Are Human Resources any different in the Middle East?

An interview with Johanna Glavander by Răzvan Dumitru

Human resources represent the core of the hospitality industry. Without people, like many other industries, the hospitality sector would lack the personal touch and attention that make our holidays memorable. For this weeks’ edition, we had a chat with Johanna Glavander: a Swedish alumna who graduated in 2009 in The Hague and acquired a great deal of knowledge in this domain. Let’s find out more about her!

Did you stick to a plan after graduating?

My dream started when I was just a teenager in Sweden. I had a vision for my life that implied living somewhere far from Sweden so at the age of 19, I took off! France was the first destination, where I Iived for one year, followed by one year in Germany and then on a cruise ship in the US & the Caribbean. Even before starting my studies at Hotelschool The Hague, at the age of 23, I knew that I wanted a lifestyle that implied travelling and going back to Sweden was not even in question.  I did my first practical internship in the Front Office of Hyatt Regency Dubai. I wanted to broaden my horizons and discover the Middle East. Throughout my studies, I worked in various jobs and departments with the aim to enlarge my experience and enrich my CV so that I would have as many opportunities as possible to choose from once it would be time to apply for my final internship. 

During my studies, it became clear to me that I wanted to work in HR. After some bumps along the way, I finally obtained my management internship at Starwood's Head Quarters in Brussels where I was working in HR for the African & Indian Ocean regional office. This opportunity started my HR journey and a seven-year collaboration with Starwood. 

How come that you decided to move to the UAE?

The first time that I moved to Dubai was in 2007 for my first internship. I wanted to put the third continent on my CV. What attracted me to Dubai was that hospitality is everywhere and the designs of the hotels and restaurants are new, out of the box, inspiring and indeed, very different than the usual designs found in Europe or the US.

The second time that I moved to Dubai, I had previously worked in a corporate office setting for 5 years and I felt the need for a change so I chose to work in HR for a hotel operation. I was not so motivated to work in a usual hotel in Europe. The idea of working where all the trends start seemed much more appealing. I convinced my husband that we should move and we looked into opportunities in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. I was very picky about what kind of job to pursue so it took some time to find what I was looking for but after one year and a half , in 2014, we moved to Dubai and I joined the pre-opening Sheraton Grand Hotel Dubai as Assistant Director of HR. I was one of the first ten people to join a team of more than 500 employees. Exciting times!

You have completed more than two internships throughout your career. Could you expand a bit on your internship journey and how important internships are for you? 

Internships are great! Besides the practical perspective that it provides you with, a practical internship enables people to see the theory put into practice. Moreover, my second internship at Starwood was an occasion to closely observe and experience the business environment. I strongly believe that I would not have obtained my first job there if I would not have had that experience in the corporate offices. I recommend keeping your options open as any experience is valuable and can play an important role later on in your journey even if you would never expect it.

When did you discover your passion for HR?

When I was younger, I even wanted to become a teacher! One of my dreams was to help people in solving their problems and help them to grow. I discovered this passion of mine while I was a student at Hotelschool The Hague! One of my favourite courses was Team Management Skills (TMS). Mr. Nierse was our teacher at that time and taught us how to analyse the performance of a team based on the social strengths and weaknesses of its members and many other psychological factors. The sensation created by those classes made me realise that I want to continue in this field and here I am years later still finding joy in it.

How did COVID impact your industry, in the Emirates? 

Unfortunately, my job was made redundant due to the pandemic. In the beginning, like many others, I did not imagine that this event would directly affect me or my career. I considered it something remote that will come to an end as soon as possible. However, I remember attending a UAE-wide Human Resources meeting during which the General Manager walked in and started to talk about COVID-19 and its implications. Later on, we found out that our colleagues in Abu Dhabi cancelled their annual party last minute because of the outbreak. In addition, the beginning of the next month was full of layoffs so it started to become more and more unpleasant. This experience represents one of the biggest challenges that I have faced throughout my career as we had to prepare the documents and help an unprecedented number of employees to make it home. When this happened, I spent the entire day in the office observing the travelling restrictions and their development from one hour to another, trying to get everyone home safely and conveniently. The overall morale of the employees and the uncertainty that everyone was experiencing was also part of the pressure.

In contrast, on a personal level, the pandemic brought me many good things. Actually, I consider the last year a blessing. This is because it was a year of pause and reflection which enabled us to take new paths or start doing things differently.

What achievement are you most proud of?   

I take very much pride in what I am currently doing! After losing my job, I remember typing my good-bye e-mail and thinking that in 10 years from now, I will look back and say: “That was the best thing that happened to me!” I think I did the right thing by constantly thinking that it is a positive change. Right after being laid off, I was offered other jobs, but I refused simply because it did not feel right. This experience taught me that I need to listen to my inner voice and pursuit what I really want to do.

To put it briefly, instead of going for another hotel job, I decided to turn towards entrepreneurship after a thorough reflection process. Coaching was always one of the activities that I was most passionate about regarding my job in HR. After having had the time to pause and reflect, I decided to set up my own coaching business, Peakus. I am still in the start-up phase but it has been a total change of mindset to start something on my own rather than continuing to climb the corporate ladder. I am very excited to see what the future holds!

What is your biggest failure?   

I think that I have been too nice throughout my career and I never really stood up for myself or pushed myself forward. For instance, I have never asked for a promotion or a raise although the line of work that I did was way above my title. I was always too nice and naive to think that someone will eventually appreciate me for my work.

Hence, the lesson is to value your work and be assertive enough to ask for what you deserve. Moreover, you should also ask yourself: “What do I want?” By answering that, the path will become clearer together with the steps that need to be taken. So, I recommend knowing what you want and why you want it.

As for the second part of the interview, we wanted to captivate the enthusiasm of this HR Specialist by asking more personal questions. Here is what we learned about Johanna:

What is your favourite book? 

The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. This book has had a great impact on me since the beginning of this year. It completely changed my morning routine.    

What is your favourite movie?   

Pretty Woman! I love romantic comedies and this one is my favourite.  

Are you a morning person or a night owl?  

Definitely a morning person! I wake up every day at five in the morning.  

How do you prepare yourself for a workday? What is your ritual?    

The tone that you set for the coming day depends on how you spend the first three hours of it. Having two young children, I used to wake up and start my day by hearing the classic “Mama!” shout from the other bedroom. The day would start in a rush and I would calm down only when I arrived in my office and took a deep breath. Now my routine completely changed, and I have a whole hour in the morning that I dedicate to myself during which I practice journaling, visualization of what I want to achieve and breathing exercises. This was a great game-changer for me!

What is your biggest dream in a few words?    

Financial freedom so that I continue the life that I have started and the ability to serve as many people as possible, to help them find out what they want, take control of their lives and live life on their own terms.

Name one thing on your bucket list.

I would love to go canoeing in Indonesia! It is a very remote destination which requires a couple of flights but I heard that it is totally worth it.

Name one thing you like to do in your free time.  

I love going to the gym and spending time outdoors! I lost 20 kilograms since March 2020. Having two kids and working full-time, I lost myself a bit but I am now very happy with the balance that I have found.

What is your favourite place to visit?    

I love Italy! I even got married in Tuscany because of my love for Italy.

What is your favourite thing about living in UAE?    

The first things that come to my mind are the wide variety of nationalities that you can find here, the fast pace of the city and the fact that culture intertwines with novelty. However, out of all the advantages of living here, I love the weather and the feeling that everything is possible!

What was your favourite thing about living in Sweden?  

In Sweden, I enjoy the calmness and the nature.