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The Unwritten Rules Of The MENA's Education Sector To succeed in this industry in this region, you need to focus on creating professional knowledge here, rather than just importing it

By Shaun Robison Edited by Aby Thomas

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We have all read the clichés about the habits that entrepreneurs should adopt. We have all seen the videos predicting jobs and careers of the future, and the statistics about career changes and the perceived millennial habits. Whilst there might be some truth to some of it, the reality of running an education consultancy with projects in multiple countries is very different to the glossy videos and perceived reality.

Educators, by nature, have often chosen the education sector to make a difference in people's lives, so therefore, their values are often not driven by financial motivations. When business leaders work within the education sector, they struggle to understand the nuances, the codes of professional practice, the terminology, and the psychological motivations of teachers, and this often leads to a clash of values as well as challenging work environments.

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This challenge is likely to increase in future years, because the GCC is the crucible of education contexts, considering the high percentage of private schools as well as the private sector investment in this sector. To be a successful education consultancy in the region, you have to know both the unwritten rules and codes of the business world, and the education sector that you are servicing.

As such, finding people to work for my enterprise, BBD (an education consultancy and management company that works across the GCC) within both environments has been challenging. We complete a detailed personality mapping exercise for all potential employees, and we map this against our existing team. Why? Because "precious" people generally aren't a good fit for us. We work with individual investors, private equity groups, real estate developers, school owners and families, school leaders, teachers, and operations staff. Education is full of fads and trends, and quite often educators and non-educators import ideas uncritically to the UAE, without considering the context or the societal structures in place here.

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In the 12 years I have worked here, I've seen people come and go. There is one common factor that I have observed with the ones that stay and are successful. They buy into the context, and they focus on producing and creating professional knowledge here, rather than just importing it. At BBD, we cross professional boundaries, and to do this, you need to under - stand the psychological motivations of all of the stakeholders you serve, and under - stand the individual, emotional needs of each, and their place within the wider education ecosystem.

Within business, you need to be agile, and responsive to market needs, and demonstrate the capacity to pivot at any given time. We're no different, but in order to do this, our employees need to have specific "habits of mind" that enable them to get a sense of different and complex situations across our professional boundaries We know that in order to do this, there are three inter-related dimensions: the cognitive, the affective, and the behavioral. For some people, they're able to sense a problem but they're not able to work it out, and therefore, act to solve it. For others, they can sense it, work it out but they do not have the skill set to solve it. For some, they have all three, and they work at speed to resolve complex issues.

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At BBD, we try to embody these habits of mind across our team at all times:

Awareness of the bigger picture and the smaller picture. Knowledge of our wider context is crucial, and knowledge of each individual context is equally as important. Leverage contextual knowledge greatly enhances our business.

Sensitivity to our client's needs and the team's needs, and being alert to opportunities. Developing this sensory awareness comes with experience, and there has to be a motivation to learn the nuances of our different stakeholders.

Doing refers to the ability to follow through, and acting on your awareness and sensitivity. This is critical for us, as we're a results-based business. We can get our hands dirty, and we make mistakes, but this wouldn't be possible if we weren't engaged.

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Critical engagement Are we posing focused questions to ourselves, and to our partners? Sometimes to our detriment, we are brutally honest with people. Challenging assumptions is critical for any business, and the ability to stop and do a 360 often leads to a better outcome.

Urgency Are we working at speed with accuracy? We're all battling time pressures, and unlike schools, we're not taking time off in the summer, or through school holidays. Within a consultancy, the ability to manage multiple projects at speed is a necessity, so everyone within our team needs to share this ethos.

Detail-oriented Are we getting into the granular detail of our work? The answer to a problem is quite often in front of us. Grinding out a solution by analyzing and looking at something from a range of perspectives creates a discipline within our team.

Related: Integrity Matters: The Importance Of Ethics In The Consultancy Business

Relationships Are we fostering positive relationships with our stakeholders? Within the Middle East, relationships are key. Leveraging social capital should never be underestimated, and we look for all of our team to kill people with kindness from time to time.

What sits beneath these habits of mind are a set of necessary behaviors that en - able people to act on them. Other similar behaviors have been turned into "I can" statements, as part of a research study by Karel Kreijns et al (2019) that we have adapted. As a set of inquiry habits, they are broad, but useful to reflect on, and use as a tool within our team meetings to discuss our behaviors. The scale items are as follows:

Value deep understanding

1. I am critical on whether I did the right thing

2. I wonder if I can improve my work

3. I watch how colleagues do things in order to learn from them

4. I ask others what they think of my work

5. I try to collect information so that I can evaluate my work

Related: Ethics In Business: Why You Shouldn't Put A Price On Your Integrity

Reserve judgment and tolerate ambiguity

1. I refuse to accept unwarranted assertions and explanations irrespective of how plausible they might be

2. I have a certain tolerance for uncertainties and ambiguities in offered solutions and explanations

3. I am willing to accept some uncertainty provided that finally there is insight into proven solutions and reasonable explanations

4. I can deal with situations wherein solutions and explanations are not yet available

Take a range of perspectives, and systematically pose increasingly focused questions

1. I try, when it comes to sort out things, to pose increasingly better and more targeted questions

2. I try to view things from other perspectives

3. I try to avoid prejudices with regard to solutions and explanations

4. I try, by means of a systematic approach to investigations, to find evidence for solutions and explanations

Quite often, the traffic between industry and business is one way, and education is the punching bag, as some would argue that very little has changed within this sector over the last 30 years. I would, however, argue that our approach has created a knowledge within this context that may be useful for other contexts as well as other sectors. We call our habits and behaviors "the BBD edge," and the team is thus encouraged to be bold with our stakeholders, and to act on their sensory awareness to get results.

Related: Marketing For Schools: Three Tips To Make Your Brand Stand Out

Shaun Robison

CEO, GSM Education Middle East

Shaun Robison, CEO of GSM Education Middle East, is an entrepreneurial chief executive who has delivered exceptional results across the MENA education sector. Shaun has worked with investors, operating companies, consultants, teachers, and government regulators to plan, license, deliver and scale projects.

Shaun has published education research in a range of academic journals, covering the Middle East education sector, whilst also advising some of the region’s largest groups, such as the Adani Group in Ahmedabad, LIPPO Capital in Jakarta, The City Schools Group, and The Sobha Group in Dubai. Shaun has also been an Advisor to the Executive Council of Dubai and the Ministry of Finance, Oman.

Shaun holds a PhD in education, and he is a Governor for the IDEA Early Learning Center. He is also a regular contributor to The Business Breakfast show, which occupies the prime-time slot in the mornings on the Dubai Eye 103.8 radio channel.

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