This opinion piece is based on the conversation between Ms. Najlaa Al-Sager, Head of Talent Management at NBK, and Mr. Ohanes Makdissian, Ms. Jamila Al-Dakny and Mr. Shashi Shankar Ghosh from KPMG in Kuwait.


The NBK RISE program is an NBK Group Inclusion and Diversity initiative that aims to increase women representation in higher leadership roles in the business sector. It is founded by Ms. Shaikha Al-Bahar, Group Deputy CEO — National Bank of Kuwait, and co-created by Ms. Najlaa Al-Sager, Head of Talent Management at NBK, and Alia Abu El Fath, Head of Corporate Communications Global Wealth Management at NBK.


On 14 May 2023, Kuwait Times, a local English daily in Kuwait, wrote the following headline: "NBK RISE, a cross-border success story, concludes its inaugural edition," marking the completion of the first edition of an ambitious leadership program, which took years of planning and involved multiple stakeholders.

But what does it take to implement an initiative of this stature?

A few months ago, away from the limelight, we spoke about NBK RISE with Ms. Najlaa Al-Sager, Head of Talent Management at the National Bank of Kuwait (NBK), who is a co-creator and a key figure behind the program. Our questions focused on the mechanics of NBK RISE, the motivation behind it, and the HR function’s role in it.

While preparing for this conversation, we read everything we could find on NBK RISE. Our research led to two specific questions: (a) how does this program differ from any other training program available? and (b) what was the formula to convince multiple organizations to be part of it?

Ms. Al-Sager wanted us to understand the context that became the cornerstone of this program. "Around the time of the launch, we had a 45:55 female-to-male ratio in terms of workforce. And as you went up to the managerial levels, this ratio became 30:70, which was still quite good. However, on the executive level, it was 16%. This analysis is where we said we want to increase the leadership bench in terms of diversification and have more female leaders," she said.

But the concern around low female representation in executive roles did not emerge overnight for NBK, nor is it that NBK did not make any efforts to address the issue in the past. The truth of the matter is that the success of NBK’s previous programs was scattered, and the firm needed a concrete vision that would help them push the best talents to the top of the ladder.

Every successful movement needs a face. A leader, if need be, can move mountains, and NBK RISE was no less.

Enter Ms. Shaikha K. Al-Bahar. Recently named by Forbes as a top businesswoman in the Middle East, she is a known figure in Kuwait and the GCC countries, and a role model for generations of women in the region. She is a strong female leader with decades of experience in the Financial Services sector.

"Obviously, the main supporter of the NBK RISE program is Ms. Shaikha K. Al-Bahar. The fact that Ms. Shaikha is endorsing this makes it different. She was heavily involved in designing the program, selecting the participants, and was personally in contact with the candidates,” said Ms. Al-Sager.

The NBK RISE program is 10- to 12-month long, with the Group Human Resources at NBK doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in terms of its design and implementation. The program has four modules that have been created in partnership with top-tier business schools and educational partners, such as INSEAD, Franklin Covey, and IE Business School, and vary from technical and behavioral to people, leadership and strategic skills. It is a holistic program that helps you chart your leadership journey and offers peer-to-peer and group coaching, along with the opportunity to work with external coaches and mentors from NBK. The program, which is created by women, for women, fosters a community of women leaders who provide technical, strategic and moral support to one another.

“We have tackled every aspect that we wanted to develop in the candidates,” she added. 

The selected candidates are already in senior positions in their organizational chain. Therefore, the program is customized based on the needs of the candidates. Ms. Al-Sager herself is part of the program.

"I had to put on two hats — I was a co-creator and designer of the program, and now a participant. This dual role gives me an insight into what is working, what we need to change for the next cohort, what could be different, what should have come before, and what should come after. This allows us, together with the Group Human Resources, to ensure that the program is running as per its design and that all the actionable steps are implemented,” said Ms. Al-Sager.

What sets this program apart lies in the fact that it is not limited to NBK. The organization has commitments from multiple organizations such as Al-Shaya, Saudi Telecom (STC), Burgan Bank, Commercial Bank of Kuwait, and EQUATE. Each of the abovementioned organizations has nominated candidates for the program.

“The candidates were selected based on their answers to a questionnaire and a motivational video. Ms. Shaikha was responsible for deciding which candidates got to be on the program. She scanned all the applications and videos and chose ten from NBK Kuwait, six from our international locations, and five from external companies," added Ms. Al-Sager.

Every participating organization has pledged to increase female leaders. Therefore, the success of this cohort is measured in terms of KPIs, which are fluid in nature.

"If I see these candidates advancing to higher roles in the next five years, then that would also be another KPI of success for us. And a great thing is that these female leaders are now champions for the program. They will be role models for the upcoming cohorts. They have already started talking about this initiative with their Managements and their organizations, which is a true return on investment,” she said.

Looking back at the article from the Kuwait Times and comparing it to our conversation with Ms. Al-Sager, we realize that the HR function at NBK took a vision and brought it to reality. While the world might only see the last bit of the program, we were among the lucky few who got a deeper insight into the efforts made behind the scenes and understood how a driven HR function, supported by committed leadership, can deliver extraordinary results.



Get in touch

Connect with us