Pleasant, cheerful and with an ability to put a person at ease in a jiffy, Ahmad Ali Bin Obood, offers a firm handshake before leading us to an airy bright meeting room for the interview.

Dressed in a perfectly pressed, spotlessly white kandura, the director of finance at Dragon Oil in Dubai may be in his forties, but he already has a wealth of experience in senior leadership, particularly in the government sector, grabbing a few awards for excellence along the way. His list of achievements are an arm long – including bagging the distinguished government employee award that was part of the Dubai Government Excellence programme.

‘I joined the government sector in 2000 – the same year I graduated in accounting from the Higher Colleges of Technology,’ says the Emirati, smiling and adjusting his guthra.

Joining the Dubai Land Department (as it was then known), as an accountant, he spent three years there quickly learning the ropes before moving to the Dubai Health Authority. ‘It was the biggest department after the Dubai Police at the time with more than 12,000 people,’ he says, adding that he truly enjoyed his time there.

Putting in his all from day one, Ahmad soon found that his efforts were bearing fruit. ‘I was promoted to chief financial officer at 27, becoming the youngest CFO and youngest department director across Dubai,’ he says, not without a hint of pride.

One of the first lessons he learnt, he says, is the importance of thinking outside the box. Keen to study more about his subject – accounting – and create a set of best practices, Ahmad decided to visit ‘Jordan and Pakistan because they are some of the top countries for accountants’. He went on several field visits in both the countries at his own expense and returned with a wealth of knowledge and creating a set of practices that he began implementing in the departments he managed. ‘I was constantly pushing boundaries, exploring new ways to do things better, being more competitive... in fact, being competitive is something that has been with me since I was a kid,’ he says.

His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, awarding Ahmad with the distinguished government employee award that was part of the Dubai Government Excellence programme
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He remembers the time he used to play football with friends in his neighbourhood. ‘I must say I always wanted to win and score goals and when I could not for any reason, I would get quite upset.’ He admits that while he may not have had been a good sport, ‘the positive side was that I was always competitive and wanted to get ahead but of course only through fair means.’

The spirit to get ahead and be the best in all that he attempts is a feature that continues to mark Ahmad’s professional life and after five years at the Dubai Health Authority, he was invited to return to Real Estate Regulatory Authority (Rera) as deputy CEO.

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Three years later, in 2010, Ahmad was sought out by the Abu Dhabi government to set up an initiative for Emiratisation in the country. ‘It had a nice mandate and was a fresh challenge for me and I immediately accepted,’ he says. The mandate of this government department was to put together a single window programme of sorts whereby an Emirati would only need to visit one centre and not different entities when looking for a job. ‘When he or she comes to us, we do the filtering and if there is a competency gap of any kind, we suggest the training that should be provided, make arrangements to send them overseas if the training facilities or programmes are not available here, hone their skills and do whatever else may be necessary so they can fill a suitable post. In effect we were acting like a mediator between the candidate and the government.’

Two years later, after the programme was well established, Ahmad received an invitation from senior government officials in Dubai to work for the Prime Minister’s office. Ahmad’s mandate was to take care of a host of sectors including corporate services, finance, IT, procurement, administration and HR. Ever open to new challenges, Ahmad took it on for a period of five years.

‘It was then that I got a call from Dragon Oil, so after spending almost two decades in government service, I felt it was time to take a new challenge in a different sector,’ he says.

Ahmad smiles when I mention that he seems to have climbed the corporate ladder pretty quickly. ‘If you peruse my CV you will notice that the most number of years I’ve worked in an organisation is five. I feel this is necessary so you keep seeking new challenges and new roles where your inputs may help make a difference in the larger scheme of things.’

As director of finance at Dragon Oil, he is still coming to terms with the ‘complete culture shock’, he says, adding the working operations is very different from that of a government office.

So what does he credit his meteoric rise to?

Ahmad mulls over the question for a while. ‘I am very detail oriented, for me, yaani, even the most minute things matter. Things should be perfect. And I will strive to make it the best.’ That quality spills over even in his personal life. ‘If for instance you say ‘let’s order lunch’, I will go to any lengths to make it the best lunch ever. It may be tiring but I take care of the details. And in any job, that is the most critical thing to take care of.’

Ahmad also believes that a good leader follows four pillars: one, clearly define your objective. Two, draw a map to the objective; 3, choose the right qualified team that will take you to this objective. ‘It’s sad to say many leaders stop at this point,’ says Ahmad. But the fourth point is perhaps as important as any of the preceding three – creating an environment for productivity.’

Ahmad is a firm believer in offering a conducive atmosphere for staff to realise their full potential. ‘I believe that if you are going to spend more than eight hours a day with a group of people – more waking time with them than sometimes with your own family – then it makes sense that you truly love your job,’ he says. And to do that you need to have a good working atmosphere. ‘There should be a good working culture, a pleasant environment that staff should want to come to work to,’ he adds. ‘Most importantly the leader should be able to motivate his people to achieve more and do their best.’

A good leader is one who takes care of all four pillars. ‘And the best way to do that is to be a good role model,’ says Ahmad.

But, more importantly, is it not important to get a proper recruiting process in place?

Ahmad, who has chaired recruitment committees in his previous jobs, and has interviewed close to ‘1,000 potential job seekers’, admits that recruitment can be risky because ‘identifying the right person is a challenge.

‘The most critical question or component in the candidate is to find out how passionate he is about his job.’

Perusing his CV is of course one way to gauge a candidate’s abilities. But when doing that he feels it is also important to ‘check if the companies he/she has worked in over the years has been on an upward trend in terms of size, reach or business volume’.

If they have moved from a large company to a much smaller one, it could indicate that something is not right with their approach to work or something is not right with their skill set, Ahmad believes.

Does he look for attitude or aptitude when choosing staff?

‘A mix is what is required but if I had to choose one, I’d say attitude. You may hold a doctorate in a subject, but if you are not a team player and are difficult to work with, the entire team would suffer. But if you have the right attitude, everything else can be fixed. Staying humble, being willing to learn and being a team player are what can take you ahead.’

Ahmad also relies a great deal on psychometric tests when choosing the right candidate for a post. ‘In simple terms, I’d rely 30 per cent on the CV, 40 per cent on the face-to-face interview and the rest on the psychometric test results.’

What does winning the best employee award mean to him?

It boosted my self-esteem tremendously, says the Emirati who is a trained boxer. ‘My mission is and had always been to bring new initiatives to the country, to use out-of-the-box ideas to take the emirate and the country to the next level.’

One of the initiatives he brought about in his current job was pulling together five different teams to work towards a common goal. ‘I was given a certain mandate and a mix of strategic, emotional and intelligence objectives. It was a tough challenge but I effortlessly managed to get the entire team of 24 people to contribute towards my vision and accomplished all objectives,’ he says with pride.

With happiness being the buzzword now, what is his take on corporate happiness programmes?

‘My first rule is not to overuse the word ‘happiness’. I believe it is important to have a plan on how to achieve happiness for yourself and the company staff. There should be a happiness officer, but it is also important that the officer has a proper JD (job description). Don’t just appoint someone for the sake of filling a post.’

Ahmad believes in soliciting suggestions from staff on what they would like to see more of that would make their professional life a lot better. Building a database of events that can be spread across the entire year is a good stepping stone, he suggests. This way, the entire team will be looking forward to the days when they can let their hair down.

Ahmad believes his greatest strength is his ability to innovate and stay ahead of the pack. ‘I have set a goal of coming up with one out-of-the-box idea every three days,’ he says, adding that the brain is quite like a muscle that needs to be exercised every day to stay healthy and function at optimum level. He advises everyone to try it. ‘Once you do it for a few weeks, it becomes a habit and you will keep doing it regularly.’

He also believes in allowing his achievements to speak for him. ‘That’s a lesson I learnt from my father,’ he says. An undersecretary, his father, who had a doctorate in Total Quality Management, led several key sectors in the government and encouraged Ahmad to have a clear vision of his goals and work hard to achieve them. ‘He taught me to be detail oriented and to be a perfectionist,’ says Ahmad.

An avid reader, he is convinced research is paramount. ‘We are living in a smart environment and we have to constantly innovate to stay ahead or we will be left behind,’ he says. ‘I believe in benchmarking because no matter how good you are, there are people who are ahead of us. I often tell myself that I am at the second place and that I need to keep doing better to achieve more. Always believe you are No.2. Only then will you strive to perform better.’

What are the two lessons he has picked up over the years?

‘The ability to say no. While it may be easy to say no, it is important to learn when to say no and to whom,’ he says.

The other lesson is to not trust anyone too much. ‘You have to mitigate the risk of people letting you down. While it is important to empower people, you must at the same time not put your future in their hands in case they let you down.’

What makes him happy?

Ahmad smiles. ‘The happiness of others. Seeing people in my surroundings happy makes me happy. I also get a lot of happiness when I offer support to those who need it.’

And what makes you sad, I ask.

‘People taking things for granted. You have to appreciate and respect everything – your family, your friends, your job, your environment…. That’s what makes you a complete man.’