It was December 18th, 2014 when we received an enquiry through our website from Damascus, Syria. Most people at that time, at least those outside Syria, would have associated the country with the tragic civil war and internal strife that became one of the defining events of the last decade. Yet here was somebody asking us about a banking simulation for a group of professionals in Syria. Here at Cesim we often receive exploratory inquiries from parts of the world far removed from this northern corner of Europe. Like any good provider of an online service, getting in touch and learning about what we do takes very little effort. We field all of these enquiries with the understanding that many will simply be a few exchanged emails or a virtual meeting, but then go no further. I must admit I thought the enquiry from war-torn Syria would be one of those.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
The query came from Louay Al Roumani, at the time the CFO of Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi (BBSF), and after exchanging a couple of initial emails we soon agreed a time for an online meeting. That meeting took place on December 23rd. My family has a long-standing tradition where we spend Christmas together in the countryside, and on the 23rd the place was full of kids excitedly running around in anticipation of Santa's arrival the next day (in Finland Santa Claus visits on Christmas Eve). While all the other adults were busy preparing the Christmas festivities, I was having a call with the executive team of a Syrian bank. Given that my parents never really understood what I do for a living anyway, they were now totally bewildered. But that initial meeting just before Christmas quickly led to a successful test of Cesim's banking simulation and we soon agreed on a project with BBSF.
Louai had previously experienced a business simulation during his MBA studies and he felt that our delivery method – a competitive banking simulation game where teams or individuals take control of virtual banks and play against their peers in an online environment - would help elevate employee spirits and give relevant practice in decision-making. Through the simulation teams create and implement strategies for their virtual banks over 5-7 fiscal years and in the end, there is a winner. The training project was completed in the form of an internal tournament that had teams from different branches and functions of the bank competing to come out on top.
At the time, the experience of being involved in this project was genuinely affecting for me personally. I received an email from Louai shortly after the simulation exercise was complete, with an attached picture of a happy team holding their winning certificates. The following is a quote from Louai's email:
"I have attached to this email a photo of the 1st Ranked team that were given certificates by our Chairman and CEO. In light of the events happening in Syria as you surely are hearing about, such programs are creating immense motivation for the staff and providing them with satisfaction at a time of unrest".
It's not often that a corporate training event leaves you with a lump in your throat.
I could not stop thinking about how different the realities surrounding the participants were compared to my own. When we talk about crisis, it's more likely to be something along the lines of less than desired growth, not about mortar bombs landing in your neighbourhood. For people outside a real crisis zone it is impossible to gauge how bad things actually are, to the extent that sometimes we may even perceive things to be worse than reality. From the comfort of Finland, the contrast of my reality with those in the photo was beyond my comprehension.
But why am I writing about this now, almost 6 years after my first contact with Louai and BBSF? Because back in June my LinkedIn feed told me that Louai Al Roumani's book "Lessons from a Warzone: How to be a Resilient Leader in Times of Crisis" was selected as the Financial Times' book of the month for May. I congratulated Louai on his book and recognition, and soon he replied with two screenshots from its pages. In his account of the efforts they made at the bank during the height of the war he mentioned the project that we did together. At Cesim we had always treasured the BBSF project as something special but earning a place in Louai's book was not imaginable.
I of course ordered a copy, and as I was waiting for it to arrive I looked up our correspondence during the project in 2014. That little walk down memory lane really helped give me some special sense of purpose. At Cesim our mission is to help people see the big picture and enable them to conduct their work more meaningfully. We do this with simulation games that put participants in the shoes of a management team, whether in banking, retail, hospitality or something else. The competitive element brings in the engagement and fun, which then typically trigger emotions that make the learning memorable and impactful. In the case of BBSF, it was much more than that. As Louai wrote in his email, immense motivation and satisfaction at a time of unrest. For someone who has often spent his life in business focussing on the next client or project, this was incredibly powerful.
I read the book during the summer and warmly recommend it to all. The backdrop of war and the unusual level of uncertainty put a different spin to the leadership lessons learnt and shared. In addition, at least for me, it gave a peek into a Syria that we rarely hear of in the media.
I want to say that the small part we got to play in Louai's efforts to maintain morale in adversity taught me that he is a man who walks his talks. And I look forward to getting an autograph in my copy as soon as we get to meet in person.
This article was originally published here.