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A Strategist For Success: ICON Founder And CEO Salma Sakhnini Salma Sakhnini, founder and CEO of ICON, advises entrepreneurs to approach life and business anew after the COVID-19 crisis.

By Tamara Pupic Edited by Aby Thomas

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


These days, for any kind of motivation, people often turn to social media for coaches who claim to be able to "transform them," "help them get massive results," and so on, but few would be able to explain how they would actually go about doing this, as Salma Sakhnini, founder and CEO of ICON, a Dubai-based business and leadership development advisory, did when talking with us. "I'm able to do that not only because of my expertise, but also because I have been there," Sakhnini says. "I made so many mistakes, had many lows in my career, made the wrong choices, lost money in investments, failed, but then, I was able to turn things around for myself. That's the value of experience. It's not about not failing. It's actually exactly about that. Failing, making mistakes, trying, and trying again till you get it right. And that is why I can give the short-cut to my clients. They can learn from the mistakes I made."

After more than 15 years in the banking industry which, at one point, saw her join Citibank as an assistant manager and work her way up to becoming a vice president and one of the most senior regional leaders of the bank, Sakhnini continued her career at Rasmala Investments in 2006 where she was appointed as the Chief Operating Officer. Fast forward several years, she has founded and today manages her own group of companies that include an industrial manufacturing business, a consulting practice, and a training and coaching firm. "Becoming an entrepreneur after a long corporate career in banking had its challenges," Sakhnini says. "The fact that I had the idea and the passion for starting ICON, and had gained the needed skills and expertise were definite assets; however, they were not enough. Establishing ICON was a lonely journey. Unlike being in a corporate, I now had to be the finance, the IT, the sales and marketing, the product development, everything. So, my first lesson was to get to building it brick by brick, and getting into the details of every aspect of the business, which is, in retrospect, so valuable as this is what makes entrepreneurs successful."

Another important lesson, Sakhnini adds, was learning to be comfortable with asking for help. "Friends and colleagues and people who knew me were eager to help and support, as they were rooting for me and proud that I had ventured on my own; however, I was reluctant to ask them for referrals," she says. "It was a mindset for me that I had to go it alone, so I did not want to impose on my network of friends and colleagues. I later found out that the challenge was not that help and resources were not available, but that it was all in my head. My mindset was limiting me from achieving what I wanted."

This change in approach led to ICON breaking even in year one, Sakhnini says, adding that she has been leading its two-digit top line growth year on year ever since. Today, Sakhnini advises her clients that becoming fearless and laserfocused on problem solving and seeing opportunities in every challenge is key to finding success in their business endeavors. "If I were to sum up one quality that sets successful people, especially entrepreneurs, it is the ability to always be forward thinking, and to be relentless in finding opportunities, and coming up with solutions to challenges," she says. "In every crisis lies opportunity. That is not only a saying, but a core belief that enables success."

Related: Starting Young: Developing A Culture Of Entrepreneurship

Whilst managing ICON's both advisory services and leadership development is a handful, including helping many government ministries in the GCC with their strategy and delivering on the country's vision, as well as advising clients such as Mashreq, RTA DEWA, and BIPA, Sakhnini dedicates her time to coaching only a few select clients. She finds the UAE to be a very empowering environment for female entrepreneurs and considers herself lucky to have started her business here, but advises on how to handle potential exceptions to this rule. "I do come across people who find it strange to deal with a female CEO, and who are more comfortable dealing with one of the male partners in ICON," she says. "I don't take it personally, and I have stopped trying to prove to them that I am as qualified, if not more so. It's their journey, not mine, and their own limitation. My focus has always been and continues to be on making an impact in the lives and businesses of our clients, and delivering excellent value."

This approach to coaching has earned her the moniker of being a "strategist for success." When asked about the common issues that people with leadership qualities face, Sakhnini says, "When you are starting your career, it's usually about you, your accomplishments, how hard you work, how quickly you can climb the corporate ladder, how much money and recognition you get, but with leaders, it becomes less about them, and more about the team. One of the challenges that is common to successful leaders is that they get into what I call their own success trap, meaning that they have learnt a certain approach or set of actions and strategies that they have utilized during their career to get them to where they are. So, most follow the same pattern, as it has worked for them. But, in many cases, what got you here will not get you there. They need to break out of their own molds of success, because the set of skills, strategy, mindset that contributed to their success and to getting them to where they are today is frequently not enough to get them to where they need to be."

Another challenge for some leaders, especially high achievers who like to do things their own way and who may be perfectionists in nature is making their work their identity. "Ambitious people are stuck in the achievement paradigm, and align achievement on the job or in business to personal success or failure," Sakhnini says. "People have a tendency to incorporate this into their identity. I remember a time when I was a Vice President at Citibank that I used to introduce myself as Salma from Citibank. It became part of my identity so much so that when things went bad at work, I would feel depressed. When things went well, I was on a high. There is nothing wrong with ambition and achievement, but having it as a personal identity is exhausting. It became a roller coaster ride, because I had given work power over me and my life. I wasn't in control anymore, and I put what happened at work in charge of me. That is very dangerous."

The COVID-19 crisis will leave lasting changes in how businesses operate, Sakhnini says. "I don't think we can benchmark with the "normal' anymore," she adds. "The future will be for businesses who are rethinking their business models, and identifying the opportunities in this crisis, and acting upon it. Becoming future-ready requires a lot of guts. We need to move from the fear and paralysis that I see many people and businesses are stuck in to adapting to this new reality, and adopting all the changes needed."

One example is how her team swiftly changed the way they deliver ICON's Accredited Leadership Training. "When the lockdown happened, that stream of revenue stopped for us overnight, and we had quickly to adapt to a strategy of people being at home, and us delivering this service to where they are," she says. "So, we had to work quickly on fortifying our digital learning platform, and luckily, we had started it a year ago, and had already adopted tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to enable it. We have also found that some needs are now different. Managers now need to get equipped in a different way, need help in other areas like how to manage remote teams, how to ensure people are productive and focused while working from home, so we have addressed the changing needs and designed courses to help with what is actually needed. That was an opportunity for us as well to enrich our offering."

It is with this mindset that Sakhnini offers her advice for entrepreneurs in these times, which is to approach life and business anew. "People often ask me where to invest now, and what the sure thing is that will make them futureready, but my firm belief is that the best investment we can make is in ourselves," she says. "We need to invest in a limitless mindset, in the skills of the future, in redefining our concept of work and competition. The businesses I'm advising know that with budget cuts, they need to invest in re-skilling their teams. That is the only way to get out of this crisis. We need new thinking, innovation, and reskilling. It starts with that. That is how we all can contribute to designing the future."

Related: Powering Through The New Normal: Four Ways Entrepreneurs Can Boost Their Focus and Well-Being

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.


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