Saad Al Barrak took over a loss-making computer firm as its chief executive when he was only 31 and turned its fortunes around. Image Credit: Supplied

An organisation is a group of people working together in an environment to realise shared objectives that are part of a broad vision — that is how companies and organisations have historically been defined.

However, in reality, a company "is a complex human environment in which individuals try to advance their personal agendas through organisational projects", according to Kuwaiti businessman Dr Saad Al Barrak, who led Kuwait's Mobile Telecommunication Company (MTC) to become a global conglomerate.

"They use their expertise to influence the rules and processes of the system being developed in order to enhance their positions and roles," Barrak writes in his 260-page autobiography, A Passion for Adventure, which could be described as a true reflection of the corporate culture in the Gulf where professionals from different parts of the world come and work together.

The chief executive's role ideally should be to seek ways to unlock human potential to improve creativity and performance and boost production that could lead to strengthening of the company's bottom line and enhance shareholder value, Barrak says. Within this environment, he adds, the CEO should be an arbitrator.

Barrak, an engineering graduate from the United States, worked his way up through the ranks to become the chief executive of a Kuwaiti computer firm at the age of 31 and turned the loss-making company into not only a profitable one but also expanded it into a regional business organisation amid extremely unfriendly conditions, such as the Iraq-Kuwait war.

In the meantime, he raised a family and completed his PhD before going on to join MTC. The rest is history. He gives the reader a journey down memory lane with a background of Kuwait, his family's roots, his education, career and success and the financial crisis of 2008-09 that ended it.

While taking us through the journey, he makes some interesting observations on organisation and employee behaviour that many readers could probably relate to. Such as: "About 99 per cent of the system failures were not due to technical reasons, but to social and political factors within an organisation," he says as he tries to explain the complex relationship between man and machine.

"Technology is deterministic. You can programme anything you like with machines so that they work together and deliver the information … But when you develop any kind of system, you take the modus operandi from the hearts and minds of people, and this tends to bring out their prejudices and biases, whether or not they are trying to consciously trying to advance their own agendas," he observes.

Despite these limitations, under his leadership, MTC expanded from a single-country operation with 500,000 subscribers to become a global conglomerate spreading to 23 territories under the rebranded identity — Zain — serving more than 72 million customers with a market capitalisation exceeding $32 billion in 2008, just before the financial crisis hit the GCC.

Barrak is not known as a legend in the Gulf's corporate world. However, his meteoric rise from a manager to CEO and then turning a national telecom company into a global entity in less than seven years speaks a lot about the man.

"The most effective way to manage is MBWA — or management by walking around," he writes. "The challenge is to grow a company to be a big company, yet still be able to manage it by walking around." As a CEO, his mantra was MBWA.

However, the subprime crisis in the US and the subsequent collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 that triggered the "mother of all recessions" took a heavy toll on the Gulf's corporates, including Zain, that eventually brought Barrak face to face with his mentor, Kuwaiti businessman Nasser Al Kharafi.

He explains the circumstances behind his decision to resign from Zain in February 2010.

A Passion for Adventure is a simple monologue, written in easy-to-understand English. This is a good read for all those who are interested in the complex world of business.

However, thrill-seekers will have to read it with patience as detailed descriptions of boring corporate and management issues affect the flow. One might struggle to continue or end up skipping pages.

Although the Gulf region has given birth to some enviable global corporations such as etisalat, Emirates, Kingdom Holdings, Rotana among many others, very little has been written about their successes.

Gulf CEOs rarely write, especially about themselves and their success stories. Books on corporate successes are rare, especially those written by corporate leaders. In that context, the publication of this book itself is an encouraging development.

Qatar Foundation has identified a good project in the form of this book. I am sure this is one of many projects to come that will reflect the successes of the region.

A Passion for AdventureBy Saad Al Barrak, Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 260 pages, £20