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Celebrating the culture of success

Melanie Butler hears from Garnet Publishing managing director Nadia Khayat about how a family firm from the Middle East grew into a major international player in the ELT market

Most Westerners presume it must be difficult to be a Middle Eastern woman in business. But what are the business advantages of being a woman?

The first might seem superficial: there isn’t a cliched way that women in business are supposed to look or act. That is an advantage because it means people can’t judge you on first impressions, as they don’t know what to expect.

Also, in a culture like mine, men are expected to be hard and tough. A woman can use her softer side, her intuition, to help to create a more positive work environment, to promote collaboration rather than friction. Of course men can be soft and intuitive too, but it is harder for them to show it.

I grew up in the Middle East watching my mother, my aunts, my friends’ mothers using tact and diplomacy to achieve their goals with the men in their lives. It was a good lesson in the importance of diplomacy. Of course being hard-working and driven is important – for both women and men. I don’t want to exaggerate the difference between us, but there are some perks to being a woman.

One of your areas of responsibility is Garnet Education, the UK-based publisher. What is the biggest challenge of managing a team based in Britain?

At the beginning it was the culture. I knew England well; I spent time there during the war years. But I am Lebanese. I was born there, I live there. Lebanese culture is my culture, quite European but also Middle Eastern. We thrive on creative chaos; we are very fast to react. The British have a more ordered, more organised, more perfectionist culture.

It was my job to understand the culture of my team in England and adapt to it – not vice versa – and I have learnt a lot. I know that I can trust the quality of every project. Everything will be properly done and I can trust 100 per cent in what is going to happen. But the biggest advantage is being able to use tactics from both cultures. Finding ways to maximise time management, to react very fast and still produce quality.

Garnet Education is particularly well known in the area of academic English. Many of your books were originally aimed at English teaching in Middle Eastern universities. Do you think this helped?

I think it is less to do with the Middle East and more with the authors. Take the Skills series for example. Terry and Anna Phillips introduced a ground breaking methodology based on research, and they showed a new way to learn language. Our academic English books are really good books, and many other publishers around the world have followed us in this area.

The second reason is that these books are very culturally sensitive, culturally neutral if you like. That may have something to do with being written for the Middle East, but all cultures have their sensitivities, their differences, and it is important to respect them.

You are increasing market share outside the Middle East, working in places such as Latin America and Russia – not only in EAP but also in primary. What are the advantages that Garnet, originally a local publisher, has in competing?

The main advantage with Garnet is that it is a family business not a big bureaucratic corporation. The family business is large and international – Garnet is just one small part of the group – but we are still a family business. There is less bureaucracy, less corporate culture. We are not stuck with rules created by people who have been sitting behind desks for years. And we are always there for our clients – we know our clients. If a client from Mexico wants to talk to me, they can phone me, and it is the same for a ministry official in Iraq.

We provide more than just books. We provide consultancy, assessment, teacher training. In Iraq for example we are training 3,000 teachers to use our books. We don’t believe in creating materials and throwing them at a country, or a school, or a university just like that. It is only fair to train them, to bridge the problems. Again, not being a corporate company relying on its shareholders helps. We are not an NGO – we want to make money – but we have this family motto, ‘Education always comes first.’

The second factor that gives Garnet an advantage is the importance that we give to understanding the culture of our clients. Their culture may be very different to ours but we have no right to judge them. Education works if it works with the culture, if it works towards maintaining the learners’ heritage. You have to know the value of culture.

And what do you see as the biggest challenge?

Well, digital publishing is proving a major challenge. I am from the digital generation and I relish the challenge. But many clients are adopting digital culture without really understanding it. ‘We want this in digital format and we want it for Microsoft and Apple and Google and mobile phone. And we want it tomorrow.’ Then when they get it they don’t have the digital infrastructure to use it. The digital age is going to see massive change in the culture of publishing, but we don’t really know where it is going yet. It’s a big challenge but very exciting.