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Thu 25 Aug 2016 11:57 AM

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Empowering greatness: President of Hill International Middle East, Mohammed Al-Rais

For Mohammed Al-Rais, Regional President at Hill International Middle East, a great leader is only as good as his team

Empowering greatness: President of Hill International Middle East, Mohammed Al-Rais

For Mohammed Al-Rais, Regional President at Hill International Middle East, a great leader is only as good as his team

What's the story behind the business?

Hill International started as a claims operations company, then moved into management services. Our clients were telling us, "You keep telling us what we should not have done. Why don't you come and manage the projects and do what you keep telling us to do ourselves". Today, we are the number one claims consultants in the world and number 8 in the world in PMCM services. We have over 110 offices worldwide, with over 4,500 people.

So what's next?

We want to continue growing. Hill International has been in the UAE for over 30 years. Now, we're also all over Europe, Asia, North Africa, South America, the US and the UK. It's important to spread out, so if something were to happen – like a drop in the markets – you're better prepared for it. If certain projects slow down over here, others go online over there.

What's the single biggest challenge facing your industry right now?

Many people would say getting paid, but we don't face that problem. Our clients have been amazing across the board. For us, we're concentrating on the slowdown in the markets.

How do you prepare for things like market uncertainty?

If you're in any market you need to understand it.  Not just in what you do, but the political and cultural sides of it. Take the Middle East for example, you can't just parachute somebody into the country and expect him to be able to do his job as effectively as in the US or UK. We have been here for a long time, and so have our staff. We understand the culture.

How do you make decisions at Hill International?

Decisions come from experience. You need to empower people who have that experience to make their own decisions, and eventually some mistakes. When you are managing almost 1,800 people, you're not able to run it all. At Hill, we have a very smooth decision making process. The fact that we react very quickly is key to our success. If there's a problem, we discuss, we mutually make a decision and then we move.

If you were to describe your job to an eight-year-old, what would you say?

We help people make the right decisions when they build things. Things that are going to be around for a very long time, beautiful and fantastic things.

How would you describe the culture at Hill International?

I would say we are a very transparent company. We share decisions, we share information. I think this is a place where you can build a career. I say that because we are such a geographically diverse company, and people within the company are always given priority to move horizontally and vertically.

What's one mistake you see many leaders make?

I think they let their egos run their lives. Ego doesn't have a place in Hill International. It's about us, not me. I think a lot of people make that mistake, and think that they are bigger than their team. If you think you are more important than your team, or more important than the company, that's a path to downfall…

What's your greatest fear in business?

For me, it's security. We had people in Syria and we had to get them out. The same for Iraq, and in Libya. Our company is based on resources and the staff are our only assets. We protect our assets above all else. Those resources are critical for so the safety and security of our staff is paramount.


If you could give someone just starting out in business one piece of advice, what would it be?

To work with the culture and be sincere. When an opportunity comes along, give it your best. If you do that, then people will recognize your talents and your career will grow. Then, another opportunity will come along and you can give that your best. And so on.

How do you deal with people who make mistakes?

We all make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes in different areas, it's natural. However, it's important to catch that mistake before it grows too big. Then it's about talking through the mistake, and sharing what you learned with your team. There's nothing wrong with making a mistake, but making the same mistake twice is a disaster.

How do you manage so many people and still find time for family?

There are people who can just flick a switch, and others who take their work very personally. That balance is very difficult. Right now I manage around 1,600 people – but I don't tell them all what to do. I set the policies and the structure, and people work within those lines. The bottom line is delegation of authority, and allowing people to make their own decisions. Once you build a very capable team, your job gets easier.

So how do you switch off from work?

It's difficult. I don't think I ever truly switch off completely. At Hill International we take custody of our projects, we protect them. Our project managers take the project, and it becomes personal. You can't just switch that off. I'm glad to say that I am not the only one. But, every now and again I do say, "Okay, this Saturday I am not going to take any phone calls". Then I spend time with my family, my children and my grandchildren distract me from work.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I take care of all the regions in the area, so I touch base with the guys in charge of each region on a daily basis. We discuss existing issues, potential issues and projects across the board. I also spend a lot of time talking to clients, to make sure everything is running along fine.

Let's say you were to step outside the office and find a lottery ticket that ended up winning a million dirhams. What would you do with the money?

I would give it to my kids (but let's not let them hear that). You can never forget about those around you, and those related to you. We need to support those around us. It doesn't matter if you have a million dollars of a few dollars, you should help the people around you.

Finish this sentence, "The world would be a better place if only…"

The world would be a better place if people actually respected and appreciated those around them, and not tried to enforce their own ideas on other people.