“Mastering Change and Innovation: A Comprehensive Interview with Sadek El-Assaad, Executive Director of ZEDER GROUP”

Shereen Shabnam

In an enlightening session, Sadek El-Assaad, the Executive Director of ZEDER GROUP, delves into the nuances of organizational transformation and effective change management. With a background spanning prestigious roles such as the Global Chief HR Officer for Aramex and Vice President of HR for Carrefour Hypermarkets, El-Assaad brings a wealth of experience and a unique perspective to the discussion. 

He shares with us insights on driving growth from within, navigating complex change projects, and fostering sustainable innovation in businesses.

You have an impressive background in delivering organizational development and management services to large organizations. Can you share a particularly challenging project you’ve worked on and how you navigated it?

    Working with large organizations requires a distinct approach because it involves many moving parts compared to smaller ones. In almost all large organizations, the decision to enhance the internal organization’s performance is taken from the top by shareholders/Board or CEO and loses credibility and momentum as you move down the hierarchy. My method to implement effective change that lasts, begins by gaging the capabilities and readiness of the organization from the ground up.

    After their rapid growth, a large organization realized that its ad hoc technological solutions have produced silos for its various functions. Their operation was on one platform, the business development on another, Finance on a third and HR on a fourth. Not to mention the many other small tech/data buckets of excel sheets and other small application scattered in almost every department. Now that they are operational in several countries, with global and regional clients, the need for a well-integrated platform to manage their complex business became eminent. At the top, they had developed the ERP/operational processes they thought would be ideal. When they went for implementation on the ground, the resistance ranged from “This doesn’t fit our requirements” to “We don’t have time” or “We need an army of resources”.

    The challenging part of this project was that they have partnered with us in the middle of their journey. On the ground, the whole project had already gathered negative momentum, had raised many concerns on the future roles of individuals and the dynamics was totally against changing the legacy systems and processes that have worked well for them so far.

    I had to navigate this situation very delicately. I started by conducting a marathon of one-on-one meetings with all department’s heads, critical roles and implementors, identifying and classifying the chokeholds – and they were many!! I had to put extra time and effort listening and documenting their genuine concerns and convince each on the benefits of improvement and change.

    The interesting part of this assignment was not only navigating change starting from a negative emotion but was the valuable input I gathered on the improvement initiative from the ground, which I later incorporated in the new system during implementation. That was what made the transformation successful.

    Organizational improvement is not an exercise of drawing a hypothetical organization chart and typical processes flows on the top and expecting it to work. It is more about building the organization one block at a time from the ground up. This is how we enhance the overall organization maturity. 

    As a pioneer in change management, could you elaborate on your approach to driving organizational growth and transformation?

    Most businesses focus on the outside for their growth or transformation. They look for new markets or new technologies.

    Businesses that sustain growth and become unicorns, are the ones who build the right internal foundation during their growth journey. So, my approach to driving organizational growth is from the Inside-Out. Meaning that for a business to grow and sustain, it must be healthy, strong, and fit.

    I start by gaging the current fitness level of the organization with an assessment that I have been perfecting for more than 13 years in multiple size and industry businesses. Then I develop the strategy to enhance the client fitness, before moving to implementation. This structured approach to transform businesses into a FIT business able to run the marathons and endure, bulletproofs the business from fluctuations and equip it for constant and consistent growth.

    With your experience as the Global Chief HR Officer for Aramex and Vice President of HR for Carrefour Hypermarkets, what key lessons have you learned about effective HR management in multinational corporations?

    I have started my career in finance before moving to HR thus I had developed the business knowledge ahead of developing my HR skills. The key to my HR success was even though I was leading HR functions, my north star was always the business. This is key to effective HR specially in large organizations. In smaller organizations, the leader is closer to all the teams and has the biggest influence on the company culture. In multinationals and bigger corporates, the company culture is pretty much swayed by HR . Thus, having an HR lead and team who understand that their role is to serve and help empower the business to achieve their results, instead of concentrating on HR novelties, is critical.  Many large organizations have started assigning leading HR roles to a non-HR executive to ensure they add value to the business.

    You’ve co-founded and advised several tech startups. How do you ensure that innovative ideas translate into successful businesses?

    I divide the enthusiastic start up team into two main categories. The rushers, they are the ones who are mostly rushing towards the result without considering priorities and processes; and the perfectionists, the ones who got tangled into perfecting their processes right out of the gate. I have found out that the best way to work with both is by clearly outlining and keep reminding them of the sequencing of priorities and the minimum acceptable level of output. This approach helps grounding the rushers to results and helps the perfectionists move forward. Basically, it is slowing the first and rushing the second. I divide the overall   plan into small chunks with details and clear deliverables and follow them on weekly or monthly basis. This will give them clarity of their short-term priorities to achieve their long-term objectives.

    As the CEO of Zeder Group, what inspired you to establish this executive consulting firm, and what unique value does it offer to its clients?

    Working for 20 years in corporates, I have seen the challenges that businesses face working with consultants and service providers. Moreover, I used to struggle to find consultants who would really add value on the execution and implementation part of the journey. 13 years ago, When I decided to start my own business, I established Zeder Group as an operational consulting firm with the slogan “Your In-House Business Partner” to really add value to our clients and support them in achieving their results. This direction has been our relationship compass with all our clients. It has served us well and will continue serving us as long as we keep taking ownership of our clients objective and ensuring the quality of our service delivery. Currently, more than 70% of our clients have been with us for 5 years or more and many for more than 10 years.

    Can you provide an example of how you’ve helped a business or CEO fast track their growth and navigate challenges successfully?

    CEO of most small and medium size businesses are either subject matter experts, who gained the know-how and leadership skills working for a business or are founders who had a great idea and wanted to put it in motion. None has any experience in organizational development nor the various phases that every business goes through. I fast track their growth by clearly identifying where they currently are, and what should be their next level. By exposing them to the right strategies that successful businesses have adapted before them, they will gain time by avoiding trials and errors in their journey. As an objective third party, I help them gain clarity and remove the emotional factors that might affect their decision making. I basically expedite their learning curve and help them avoid costly mistakes.

    You specialize in developing tailored solutions for businesses, including transformation strategies and crisis management. Could you walk us through your process for identifying and implementing these solutions?

    Though every business is unique in its dynamics, the business journey follows a defined specific pattern. Businesses that reach a crisis mode or have reached a plateau and are unable to grow, is a clear indication that their approach is not consistent with their maturity thus change is needed.

    My approach to businesses in crisis, is like administering CPR to a patient. Time is critical and not to be waisted on the drawing board. My intervention consists of taking a two-to-three-month interim executive role and skimming it to its bare minimum, stopping the bleeding and cash burn. Once I flip it to profitability, I then go back to developing the strategy for its full recovery and growth. 

    Businesses that have reached a plateau or are facing profitability challenges, the approach is more of a consultative one. I start by identifying the internal dynamics identifying the actions or assumptions hindering profitability and growth before developing and implementing the specific tailor-made strategy for change and evolution.

    With your background in leadership and team assessment, what qualities do you believe are essential for effective leadership in today’s rapidly changing business landscape?

    Leading a business in the industrial revolution meant being present and available for the teams on the ground to control and ensure objectives are met. Nowadays, leading a business requires the leader to live in the future and anticipate any changes coming their way.  Maintaining clear visibility to calmly steer the business and change the course when necessary. This requires a mature and calm mindset with a focus on evolution and growth, which can only be achieved when the leader is working ON the business and not IN the business. Their emotional maturity, ability to push outside their comfort zone and accepting that leadership development is a continuous never-ending journey, is what distinguish great leaders from normal ones.

    How do you approach operational dependencies and barriers assessment when optimizing businesses’ cost structures and revenue streams?

    Optimizing cost structures and revenue streams is not an exercise that can be conducted by an internal team. The same way that no person can see their ears, it needs a third objective eye to be able to spot dependencies and barriers.

    My approach is by questioning every activity and determining its value for the operation or growth of the business. Most businesses have adopted processes in their journey that made sense at that time but lost its value today.

    When optimizing cost structures, I categorize the activities by “Nice to have”, “somehow essential to have” and “Essential to have” and determine each cost with its benefit. The decision of what to maintain and what to remove becomes obvious.

    With revenue streams, conducting the Activity Based Costing to determine the profitability stream by client and by product, also gives the visibility needed to take the right decision.

    You hold various certifications and qualifications from prestigious institutions. How have these credentials shaped your approach to leadership and consulting?

      Every certification, course, seminar, or mastermind I have attended has helped me move up one level in my personal growth. They have equipped me with cutting-edge knowledge and skills, enabling me to implement effective strategies and innovative solutions for my clients. Coupled with my hands on experience, the exposure to different perspectives and the high standards of these institutions has equipped me with an assortment of strategies, tactics, and skills that I can tap into while developing tailor made and practical solutions for my clients. This preserves time and energy to put into implementation and driving initiatives, that achieves results.

      In this interview, Sadek El-Assaad has outlined the complexities of implementing technological and organizational changes in large, rapidly growing companies, emphasizing the need for ground-up assessment and adaptation to ensure successful transformation. Moreover, he provides a glimpse into his strategic interventions for startups and crisis management, underscoring his role as a hands-on consultant who acts as an “In-House Business Partner.” His journey from a seasoned corporate executive to the founder of ZEDER GROUP showcases a commitment to providing tangible, impactful solutions that drive substantial business results.

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