Haytham Sawalhy: Leading by Example, Team-building and Collaboration in Business

Written by Alicia Sim

On July 15, 2020

The saying goes: As a team, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. A good leader should both protect their team members when tackling challenges and push them to strive for better. Read on as Haytham shares his views on leadership and storytelling.


The love Haytham’s team members have for him as a leader is evident. Our team had the honour to conduct a half-day workshop for his team at Bintan last year. And we’re blown away by his admirable leadership style. Privately, when we asked the participants to name an inspiring leader who tells good stories, Haytham’s name appeared. It is telling that his team members have a very sincere and special bond with him. ‘Family’ would be the right description for this bond. 
If you interact with Haytham in person or learn about his journey, you will know why he is such a great leader. He cares about making a difference, enjoys interacting with customers and is passionate about problem-solving. Perhaps these are the qualities that contributed to his promotion from a software engineer to a project manager, and eventually a business unit leader.

Key actionable take-aways:

In this interview, Haytham illustrates how a great leader:

  1. is at the service of her/his team and presents herself/himself at the frontline
  2. uses stories to inspire action 
  3. demonstrates strong resilience so that the team can believe her/his direction 
  4. invests in herself/himself and seeks professional support to achieve his goals
  5. uses collaboration to stay competitive

In your opinion, what makes a great leader?

A great leader is at the service of her/his team. The presence at the frontline is a strong sign of commitment to the team and the customers. Leadership cannot be executed from the boardroom or in courtesy meetings/events only.

..presence at the frontline is a strong sign of his commitment to his team and the customers

A great leader should create an environment of safety. Simon Sinek talks about the circle of safety as opposed to the circle of trust which is selfishly limited to a few of people in a structure “the gang”, the colleagues at the outside of this circle perceive themselves as been “replaceable” or “consumable”.

In his book called “Leaders Eat Last”, Simon Sinek says that “Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours. And they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs.”

What would you say was your greatest difficulty/sacrifice faced as a leader so far? How did you overcome it?

My greatest difficulty and sacrifice as a leader were related to the ability to fairly balance between personal and professional life. As a leader you continue to live the role beyond the office arena and work environment, your mind is also switched on.

I believe that the balance cannot be 50/50, the ratio will fluctuate depending on age, career seniority and household circumstances. There will be times when it will be 80% for work and 20% for family and friends, but there will also be times when it will be vice versa.

The most important, you need to be lucky enough to be blessed with a loving family and good loyal friends who are supportive and admire your passion.

How important are storytelling skills to you as a leader? How have you applied it in your work?

I would like to refer to a Ted Talk in June 2015 delivered by Yuval Harari, the author of “Homo Sapiens”, where he gives an overview of his book.

”…Supposed that I managed to convince you that yes Humans control the world because they can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The next question that arises in an inquisitive listener is how exactly do we do it? What enables us alone of all the animals to cooperate in such a way? The answer is “our imagination”. We can cooperate flexibly with a countless number of strangers because Humans alone of all animals can create and believe in stories. As long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms and the same values. All other animals use their communication system only to describe reality.”

As such, based on Harari’s theory, leaders need to rely on storytelling as a tool to get a group of people to cooperate flexibly and in large numbers. I applied storytelling on occasions of change, uncertainties, and challenges. These are critical events where you need the team to be 100% behind you as a leader. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent global crisis, constant turbulence seems to be the new normal, and effective leadership is crucial in containing it.

Constant turbulence seems to be the new normal,
and effective leadership is crucial in containing it.

The Shackleton expedition, from 1914 to 1916, is a compelling story of leadership when disaster strikes again and again. Ernest Shackleton is a polar explorer who faced harsh conditions in a way that speaks more directly to our time.


PHOTO CREDITS: The Story of Shackelton’s Last Expedition, 1914-1917, Wikipedia

One can be struck by Shackleton’s ability to respond to constantly changing circumstances. When his expedition encountered serious trouble, he had to reinvent the team’s goals. He had begun the voyage with a mission of exploration, but it quickly became a mission of survival. Shackleton’s team knew that whatever came before them on the ice, their leader would give his all to bring them home alive. This knowledge was crucial to achieving the mission, and this commitment is key today when so much is changing so fast.

The story portrays an incredible tale of endurance and survival in one of the bleakest places on earth: the Antarctic.  It is also a remarkable story about the triumph of the human spirit in adversity. The team maintained its cohesion in the face of disaster and felt reassured by the guidance of the one they called ‘the boss’.

What would you say has been the greatest lesson so far as a leader in your work?

Do not hire stars but focus on building a diverse star team, your A-Team. Teamwork and collaboration are key to effectively and swiftly tackling challenges.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

A good friend once told me “Haytham, you should only worry about things that are within your control.”

It reminds me of the movie called “bridge of spies”, there is this scene where Tom Hanks (role of the lawyer) meets up with the Russian spy imprisoned in the USA, Hanks announces the gravity of the situation to the Russian prisoner. Despite the gravity of the situation, the prisoner looked neutral with no emotions. Hanks was very puzzled and asked the prisoner “Aren’t you worried?” to which the prisoner replied, “does it help?”

If you had to offer a piece of advice to someone just starting out or who aspires to lead a team/organisation. What advice would you give?

You need to manage your own emotional intelligence to keep your own courage and confidence high.

You need to demonstrate strong resilience so that the team can believe in your direction and be proud to be your followers.

What have you started trying this year that has been working well for you as a leader?

My new year resolution 2020 was focused on investing in myself with main activities related to upskilling and fitness, nourish, and strengthen the mind and the body. The foundations on top of which we assemble the bricks of our personal and professional lives.

I subscribed to the fitness gym near the office in early January 2020, I was determined and also purchased a package for personal trainer support to help me achieve my goals. In the first 3 months, I started to see some results which helped increase my motivation. It did also positively impact my lifestyle, for example, I go to bed earlier than before.

I planned my learning journey and selected the certificates that would be of interest to my career acceleration. I registered for a few programmes with INSEAD which I found very stimulating and inspiring.

Share with us something you learned recently that changed how you intend to run your team/business.

In April 2020, I successfully completed an INSEAD online programme called “Building Digital Partnerships and Ecosystems”. It was a very insightful programme which introduced concepts of network advantage, strategic alliances and ecosystems. These concepts help in creating new digital business models and enhancing the competitive advantage of businesses.

Indeed, collaboration is powerful for the survival and the success of businesses in times of uncertainties and disruption.

As we live the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed the importance of collaborations among countries,  industries and communities in the fight to limit the spread of COVID-19 despite its high contagious character. Without collaboration, the world would have suffered a catastrophe similar to the Spanish flu.

What is one book you would recommend that every new leader or storyteller be reading?

I would highly recommend the book “Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek.

What are 3-4 tools (digital or offline) that you feel everyone should know about?

Grammarly: grammar correction tool, highly recommended.

LinkedIn: a great professional networking tool.

Networking: be out there (offline or digital) and meeting people from various industries and various roles.

Now, Haytham’s Backstory:

What’s your story?

I was born in Jaffa, a district of Tel Aviv city (Israel). The city was famous for its Oranges exported all over the world thanks to Jaffa’s famous port. The port of Jaffa was connected to Jerusalem city via a railway line to transport goods shipped from overseas. The line is considered the first Middle Eastern railway.

I was born to a Muslim family and educated in a private French Christian school “College des Freres Jaffa”* (La Sallian school). The school offers education to all levels from pre-school until secondary. So, I spent my childhood and teenage times in this school. I can say that I have a strong emotional connection with my school.

In 1995, I was privileged to obtain 2 years of scholarship to do my higher education in France. I chose to pursue engineering studies in Lyon where I lived 5 years until I graduated in July 2000 with a Master’s in computer science. In September 2000, I moved to Paris to pursue my first career job in a large and well reputable IT and consulting services company.

In 2003, I was lucky to meet my wife in Paris during her trip with her sister, at that time she had just started her post-doc at Imperial College in London. I was commuting between Paris and London for a period of 2 years until she completed her post-doc and moved to Paris where we got married and had our 2 beautiful kids Adam and Line.

In 2009, my company offered me the opportunity to relocate to Singapore with my family. It was a new creation of a role to build a new business in an area of growth in the Asia Pacific region. It was a big challenge full of uncertainties, after consulting my wife, we decided to onboard into this journey. It has been an amazing 10 years for my family and myself.

We feel blessed to have had the privilege to live in Singapore, a very cosmopolite city-state, an inspiring history from independence to the execution of the great vision, great environment for the family, great location for regional business, and great opportunities for the future. We decided to apply for the Permanent Residence status, which we obtained in June 2012. Our kids enrolled in public school, which is globally recognised for its high academic level, and we had the opportunity to experience the PSLE adventure!

*College des Freres Jaffa: http://www.collegedesfreresjaffa.org/

How did you get into your current line of work/ why did you decide to do it?

Initially, I wanted to pursue civil engineering studies, but after many recommendations from my parents and friends, I ended up enrolling in computer science. I realised that I made an excellent choice because I consider that computer science is not a profession by itself like a dentist, carpenter, but it equips the graduates with a set of technology tools and concepts which take their full sense only when they are applied to solve a problem related to consumer or corporate or any other world’s problem. A good friend of mine was a fan of cars, so he joined a company in the automotive industry, thereby combining his hobby with a job, this is the best outcome.

I decided to join an IT and consulting services company because I enjoy the rich engagement with the customers in various industries, and I am passionate about solving their problems and challenges. Very quickly, I was Identified by my management as having the potential for a leadership role in the organisation. From software engineer, I was promoted to the role of project manager and a few years later I was appointed as a business unit leader with responsibility on people and P&L.

How can people connect with you?

[email protected]

https://www.linkedin.com/in/haytham-s-97869110/

 

Article Written By: Alicia Sim

Alicia is a content writer at HighSpark covering leadership interviews and self-help content. A self-professed homebody and neat person, she loves getting into a deep work mode. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading the works of other journalists and bingeing on riveting films on Netflix.

Written by:
Alicia Sim

Alicia is a content writer at HighSpark covering leadership interviews and self-help content. A self-professed homebody and neat person, she loves getting into a deep work mode. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading the works of other journalists and bingeing on riveting films on Netflix.

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