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Leading by Simplicity in an Adopted City


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Agni Skafidas, HR & Productivity Consultant and Executive Business Coach, OLAM. 

Travel is in Agni Skafidas’ blood. Her father served as a German diplomat. Her mother believed travel was an important element of her children’s education.

At age 17, Skafidas became an exchange student in southwestern Kansas. After attending a German college, she did her graduate studies in Ireland. As an HR professional, she jumped countries about every three years, mimicking the life of a diplomat herself.

Then Skafidas moved to Dubai — and found a place where she could build not only a life but also her own consulting business. She fell in love with the sunshine and the desert heat, along with Dubai’s diversity. Six years later, Skafidas has no plans to leave her adopted city, where foreigners far outnumber the locals.

“The other day, I met a person from New Caledonia,” Skafidas said. “Where do I meet that person? Out here in the United Arab Emirates. I’m introduced to new cultures that I wouldn’t meet if I were back in Europe.”

What was it like growing up as the child of a diplomat?
Because my dad didn’t have the traditional role of having to move every single time, we had a very steady life. But for us, going abroad was a common thing. I remember in school, other children seemed to be better off than we were, but they would never go abroad for the summer, whereas my mother was very adamant about travel.

My parents still live it. They go abroad. My mother was 73 when she went to China for the first time. We practice it. We believe in it. Because you can lose your health, you can lose your friends, but the memory of traveling abroad — nobody can ever take that from you.

You’ve had all these experiences in different places. What have you found that is similar from place to place?
There’s a McDonald’s everywhere. What I’ve noticed over the recent years is the amount of globalization and, coming with that, the danger of losing our own identity as different nations. I live in a city where 80% of the population is foreigners. They have all relocated here for work. In Dubai, you appreciate the blend of cultures, but with that, you also lose the local culture.

Why do you think it’s important to preserve a sense of the local culture?
For me, it’s part of the identity, where we come from. I can trace my family back to the 15th century. They were not famous people, and they were not rich people, but I know where I come from. We can define where we want to go to while we’re on this planet, but what about our ancestors? What have they done? And I think from a diversity perspective, everybody can bring so much to this world, but sometimes we may not appreciate it.

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From left to right: Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world; Sheikh Zayed Road, the main road in Dubai; Madinat Jumeirah; one of Skafida's favorite places to take visitors. 

What inspired you to establish your own consulting firm?
What made me go on my own is not agreeing with the way some HR departments treated employees. You’re still talking about a human being. I worked for one company where every week, we had to let one executive go, and it was just because we had a new president come in. My desire is to simplify HR and to make it a bit more common sense, rather than just following handbooks and procedures that don’t apply any logic.

What I’ve learned during the time that I’ve been on my own is you really need to listen to the business. For me, as an independent contractor, if I don’t understand the business needs, then they’re not going to hire me and I won’t get paid. And then I also want to make it a lot simpler. I’ve been reviewing policies for the last three days for a client, and some of the words that are used, the normal person just doesn’t even understand. We write things in too many words, too complicated. Remove it. Make it simpler.

How do you think your international experience makes you a better consultant?
I can take things from one country and apply them in another country or another organization, and just adjust it to that specific client. By having had different people, different views when working on projects, I can offer different solutions to a client, so I don’t have to say that this is the one and only approach, but “we can do this, or we can go this way.” From left to right: Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world; Sheikh Zayed Road, the main road in Dubai; Madinat Jumeirah, one of Skafidas’s favorite places to take visitors.

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What are some of the misconceptions about living and working in Dubai?
When my family came out here for the first Christmas, my sister packed her very conservative clothes. All her tops were covering her shoulders. And I told her, “There is no need to do that.” It’s respectful, but you don’t need to do it. In several parts of the Middle East, and in Dubai, women can drive, you can consume alcohol, you can eat pork, you can practice whatever religion you want.

The Middle East isn’t what the media describes. Women are supported and encouraged to be independent. I think that’s part of the misconception that very often exists. Dubai is very liberal, as long as you respect local customs and norms. It is a place that has given me opportunities, including setting up my own business.

The weather out here can often be quite tough in the summertime, with temperatures similar to what you have in Arizona, but outside of those four months, I do love it out here. It’s almost like Vegas without the fountains. Everything is bigger and larger than elsewhere. Just don’t come in the summer.