Would you think that, as a woman, your best professional experience would occur in Saudi Arabia? I didn’t…and I was wrong.
I always liked living and working abroad. I was used to discovering a different foreign country every year since I graduated. When I joined global professional services company Accenture, I worked in the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey. When I met my husband, I wanted to spend my time in Belgium to give us time to start a family.
Six years and one son later, the call of living abroad became irresistible. My husband and I estimated our one-and-a-half-year-old son was old enough to start discovering the world. I shared my wish for an out-of-town assignment with my leadership at work. There was one condition—my family should be able to come with me.
About nine months later, I received an opportunity to become the project manager for an SAP implementation for Accenture’s first health client in Saudi Arabia. My first reaction was: “When I said ‘abroad,’ I was thinking something sexier like Singapore or Brazil. ... I would have never thought about Saudi.” My second reaction was: “No way. A woman leading a project in a country where she cannot even drive? I will never be credible.”
On top of this development, I learned I would be the first female executive with Accenture bringing her family there. I like being the “first,” but this time might have been a step too far, I thought. But the part of me that has always been pushing boundaries won the battle. Being successful in such conditions was the ultimate challenge I could take.
On the administrative side, it hasn't been a bed of roses. To give you an idea, my company had long discussions with Saudi authorities to get my family a proper visa because having a woman as a head of a family was something new to them. But still, we made it there, the three of us. And then started a 15-month adventure.
This experience was more than I expected. On the professional side, it gave me confidence that I can manage any kind of project in any kind of environment. I have been in impossible situations.
How do you deliver when IT security is shutting down your VPN (virtual private network) three months before go live and you need six weeks to get proper visas for your people? How do you keep moving forward in the Ramadan month when your team members and clients are fasting all day? You do it by being open on what can be done and not done in the given constraints and by being unconditionally constructive. This approach is the only way you can build trust, with your clients, with your team members, with your leadership.
On the personal side, it helped me to have a better understanding of Muslims. I never met people with faith so embedded in their day-to-day life, and I respect them for having such strong beliefs. On the family side, thanks to the life in Saudi and the easy travel to Asia from there, I am proud my now four-year-old son understands the difference between Buddha, Allah and Jesus. This experience is bringing him what I always wanted for him and the reason why I like travelling: eyes wide open on the rest of the world to have an open mind.