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7 Questions on Leadership with Sara Al Haddad

Name: Sara Al Haddad

Title: Executive Director

Organisation: SwissCham Egypt

Sarah Al Haddad holds a distinguished career in the realm of education and management. Beginning her career in adult education, she served as an IT instructor for IBM under MOIT-funded project. Her expertise evolved within K-12 education, progressing from an IT educator to pivotal leadership roles including IT Head, Deputy Principal, and Administration Manager at the MENA region's inaugural IPC-accredited school. At SABIS®, she held the mantle of School Director for their pioneering CADMUS International School in Africa. Prior to this, she adeptly led the Egyptian British International School as its School Director, gaining proficiency in founding new schools, strategic planning, and curriculum development.

Academically, Sarah obtained a B.Sc. in Production Engineering and furthered her studies with a Master's in Education from the American International College, delving into the perceptions of Egyptian parents towards international education in private schools. Seeking to marry her educational fervor with business acumen, she completed an MBA from the Swiss School of Management, majoring in Global Management Leadership, and Entrepreneurship.

One of her career's defining stints was with the Aga Khan Foundation, where as the Academic Quality and Accreditation Manager, she passionately advocated for educational quality and training. This spanned various sectors including TVET, Entrepreneurship, Soft Skills, and nursing programs, all part of the Aswan Skills Development Project funded by Global Affairs Canda.

Currently at the helm as the Executive Director of Swisscham Egypt, Sarah exemplifies stellar leadership, adeptly guiding teams and projects. Her journey has finely honed her analytical, problem-solving, and communication competencies, making her a valuable asset in all her professional endeavors.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Sara's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

As a leader, one of the most challenges I've encountered as a leader is the task of establishing cohesive, dynamic teams when founding new schools. Given the diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets each individual brings, fostering an unified team that shares and acts upon a singular vision is paramount, yet challenging. This becomes especially complex in the context of international schools in Egypt, where each institution typically operates in its own silo, driven by its unique goals and aspirations. The endeavor to unite these varied perspectives into a team that not only understands but passionately advocates for the institution's vision isn’t an easy task. It requires smart understanding, empathetic communication, and the ability to bridge differences to shape a common path forward. The process of molding a diverse group into a unified entity dedicated to shared objectives is both my biggest challenge and, when successful, my greatest achievement."

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

My leadership journey has been a long path of persistent dedication, continual learning, and strategic risk-taking. My entry into the educational realm began as an IT instructor then teaching in K-12 schools. However, through unwavering commitment and a desire for excellence, I found myself rapidly climbing the ranks, securing the position of Deputy Principal within a mere six-year span.

My early promotions were just the beginning. I took on the mantle of Administrative Manager at a pioneering IPC school in Egypt and the broader MENA region. But I always believed in perfecting practical experience with academic knowledge. This belief led me to pursue my first master’s degree in education, further empowering me to explore the realm of human development. Joining an esteemed international NGO, I honed my project management skills, specifically within the educational domain.

These experiences were instrumental when I was entrusted with the formidable task of being the School Director for two foundational institutions. The first was within a revered Egyptian educational chain, and subsequently, I joined one of the most expansive educational systems globally. Each role was not without its challenges, especially given the fast-moving shifts in Egypt's educational and economic landscape over the past two decades. But facing challenges head-on and navigating through them has always been my forte.

Recognizing the value of merging educational insights with business acumen, I pursued an MBA. This academic endeavor became a pivotal turning point. Today, as the Executive Director of one of Egypt's rapidly ascending chambers, I find myself at the confluence of my numerous experiences, dealing with high-level management across international corporations, embassies, and government dignitaries.

In essence, my journey to leadership wasn't a straight path; it was a combination of seizing opportunities, continual learning, and always being ready to step out of my comfort zone. Every phase, every role, and every degree has been a chapter in the story of how I became the leader I am today.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

My work days are well structured to maximize efficiency, productivity, and balance. From the moment I wake up, I initiate my day with a proactive mindset. It all starts with a glance at my calendar and to-do list apps, ensuring I have a comprehensive understanding of my day's agenda. These digital tools have become indispensable, allowing me to effectively allocate my time and set clear priorities.

Throughout the day, I systematically address tasks based on their importance and urgency, ensuring that the high-priority items get the immediate attention they deserve. This structured approach helps me remain focused, organized, and on track, minimizing the chances of oversight or multitasking inefficiencies.

As my workday winds down, I allocate time to review and reflect on the day’s accomplishments. I revisit my to-do lists and calendars, ensuring all responsibilities are met and any pending tasks are either rescheduled or prioritized for the next day. This review process has proven invaluable, as it gives me clarity and peace of mind, knowing that I have managed my responsibilities effectively.

In pursuit of a well-balanced professional and personal life, I've recently made a conscious decision to disconnect from work during weekends. This 'digital detox' allows me to recharge both mentally and physically. I've found that this break from the work environment enhances my overall productivity, creativity, and enthusiasm when I return to my tasks on weekdays.

In essence, my day is a blend of proactive planning, structured execution, and deliberate reflection, punctuated by a commitment to personal well-being and balance.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

I am always reminded of the profound impact of genuine acknowledgment and the power of fostering personal connections with my team. In the whirlwind of tasks, targets, and timelines, it can be easy to overlook the individual contributions that collectively drive our successes. However, I've come to realize, or perhaps re-realize, that taking the time to genuinely recognize and credit team members for their hard work is not just a nice gesture, but a fundamental leadership responsibility.

More importantly, beyond the professional praises, lies the invaluable lesson about the significance of building and nurturing personal connections with team members. I've witnessed firsthand how establishing a healthy rapport, understanding their aspirations, challenges, and even their life outside of work can make a world of difference in team dynamics. This personal touch doesn't just humanize the work environment, but it also fosters trust, loyalty, and a sense of belonging.

In essence, while strategies, skills, and systems are indispensable, it's the human connection that remains the heart of effective leadership. This lesson has been both enlightening and humbling, emphasizing that the success of any leader is inseparably linked to the well-being and acknowledgment of their team.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

While it's challenging to pinpoint a single book that has shaped my leadership journey, I've consistently found value in the myriad of theories and case studies spread across various books and articles I've explored over the years. The accumulated wisdom from these sources has been instrumental in shaping my leadership ethos and approach.

However, one particular framework that resonated deeply with me was the exploration of the '8 Types of Leadership Styles'. Gaining insight into these styles not only provided clarity but also held a mirror to my own leadership tendencies. I identified strongly with the transformational style, a discovery that felt both affirming and enlightening.

Transformational leadership, characterized by its emphasis on inspiration, motivation, and vision, aligned seamlessly with my experiences, especially when founding new schools. Building new institutions from the ground up, rallying diverse teams around a unified vision, and establishing robust management structures required more than just strategic acumen; it demanded the ability to inspire, adapt, and foster trust. Recognizing myself in this leadership style validated my approaches and also provided a roadmap, highlighting areas of strength and aspects to be mindful of.

In conclusion, while it's not a singular book that's been my guiding star, the collective knowledge, especially around leadership styles, has been invaluable. It has served as a compass, guiding my decisions, actions, and interactions throughout my leadership journey.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

If I were to distill my leadership insights into a singular piece of advice for a young leader, it would be this: Embrace and empower the human side of leadership. In your journey, you'll come across countless tools, strategies, and methodologies, but remember, at the heart of every endeavor lies the human element. Approach your team with genuine empathy, understanding, and appreciation. Recognizing their contributions, feelings, and aspirations will foster trust and loyalty, which are essential assets for any leader.

At the same time, be steadily organized in your approach. A clear vision and structured methodology can help navigate the oft-turbulent waters of leadership. Yet, in all of this, remain humble and open-minded. Understand that leadership is a continuous learning journey. No matter how accomplished you become, there will always be new lessons, challenges, and perspectives to consider. Admitting that you don't have all the answers isn't a sign of weakness; it's a hallmark of strength and wisdom. By doing so, you not only pave the way for personal growth but also create an environment where others feel valued and heard.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

One of the most memorable chapters in my leadership journey revolves around the formation of a team at one of the schools I led. While in the thick of the selection process, I placed immense emphasis not just on credentials, but on passion, dedication, and a hunger for excellence. Every member was handpicked not only for their qualifications but for the intrinsic values they brought to the table.

To be candid, during this meticulous process, I couldn't quite envision the final tapestry. But as the pieces came together and operations commenced, it was as if magic unfolded. These individuals, diverse in their expertise, backgrounds, and perspectives, melded together seamlessly. The atmosphere within the school transformed; it wasn't just an institution but evolved into a familial haven where each one felt deeply connected. This deep harmony didn’t go unnoticed; top management often remarked how our school showed an environment distinctively warmer and more cohesive than any other in the chain of schools for the same organization.

The synergy we achieved wasn't merely on an emotional level. It translated into unparalleled operational efficiency. Every facet of our learning environment was meticulously organized, with each detail fine-tuned to precision. This holistic approach concluded in creating an educational haven for our students.

However, like all good tales, this one had its twist. Two years later, I had to transition to a new opportunity in a different city. And with new management at the school, the dynamics certainly shifted. While change is a constant, many team members nostalgically recalled about those two transformative years. Even today, when paths cross with former colleagues, regardless of their current roles or achievements, they often refer to that period as a golden chapter in their professional lives, a testament to the power of cohesive leadership and genuine friendship.

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