More Than A Funny Student: Faisal Al-Olayan

INJ 31 | Supply Chain Management

 

Faisal Al-Olayan is a supply chain management leader, with more than sixteen years experiences in the industry. He is a director of Supply Chain Management for a petrochemical company. He was voted the funniest student in my Marketing Management Executive MBA course for London Business School – Dubai.

Listen to Episode #31 here:

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More Than A Funny Student: Faisal Al-Olayan

Our guest is Faisal Al-Olayan. Faisal was the supply chain management leader with more than sixteen years’ experience in the industry. He’s a Director of Supply Chain Management for a petrochemical company. He’s a student in my Marketing Management Executive MBA course for the London Business School and he was voted the funniest student in the cohort, which is why I’m sitting down with him. Welcome, Faisal.

Thank you. I’m very excited about this opportunity to talk about myself and the joking that we make.

You’re excited but you’re also a little nervous. If you weren’t working in supply chain management, what would you be doing?

I will be a singer. I like to sing. I like the music too much in a way that I listen all the time to music, including in your class.

What are you listening to while I’m lecturing?

Local music. Arab singers from Saudi and from Emirates.

What’s the name?

Mohammed Abdu.

Shakira?

Shakira, no. I like to see her.

Do you have any training in singing? Do you sing in the shower?

Everyone does.

Are you good?

Yes, people said so.

Can you sing something right now?

No.

What kind of singer would you be?

Classic Arabic music.

Like Umm Kulthum?

Yes, I like Umm Kulthum.

Who doesn’t? For the audience who may not know who Umm Kulthum is, she’s a famous classical Egyptian singer, probably the most famous. She’s lovely and wonderful. I just impressed my guest by knowing who that is. I suspect most people who are listening to this don’t know what supply management is. Given that you were a leader with more than sixteen years’ experience, teach them what is supply management.

The word supply chain management was created by consultants. It looks fancy but it’s all about the logistics and connecting your product from your factory all the way to your customers including warehousing, planning, the logistics, shipping and transportation. That’s the whole thing about the supply chain and it consists of the sourcing piece so people will go and procure and the planning piece and the logistics piece and the manufacturing.

Are you primarily responsible for moving oil and gas around?

We do petrochemicals. It is, in fact, a solid and liquid product. It’s part of my responsibility. We don’t do oil and we don’t do gas, but we use the oil and gas to make petrochemical products like the plastics that we use for the cups or the bags and what have you.

Where is this manufacturing being done?

In Saudi, America, China and Korea. We have manufacturing sites around the world.

Then you’re shipping these things also around the world?

Yes, in almost every continent in the world, we have some customers.

How did you get so good at this? Why are you so good?

How do you know I’m so good?

[bctt tweet=”Always use your imagination to attract attention.” username=””]

You work for one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies. You’ve done it for a long time.

I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Engineering and they taught us the supply chain management, so it’s part of my plot.

One of the things that I was thinking about like people who are in that field and logistics is that it’s very quant-focused. You have to be mathematically inclined. Why is that?

Because you are the first to be touched. Your customer experience, he experiences your supply chain before the product itself. When the product came late or not and the fall or the packaging is bad, you are damaging the brand of the product, so we have to be very careful. You have to make it on time, on the right quality. You have to be very careful.

It’s a fascinating world. Nowadays, it has become even more important in business. There are whole business models. Amazon is basically a supply chain company. They’re looking at buying their own ships. There’s a notion of vertical integration. You own every part of the chain. In your company, is that the case?

No, we source the transportation, the vessels, ships and trucks. We don’t own this but we manage our supply chain by ourselves. We contract them. We plan the shipment and we are responsible for making it on time.

Do you like what you’re doing? Why so?

Yes, I’m making a positive change to my company and I feel I contribute to the welfare of my company.

I appreciate the plastic cups and stuff you sent me. Why the Executive MBA? This is an unusual program. Faisal, you live in Saudi Arabia. This program is hosted in Dubai and it’s one week a month for eighteen months or something like that. You’re taking marketing management and finance simultaneously and then you’ll be back for another set of classes. You’re away from home and you’re away from work, which is good. Being away from work has as its benefits, but they still must expect similar levels of performance.

I chose to do an MBA because I want to expand my knowledge. I want to understand what the corporate fund is all about, what those guys in the marketing are doing. The best way to do it is to go to the best class and to understand what the world thinks about. I have already sixteen years in business, but I want to learn about the other aspects that I haven’t seen, especially on the best practices around the world.

What is the correct career trajectory of someone in the supply chain? At some point, you must tap out in if you don’t move into some other management position overseas. How does that work?

We usually move to the business and the sales for a rotation program. Maybe after I finished my MBA.

Your sense of humor, I saw it on display in class. You’ve got some good zingers, some good one-liners that came right side of the classroom. I have to assume that a petrochemical company is a little stiff, a little serious. Do you employ our comedy chops with your employees, with your supervisors?

With my peers. They like my jokes a lot but not in the phone to the executive management because they might perceive it like, “He’s not a serious guy.” I exercise it a lot with my kids.

You have four kids. You’re such a young man for four kids. How old are your kids?

Twelve, ten, six and three.

Are there more coming?

No, that’s enough.

Between the two of us, we average two kids, so that helps. Tell me how you do this.

The kids like me too much because I’m not a serious dad. Some of my son’s friends said, “He looks like your friend, not like your dad,” because I play games with them, hide and seek, online games. I always joke. I’m not taking things very seriously and that I always use my imagination to attract attention.

Give me an example.

We had a dinner. I told them at the beginning of the dinner, “Imagine you are a car. Which brand of car would it be?” I started by saying my wife, their mother, should be a Mercedes-Benz, very nice quality and reliable. It ended up by them saying, “You are a Chinese car because you always get sick easily.”

In the United States, there’s this thing called the dad joke. Do you have that in Saudi Arabia?

No.

Dad jokes are corny jokes. They’re obvious. They make your kids roll their eyes when dad tells this joke. They tell the joke over and over again. I have an ex-girlfriend whose dad used to say, “We’re off like a turd of hurdles,” instead of, “We’re off like a herd of turtles.” That was one of his dad jokes. It’s a little bit funny the first time you figure it out and hear it but the tenth time you hear it, as a kid, it’s a little too much. There’s no dad joke in Saudi Arabia?

There are no dad jokes as a phrase, but as a practice, yes. In fact, I practice this.

Do you have a particular joke that you go to regularly?

I have a story that never ends. When I told it the first time, everyone was listening. It’s about two students. They count the nuts and each time one of them make a mistake, the other student corrects. Then the teacher came and then another student came. Everyone stopped counting and counting and they take a taxi. The taxi asked, “What is the problem?” They say, “We are counting nuts. We don’t know how much.” The story continues and they had an accident. They went to a hospital and also the doctor asked, “What is the problem?” They tell the story from the beginning. “We had some nuts.” He said, “One, two, three, four, five. I keep counting and keep counting.” The first time it was fun and then I keep saying this.

Will you pick it up later or you start it all over again?

[bctt tweet=”Having a sense of humor can be pretty risky.” username=””]

I start it over again. Then they say, “Please, stop.” In the class, I don’t do those jokes. I’m more into the serious questions that make everyone in the class laugh. For example, when you said that you have an issue with the air condition and your partner gets warmer or you get warmer easily and either you change the air condition or you change the bed and that comes to mind, you change the partner as well.

The background on this, we were talking about the lack of it or the opportunity for innovation around sleep. Sleep is a super important thing. What is a problem that you have? When you live alone, you can get the temperature. If you like the room warm, you keep it warm. If you like the room cold, you keep it cold. When you have a partner and one of you likes it warm and the other one likes it cold, how do you deal with that? We were talking about the options. Someone made a joke about getting a different room and then you stepped in with getting a different partner in that way and the class exploded with laughter. It was well-timed. Do you think that it’s your willingness to say it? Do you think other people have that thought and they don’t want to take the risk of saying it? Do you feel like a risk-taker?

I’m the biggest risk-taker. I like to try new things and trying new experiences in life in general. New food, new city, strange cars.

Are you a car guy? What kind of car do you have? You must have a van for the four kids.

A Lexus, the 4×4. I had an Audi Coupe. I have a Ford V8 Raptor.

Is there any issue with driving a Ford in Saudi Arabia? Are people okay with that?

No, it’s a nice car.

You have a Japanese car right now.

Yes, and some Chinese car.

When you talk to humorous people, they often will say that it was encouraged. Imagine two parenting styles. One is very chastising. To make jokes is to break rules, to say things that might be a little bit off color, off-putting, a little dangerous, reckless. A strict and stern parent is like, “You should behave,” but a funny parent may encourage that. You’re modeling this behavior and you’re encouraging this behavior and you’re laughing at this behavior, which reinforces it.

Also when it comes to the class, there are some serious professors and some funny professors.

I tell some jokes and have fun. Did your parents encourage your sense of humor? Are your mom or dad or grandparents funny?

No, they are not. They are very serious.

What does Saudi classroom like when you’re ten years old? Is that a serious place or is it a fun place?

Also very serious. I remember it cost me a lot when I made some jokes. In Arabic, in any language, you can play with the words. I remember a teacher, he’s talking to a guy and said, “You are a maraba.” It means educated in Arabic. Maraba also comes like a jam. I said, “Honey or jam?” Everyone laughs and then he asked me to leave the class. It was very serious.

This notion of wordplay is interesting. Some languages lend themselves to wordplay more than others. Evidently, French lends itself to wordplay because you can use the same word in multiple ways. English, it’s okay but in some other languages, not at all. The word means one thing. I wrote this paper, “We talked about you. Tell a baker that he has nice buns.” It’s the misdirection. Are you referring to his backside or bread products? It creates an opportunity for comedy. Arabic has that element.

It has a little. In Arabic, you describe one thing by many words but not the other way around. Not many words mean a lot. The rest, there is enough for that.

INJ 31 | Supply Chain Management
Supply Chain Management: Some languages lend themselves to wordplay more than others, creating opportunities for comedy.

 

One of the things that’s interesting about a sense of humor is that you have to be risky about using it with your superiors, with the executive team. You have to be careful using it with a teacher or maybe some professors because they perceive you as not a serious person or in some ways, I’m attacking their authority or something like that. Yet with your peers, it can elevate your status. One of my colleagues who I do my humor research with, Caleb Warren, does research on coolness, on being cool. Being cool has this alternative form of status that comes from being a rule breaker. It makes authorities unhappy, but it often is appealing to peers and humor has a little of that element to it.

It helps a lot. I have so many friends. In fact, so many friends in the weekend invite me. It’s because I’m the entertainment guy. It helps a lot. You break the rules. It gets people to know and to speak openly. I fully agree. It’s not about just a colleague. It’s even built the friendship.

Your wife, did you use comedy to court her?

Yes, to some extent because she is more serious.

You catch her being serious and you loosen the moment up. You have a lot going on. You have a full-time job, lots of responsibilities. You have a big family and you have an extended family close by and who’s involved. You have friends. You have a final exam coming soon. How do you do it?

In the end, they feel I’m not satisfying anybody. My wife is complaining, my boss complains. You are complaining. I’m trying to use my weekends for the study. I’m trying to get out at night during the work day for my wife to keep her satisfied. I’m managing my work during the working time as much as I can. It is tough, but it’s moving.

You have a graduation date in sight.

Which makes me feel happy.

It’s easier in that way. Have your work habits changed? Oftentimes the saying is, “Pressure makes diamonds. Without the pressure, you just have a lump of coal.” Do you notice that you have gotten better at things? One of my colleagues has a paper. There are three reactions to the kind of pressure you’re under. The first one’s called priority planning. You make your list and then you do the most important things on the list and you just don’t worry about the things that are lower on the list. That’s the decent way to deal with it. The second one is called efficiency planning where you just get better and faster at doing things. The job they used to take you two hours, you don’t mess around as much, you get your work faster and harder and you get it done in an hour and fifteen minutes. The last one is you just run around like a chicken with your head cut off and you’re just stressed out. You just don’t do as well as you were before.

I think I’m the third guy. In the fittest day of the week, I list what I’m supposed to do but I don’t get it done by end of the week. There are so many other urgent things that come and then the whole thing is messed up.

I’m going to ask you a little bit about where you’re headed in life. You’re how old now?

I’m 40 years old.

You’re headed into middle age. You’re settled. You have a home and have a family. You’ve got this career.

[bctt tweet=”Pressure makes the diamonds. Without it, all you have is a lump of coal.” username=””]

I’m waiting for my middle age crisis.

If you’re not having it now, you might not have it. What’s a good life? When you look back on your life, what are you going to say was a good life?

My wife is passionate about cooking. She’s a very good cook, so I want to help her to open a small restaurant. We started already now to plan how the funding would be, where the place is. It’s a tough business, but it’s worth it because she likes it too much. I want to help out on that.

Your supply chain management skills should help. Being a restaurateur is a big part of the business.

I think it will help. Your course will help the marketing thing.

How? Let’s do a little quiz.

By using the 5 Cs. That’s one thing. It’s to see your kids growing and going to a decent school and what have you. This is something I’m looking for.

Do you think about retiring? I know it’s a weird question. You’re 40.

In fact, I’m dreaming about retirement.

Why? What does retirement look like?

I want to enjoy my life. You are a slave of your corporation. My company is one of the best companies in the world. I’m talking about people who go from 8 to 5 five times a week. You don’t own your real time. The other thing, I don’t want to die early and if you work longer, you die earlier. Maybe the restaurant of my wife will help us with the financial perspective so then I can retire early.

Then you’ll end up working in this restaurant, probably.

Which I own. I can control my time.

As a professor, I work a lot of hours but I decide when I work and how I work and where I work in a way that I do feel that kind of freedom. There are moments where I’m in the office on a Saturday night and I’m like, “Why am I here?” In this case, this is like extra teaching I’m doing okay. There are moments where I’m like, “Why am I doing this?” but I have a choice. I chose to do it because I thought it would be an adventure to come to Dubai. I always get to meet a whole different set of students than I get at the University of Colorado. It will push me. It was going to push me to design an executive course, which I didn’t have in my pocket. Now I do. I’ve got to make the choice and the nice thing is I can do it again or I can decide not to do it. I have that kind of flexibility and security.

Because of this, we’ll do with the sales pitch for the marketing.

I have the students doing a Hackathon. They’re putting together a product and they’re going to pitch it to me in fifteen minutes.

We chose something called Be Free. It gets people out of there called corroboration slavery until you own your time, you are connected via something like Uber between the companies. We imagine the companies in the future will not have regular employees. It will be only connected via those apps. If they need a finance, they just connect to you and you have your own profile. You can do it from London, from Dubai, from whatever.

There is certainly some good evidence of this in the world of design for instance. You can find that a lot. They are free agents. We do have to go to this pitch soon, but I want to ask you a few other questions. Do you feel like you’ve changed your mind about anything important recently, a realization that you had? “I’ve been thinking about the world in this way. I’ve been doing things in that way and I think it’s time to change them up.” I asked this because it’s usually under times of stress and challenge when you get change.

INJ 31 | Supply Chain Management
Supply Chain Management: If you don’t own your time as a businessperson, you become a slave to it.

 

I have changed for the sport. I was a big fan. I support local football and then recently I stopped watching even. I can watch it but it’s not like a big thing for me now. Don’t ask me why, it just happened.

You found yourself moving away from it. It’s interesting you say that. Two things that you’ve mentioned have come up on the podcast before. The first one is you were saying that you want to enjoy your life. I had a conversation with a comic, Neal Brennan. He’s around the same age as you. I’m older but he’s like, “I just want to enjoy my life now.” There’s this feeling of, “What is all this for? I might as well try to have some more pleasurable existence if I can, not things equal.” Then I forget the previous episode, but I got to talk about how I’ve given up watching sports. I did a few years ago, but mine was a conscious decision. I just basically did a cost-benefit tradeoff and I realized that sports spectating was costing me more to my health and happiness and well-being then not. After 30 years of watching sports I said, “No more. It’s time to stop.” I do a tiny bit here and there, but it’s nothing like it used to. I realized that there are other things I’d rather do. It’s entertainment. It might have been in that Neal Brennan conversation also, that came up. You have something in common with this American comedian I talked to. A couple of quick questions. Do you deal with critiques? You get people who evaluate you, they’re critical of you. You’ve got bosses who are not happy with you. You have a wife who at times is displeased with your availability. You’ve got kids who as much as they love you, they must have at times be unhappy with the decisions you make.

I’m not trying to draw a rosy picture about myself, but one of the good things about me is that I’m very open for the critiques. I try to reflect. In fact, I criticize myself too much. One of the coaches for the leadership said to me, “You are criticizing yourself too much.” When you have feedback, at least it must be a constructive feedback, then I will listen to you and reflect. If I become angry with my life and then maybe you will not welcome the critiques. In the normal circumstances, I would accept that.

Am I right to say that you’re your worst critic so it’s pretty easy to deal with other people’s critiques if you being so hard on yourself? Where does that come from? Why are you so hard on yourself?

I didn’t know. This is something built on me.

[bctt tweet=”Oftentimes in life, the things that bring more problems are the most beneficial.” username=””]

Oftentimes in life, things that are a problem or painful also have a benefit. We were just talking about anxiety. On one hand, anxiety is good. It makes you vigilant. It makes you a planner. You get things done. There is a way to cope with it. On the other hand, it can be debilitating, it can be distracting, it can keep you up at night. That same thing is both good and bad. Your critical self, your inner critic, where’s the good? There must be some good in it.

You improve yourself and it helps you also to open your brain to others when they critique you. The bad side of it, if you do it over, you lose your confidence. I’m trying to manage it.

What are you reading, watching or listening to that you think is good? You had already mentioned some music at the outset. Is there anything that really stands out that you’re reading, watching or listening to?

INJ 31 | Supply Chain Management
Supply Chain Management: It’s pretty easy to deal with other people’s critique if you’re already hard on yourself.

 

Nothing specific. We watch movies every weekend with my wife.

Are you seeing something you really like?

There is an Italian movie. It’s very interesting. Some couples meet for a dinner and they decided to play a game. You put your phone and if anyone calls you, you put it on the speaker. Any message you get, you share it with everyone.

It sounds both like a funny and upsetting movie.

There’s nothing funny about it. It shows you the dark side of some of the people. You see the cheating. The phone at the end has all of your secrets. When I watched this with my wife at the end, she said to me, “Can we put our phones on the table?”

Do you know the name of that movie?

Perfect Strangers.

Last question, what is the secret to success that everybody knows but can’t seem to do?

Hard work. It is easy to talk about things. It’s very tough when you make it. It’s not one thing at the end. This must be a combination of many things. You have to have a vision. You have to have a high expectation. You work hard towards it to inspire people around you. The key is if you have only one thing, it’s hard work.

That is such a huge thing because it’s just so hard to work hard. People want to enjoy their lives and we really weren’t made to sit in the chair for all these hours and stare at computer screens. Even the people who do the sexiest, most interesting work have to work hard. It’s just that we just see the outcome of it and we say that they’re naturally talented. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate you agreeing to do this. I know that this was an unusual request.

I really enjoyed it.

Thanks so much.

Thank you very much.

Resources mentioned:

About Faisal Al-Olayanis

INJ 31 | Supply Chain ManagementFaisal Al-Olayan is a supply chain management leader, with more than 16 years experiences in the industry. He is a director of Supply Chain Management for  a petrochemical company. He was voted the funniest student in my Marketing Management Executive MBA course for London Business School – Dubai.

 

 

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