2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs: Omar Zaafrani, INSEAD

Omar Zaafrani

INSEAD

Age: 36

“A transformation leader, who specializes in communications, culture change and brand management.”

Hometown: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Family Members: My wife, Najia Momen

Fun fact about yourself: I grew up in multiple countries, influenced by various cultures—including European, Middle Eastern and North American.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Concordia University, Bachelor of Arts, English Literature

Where are you currently working? Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) as the Senior Vice President of Group Communications & Brand

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles:

  • Board Member of World Energy Council as well as Chair of the Council’s Communications & Strategy Committee.
  • Middle East Public Relational Associations Fellow.
  • Board Member of ADNOC Schools, governing four schools in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates
  • Member of the Page Society, an organization composed of Chief Communications Officers from the world’s largest and most notable organizations.
  • Avid golfer

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I helped write a case study for the Page Society about organizational and cultural transformations, which is being complemented with a culture change guide I am developing with my peers at the Society. The guide will help professionals undergoing enterprise-wide transformations and cultural change on what strategies, frameworks, measurement tools and tactics can be employed to help ensure the success of their programs.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I’m most proud of the role I played in helping transform the United Arab Emirates’ most significant organization. At the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world with approximately 50,000 people, I built a communications and brand function that helped drive an enterprise-wide transformation program that encompassed organizational consolidations as well as a shift from a house of brands to a branded house. This also included a proactive and transparent communications and repositioning program that helped reshape ADNOC’s reputation and brand. Over the past five years, ADNOC’s brand equity has grown by over 150%, making it the most valuable brand in the UAE and the second most valuable in the Middle East, according to Brand Finance.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite MBA professor so far has been Charlie Galunic. He is a great educator and reflects his teachings of leadership and organizational behavior in his teaching style. Most importantly, he is a reflection of the values he aims to teach and pass on.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? I chose INSEAD for two reasons:

  • The first time I was introduced to INSEAD, I was 11 years-old and my father just returned home from a week-long executive program at INSEAD that his company organized. He was raving about his experience and said to me, “I wish that you will be able to do your MBA at INSEAD one day”. That stuck with me and ever since it has always been in the back of my mind as I considered how I shape my academic and professional development.
  • INSEAD’s global footprint, reflects its curriculum and the experience it offers. Importantly, I felt that INSEAD offered a global perspective that was unique and differentiated.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The biggest lesson I learned is the importance of team dynamics and Professor van Der Heyden’s Fair Process Leadership model. These lessons and learnings helped me strengthen the dynamics of my team, while embedding the Fair Process Leadership model to support and enable my organization’s transformation program and helping strengthen trust in our culture.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? Early in the program, one of the modules coincided with a significant work-related commitment. Every year in November, my organization hosts the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference (ADIPEC), which is one our industry’s leading global gatherings and conferences. Every year, ADIPEC has required my full attention and involvement, especially given it is one of our key annual milestones that was core to our positioning and branding strategy. Unfortunately, on this occasion, I had a module taking place at the same time and as such I had to decide whether to differ the module in order to lead my team in delivering the project or to attend the module and juggle ADIPEC in the background.

I made the decision to attend the module instead of juggling ADIPEC, I made sure that my team was fully prepared to successfully execute our strategy. Importantly, I used the opportunity to demonstrate to the organization and its leadership the strength of my team and their ability to deliver in my absence. Although I checked-in daily, my team did a phenomenal job by working together and delivering a successful ADIPEC event, which because of COVID-19 was fully virtual for the first time in its history.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? If you want to make the best of the program, which for me meant extracting as much value as possible, then don’t underestimate the amount of time and effort required. Doing an MBA is a lifestyle change, so embrace it.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The biggest myth is that all employers will be supportive and encouraging. While I was fortunate to have an employer who was supportive, it did require a significant amount of stakeholder management. For my classmates, many faced an equally challenging, if not more challenging, situations in having to maintain social and political capital in the workplace, while being absent from work on a monthly basis and having to balance work and school commitments.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Not fully leveraging and capitalizing on the tools and resources available from INSEAD from the very beginning.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I admire my classmate and friend Julio Rosales for his contagiously positive outlook on life and for always exuding positive energy, irrespective of how challenging circumstances may be.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I did not consider a part-time or online alternative as I felt meeting new people, making new friends and expanding my network was core to fully benefiting from an MBA program. While sometimes the program feels like it’s online given COVID-19, INSEAD has done a great job in making sure to organize and convene classes, while offering a program with as little disruption as possible.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal?

My long-term professional goal is to pivot from solely a communications and brand professional into a broader organizational leader that specializes in turning companies around. Today, we live in a fast-paced and constantly evolving business environment. I believe that an organization’s long-term sustainability and success is going to become contingent on its ability to transform and leverage market trends, new technologies, and opportunities. By leveraging my skills as a communications, culture change and brand professional and capitalizing on my experience in organizational transformations, I want to help lead companies through change and strategic shifts to ensure their long-term competitiveness.

What made Omar such an invaluable addition to the class of 2021?

“Omar stood out firstly by his very international profile – he grew up across several countries; Syria, The Netherlands and the UAE, where he is now based. He is currently the Senior Vice President of group Communications at the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), where he leads the communications and corporate affairs functions, responsible for developing and executing strategies aimed at positioning, protecting and promoting ADNOC’s reputation through internal and external communications, as well as brand marketing & corporate citizenship.”

Teresa Peiro
Associate Director of Global Admissions, Degree Programmes at INSEAD

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