Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Arrives

For helping an energy giant achieve measurable success

Abdullah Seflan chose his employer before he even chose a profession. While he was still a teenager, energy giant Saudi Aramco agreed to pay for Seflan to attend college in the United States in exchange for five years of employment after graduation.  

Today, working on energy megaprojects is his calling card. But when he arrived at Virginia Tech University in 2007, his desire to lead projects was affirmed after managing a street festival.

“I loved the energy it brought me and the people around me, and I also loved the technical part—coordination, budgeting, timing, stakeholder management,” he says. “It just resonated with me.” 

Seflan is now part of Saudi Aramco’s enterprise project management office (PMO), which helped cut average project cycle times by 22 percent—and scored a nod as a finalist for the 2019 PMO of the Year Award. 

Here are four career planning tips he picked up en route:

Make it mission critical.

Establishing a mission statement for his career helps Seflan set clear goals and create a framework for achieving them. “Give yourself enough time to plan and document who you want to be, then align your vision with the strategies to bring it to life,” he says.

Find patterns worth repeating. 

PMOs are a treasure trove of information about what worked (and what didn’t) on past projects. Building a personal knowledge base can help uncover patterns. “All the mistakes you can learn from become a lessons-learned repository,” he says. “And the success stories, as well as the people you look up to, guide your best practices.” 

Track your personal KPIs.

Projects can veer off course in a variety of ways, from a slow drift to a single, cataclysmic event. Careers are no different. Seflan holds himself accountable by setting KPIs for career advancement and then tracking the metrics. “To achieve the most value out of your skills and investments, you have to apply that PMO concept of governance.”

Shifting course Is okay.

Blinders can lead to missed opportunities, so adapting plans is fine, Seflan says. “You have to ask questions: ‘What are the ramifications of that change?’ ‘How are your stakeholders and network affected?’ ‘What skill sets will you need to develop, and how much time will you need to invest in order to build those?’ If other opportunities seem to offer more value than your original plan, that’s when you issue a change order.”

Q&A: Abdullah Seflan on the Big Dig, the Middle East transformation and Steve Jobs

What project has most influenced you?

The construction of the Big Dig Project in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. With this one, everything that can go wrong, did go wrong. When the project was finally delivered, over budget and years after its original schedule, its value was deemed questionable by the people of Boston, and some still taste the sourness of the agony they had to go through during its construction. However, this project with all its challenges, is nothing short of an engineering wonder. Some project managers working on this megaproject spent their entire careers on constructing one of the world’s most complicated roads, highways and tunnels. The project management skills and knowledge developed during this project would be taught for years after that, creating one of the biggest depositories of lessons learned collected from a project.

What’s the most influential project you've worked on?

I was fortunate enough to work on a high complexity megaproject to deliver a gas processing facility that would supply the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 2.5 billion standard cubic feet of gas, which aimed to cover a great portion of the local energy demand. Working with so many stakeholders provided an opportunity to meet so many good people around the globe from different backgrounds and expertise. That introduced new to ways of thinking in a relatively short period of time.

What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?

Communication—the ability to understand when to communicate and when not to, and the level of details needed. Mastering the art and science of communication is absolutely essential to sustain project success as well as career progression.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

Being part of a project management coaching group. The Middle East as a region is going through a massive transformation, and projects are the main tool and enabler for this transformation. Being part of the few who possess project management knowledge puts me under the obligation to pass on this knowledge in every way I can to enable the men and women of this region to execute with excellence.

What is your mantra for leading projects?

The hard things are easy—it is the easy things that are really hard.

How are young people changing the world of projects now?

New connectivity, new channels of communication, desires to shift the working environment, and the digital era will open up new strategies to manage future projects. I foresee an increase in project agility and a fundamental shift enabled by the emerging tools and resources created with the new generation.

What famous or historic person would you want on your project team?

Steve Jobs. What struck me most was his ability to lead a team toward a common goal, even at the absence of its tangibility. His undeniable talent to foresee the future and draw vivid pictures for his team members created an environment powerful enough to venture into the unknown and manage it perfectly.