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What’s it like to be a woman CEO in MENA? We ask Grayling’s Loretta Ahmed

Loretta Ahmed, Grayling, CEO


What’s it like to be a woman CEO in MENA? We ask Grayling’s Loretta Ahmed

This interview is a part of Hopscotch’s series The Leader Board, a regular feature, which highlights the champions leading the way to gender balance in our region’s workplaces.

This month, it’s the turn of Grayling, a multinational global communications agency founded in 1981 with boots on the ground in 53 offices and over 1000 staff to its name. With an excellent history of gender balance, even at senior levels, sat down with MENA CEO, Loretta Ahmed, to talk about how the company is leading the charge on female participation and diversity and inclusion here in MEA.

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Hopscotch: Loretta, welcome and congratulations on making it onto our Leader Board. Please introduce yourself and your work here in MEA.

Loretta Ahmed: I am the CEO for the Middle East and Africa region for global communications agency Grayling. We have 60 staff across the region based out of Dubai, Oman and Nairobi and we also work with affiliates as well as our global colleagues to provide pan-regional support to clients across the full marketing communications mix of PR, digital and creative services.

Hopscotch: It’s fantastic to see a woman in such a senior position here in our region. What brought you to this role?

Loretta Ahmed: Prior to this role I headed up the UK business for Grayling and I stepped down when I became a mother. I was invited back to the business as a non-executive on the global board and was given the brief to secure a new head for the MEA region – a role I ended up taking on myself and I’m so glad I did it. Five years on and we now have a team on the ground in Africa and have moved the Dubai PR business on to become a full-service marketing agency.

Hopscotch: What measures does Grayling have in place to help with gender balance and diversity and inclusion in the region?

Loretta Ahmed: The PR sector has no shortage of female talent with many agencies having a gender balance tipped in their favor but senior level positions tend to remain male-dominated.  So, our gender balance challenge is often the opposite to many other industries! In the creative team, we have a better gender balance as the creative sector in general presents a more equal ratio of candidates. Our measures are informal – based on HR tracking our ratios and us constantly trying to level out the playing field when we are hiring new staff. It’s a constant juggle for a smaller business where the balance can change very quickly, but it is also relatively easy to address it based on the constant pool of talent available. In Dubai, we employ many different nationalities due to the transient nature of the workforce and, like many others, we continue to seek ways to hire and retain local Emirati employees.

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Hopscotch: What do you feel this approach has achieved in practice?  Can you highlight any challenges it presents?

Loretta Ahmed: Our policies in this area are flexible and not set in stone but as we continue to grow we will look to embed these in a more rigorous way into our business. As we have a female-dominated business at managerial levels we have focused our efforts on offering an improved maternity policy with extended leave and flexible return to work options to ease our working mothers back into the workplace. This year we have seven staff either on maternity leave or just returning and each has a very different set of circumstances, but getting mums back to work is a no-brainer. They offer significantly more value in terms of experience and knowledge than those starting out in their careers so it makes absolute business sense.

It is hugely challenging for us to manage but it is possible with the right level of listening and planning – not just for the mother returning to work but also for their clients and colleagues so there is absolutely clarity around shared roles, reduced hours and duration of any new working arrangement.

Hopscotch: What is the representation of women like at senior levels in your team and how do you encourage retention of them in your teams?

Loretta Ahmed: Senior level roles are currently split across one female CFO, three male managing directors, two female digital directors and two female deputy managing directors so pretty equal. Two of our senior female directors are working mothers and both have opted to return to work on reduced hours. One of them has done this before with her first child and worked reduced hours for her first year before returning to full time hours and it worked well for all parties. We have created a private room for our working mothers to express in comfort as well as recently launched a global helpline service for anyone who feels they need to talk to someone in confidence about anything that might be making them anxious or stressed so we remind our people of the importance of their mental as well as physical health. Agencies can be a high-pressure environment and it is all too easy to lose perspective, which is particularly true for those whose lives have changed dramatically and who may be experiencing a whole new set of demands outside the workplace.

Hopscotch: Why is diversity and inclusion important to Grayling right now?

Loretta Ahmed: It’s important for every company. Every business is a glass box now – staff, clients, applicants and all other stakeholders want absolute transparency and it’s not enough for the CEO to stand up and wax lyrical about their values and beliefs. The business has to live its values and give tangible proof of doing so – across diversity and inclusion through to sustainability and community commitments to prove their good citizenship. Gen Z and Gen Y, in particular, place huge emphasis on this and rightly so. Interviews are a two-way process with these candidates and if we want to secure the best people we’d better be sure we can stand up to their scrutiny!

Hopscotch: And finally, is there more you’d like to action or bring to the conversation?

Loretta Ahmed: For anyone out there wondering if they are doing enough to empower women in their workforce I would urge you to ask them. It sounds obvious but sometimes we just don’t listen enough. Get out from behind your desk and talk to your working mothers about what really stresses them out, what hinders their productivity, what weighs on their mind that you could help alleviate. It’s sometimes the smallest action that can invoke the biggest positive change.

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