% as you are exiting this training. It is not because you are unmotivated or because I am bad. It is because that is the reality. I took away the accountability and responsibility of your learning. So, we started doing things a bit differently. I started something called personalized learning experiences. These are much smaller, more intimate learning opportunities. I am not there as a lecturer or as a trainer; rather, I am there as a facilitator of your learning. We work through specific issues, specific projects, any specific challenges that the company is going through. So, people get this very intimate, one on one experience where they can actually walk through the different challenges that they have and reach some kind of an actionable solution. They walk out of this PLE ready to give it a try and come back to me and tell us how it works. We do C-level coaching as well, mainly for people who are in transition. We have worked with people who are going from VP to President, people who are moving from Department Head to VP, etc. I am a big person for change. I love it. I love managing it and I love working around it because that is what happens in real life. Everything looks beautiful on a piece of paper. I could come and say to just do 1, 2, 3 and then you are going to be able to execute the strategy and it is going to be perfect. But, the reality is not like that. The reality is that there are politics, there are hidden agendas, there are organizational behaviors that you have to worry about, there are some corporate level habits that we have to cut through. All of these things are what makes our interaction with our clients very different because when I walk in I truly have the desire to understand the company and the people I am working with on a very deep, philosophical, personal level that is going to help me tailor the work that we are doing for the clients. I do not have off the shelf training. I am dealing with different people and different organizations all the time. They have different needs, they have different people, it is a different culture. So, I design a training program for every single client. Even if it is the same client doing the same program again, I will do a different program for them because now they are at a different level in their skills. Everything is tailored and everything is customized. There is always this psychological element that will come with it because we want to make sure that people are comfortable there, that they understand that they have a say in what is happening around them. We spend so much time in our companies, even more so than in our homes and with our families. It is a big part of our identity and who we are. To go in and say, this is what is happening, adapt and start working, makes a lot of the larger strategy initiatives go down in flames. In the myriad of these different services, there are some common parts where it makes us different. It is my little blue ocean that I have tried to create instead of just going out and competing with a company that puts out 300 to 1,000 training programs a year. We do not do that. I am very happy with a small, more loyal relationship with my clients. Most of my clients I have had relationships with for over six or seven years and that gives us a lot of credibility and value when we are talking to new clients or talking to new people who are trying to understand more about our services.

Do you work with any partners or alliances?

I have alliances where I work with so many local companies, but I also have international affiliations. I am affiliated with Teach the Future which is based out of Holland. I am associated with the Association of Practical and Professional Ethics in the US out of Indiana. I am also associated with the IFTF and with the Kuwait Strategic Planning Society. I have a pool of experts that I can always reach out to because they are part of my network. Once I decide that I need support in a project and I need someone who is good in corporate governance or someone who is really good at looking at the financials in a different way such as a forensic accountant, then I can get these people. They come into the project, they bring in their best, they get paid very well because they are project partners. People always ask why I don’t just outsource to somebody, but you will not get the real essence of why you came to Think Tank if I just outsource this project to everybody else. You can make money easily, but it is the relationships that you build beyond that that really sustain a business.

What is your vision for the medium term, three years’ time, for the company? What would you like to achieve?

I cannot separate Think Tank’s vision from my own vision. I have always seen myself as a champion of change, as a champion of people. I do not know why I did not take a career in social work. That would have been perfect. After I retire I will probably go and be part of the Peace Corps or something similar because that brings me a lot of happiness to know that I am out there and supporting others. A big part of my vision for this company is to have it be a contributor of valuable elements to society. I want people who interact with Think Tank to feel like we have touched their lives in a positive way, to feel like we have shed some light on a new pathway, like we have allowed them to see their future a little bit better. I am optimistic and for a very good reason. A big part of what we do in Think Tank is to build alliances. I believe that I cannot do this by myself as a company and Think Tank should not attempt to do this by itself. So, I seek partnerships and I seek alliances. Some of the most amazing and fruitful alliances I have had have been with organizations that are based abroad. I have worked with an institution called the IFTF, Institute for the Future. I have to credit them for a major paradigm shift in my life. They have allowed me to look at the future in a completely different way. They are an organization that does future scenarios and that is something that we do as part of our strategic foresight. But they came with this new mentality and systematic way of actually developing this future vision that completely blew me away. I invited their director to Kuwait, we have met with key personalities in Kuwait, and I wanted everybody to start speaking this language because it made me feel very differently about the future. If you look at everything that is happening right now, there is really very little that can make you get out of bed and smile and think this is going to be a good day today, I am going to have fun, and I am going to go out and make money and do something. There is very little that makes us feel that way anymore. But, the way they make you look at the future is a paradigm shift. I started thinking about why I am so worried about a future that everybody else is designing. I do not have to live by this. I can actually go out and design my own future. I can have control over what kind of future I want to manifest. That liberated me from a lot of things. It even liberated my company from a lot of things. I am not looking at 50% growth in my yearly turnover. Money is the last thing that I look at anymore. I started doing projects for free because I love doing it. I work with schools and school management. I have helped one of the schools get a very prestigious award because of the way their strategy is structured and because they have a new system. That put me on a whole new level of self-appreciation. In terms of the vision for Think Tank and where I believe Think Tank is going, I want it to be a platform to have a decent, respectful, non-biased dialogue about your future. If you are a company, then I want us to help you get to that future, to liberate you just like I was liberated in my company, to liberate you from the chains of status quo, of thinking about if something has not been done before or if something is not going to work. We want to help those companies through our coaching programs. Now, we are developing a juniors futures coaching program which is for children ages 10 to 17 and we will launch in a few months. It is based on the methodology of futures thinking. We want to teach the younger generation – catch them when they are young – how to take back control of their lives and of their futures, how to design the future that is more suitable for them, and how to be empowered to actually have a voice and to make a change. We also have the executive program for futures thinking and futures strategists. We are also working now with an Australian company called the Leadership Institute. We have a coaching program just for women. As a woman and as a leader, as someone who is in business and working with government, we deal with a separate set of issues, especially in the Middle East. It might not be very different for women in Asia or for women in Europe. If you are loud then you are this, but if a man is loud then he is taking control. We wanted to give women the opportunity to find their authentic selves. We want them to be able to truly bring out their authentic leadership style. They do not have to look like everybody else to be a true leader. I do not have to be loud and I do not have to hide my feminine side because that is going to make other people feel uncomfortable; rather, that is going to make them respect me as a leader. We want to show them how to leverage all of the beautiful things that make us women and use that to our advantage such as our compassion, our great listening skills, and all of these wonderful things. I work a lot with the political side of doing things, as well. I work with setting political agendas. I work with political campaigns. We are trying to support a lot of women who are interested in politics. We are trying to get them connected with international organizations and international incubators for women who would love to be part of the political system. Basically, we are trying to make sure that every part of society has a voice. We are doing things differently for these different parts of society. But, I believe that this is the way for the future. The learning has changed, the future of work has changed, we are not going to get the same type of worker, we are not going to get the same type of employees. It does not make any sense that I set you up for something that is not going to be there anymore. People want to take more control. You can go in right now and access any platform for free and you can listen to a strategic planning lecture and get tons of information. But, we realize at Think Tank that the key is not where to find the information but it is making sense of that information. That is where we come in. We are not there to lecture you. We are there to help you make sense of this information and ultimately use it to your advantage to either grow personally or grow professionally to help your organization grow and shift. That is a big part of where I see myself and the company. I want it to be hand in hand where you can come to us, you can feel comfortable, we can be your therapists or consultants at the same time. I find myself switching from being this traditional management consulting or strategy consulting to where we are more on personal terms with our clients. We are trying to have a true impact in your growth and your success story.

What is your inspiration? What drives you to do what you do?

People always try to put “inspiration” in very finite terms. But, even a song can inspire me. I will wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy and that can make me get out of bed and feel extremely energized. Even though some days you walk into the office and you have the stack of things where I am going to have to play politics here, I am going to have to be diplomatic here, I am going to have to go and tell the people the truth and they are not going to like it and they might not be my clients anymore, but they have to hear it, what inspires me is that I know at a very deep level, no matter what my interaction is with my client, that I have always told them the truth. Our company philosophy is, “If it’s not true, don’t say it and if it’s not right, don’t do it.” It does not matter what the situation is. I will never sit in front of a client and tell them what they want to hear. They will always hear the truth from me. This idea of actually making a difference, of actually going into a company and having them not call me again for that same issue I see as a success. If they call me again for the same problem, I have failed. My biggest inspiration is when I am sitting with somebody and they say, “I’ve never seen it that way,” or “That’s a different way of thinking about this. I’ve never looked at it that way.” That tells me that I am on the right path, that I am able to at least get them to see the situation differently where they do not feel stuck anymore. I know how horrible that feeling is. In my business, I have had those moments a lot. I have not had a single employee since I founded this company. I do not have an assistant, I take all my own calls, I deal with all my clients, I schedule by myself. I feel like I owe it to my clients that if they are coming to my company to deal with me, then they need to deal with me, they need to have access to me. I feel like I owe it to my company and to the people who are working with me. It makes me feel so much better when I can get to that level with somebody where they feel like they will change. If I have saved you time, if I have saved you energy, if I was able to get you to feel better about your situation, it is all something that I have gone through and I owe it to everybody else. If I decided to be in this company, I owe it to other entrepreneurs, to other people to spare you the pain that we all went through. If I can do this, then that is the biggest inspiration for me.


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