At SAP, Mohammed “Zak” Zakarni, EMBA '23, is the enterprise customer success partner for Aramco and Saudi Electricity Company. With over 15 years of international project management and consulting experience, he thought he knew a lot. The MIT Executive MBA program revealed knowledge gaps Zak didn’t know he had, challenged his assumptions, and transformed his approach to his work—and his future.
Like many MIT EMBA students, you came into the program with a wealth of knowledge and experience, but were surprised by what you didn’t know—and what you realized you had to unlearn. Can you expand on that?
Despite having significant knowledge and experience in business, I found there were areas I hadn’t explored thoroughly in my previous roles or education. This pushsed me to challenge my existing assumptions and practices. For example, I thought organizational renewal should be big and transformative, but learned driving small improvements on a longer time horizon can bring higher benefits and ensure a more successful transformation. This unlearning process involves being open to new perspectives, considering alternative approaches, and being receptive to feedback and constructive criticism.
The MIT EMBA strikes a balance between theory and practice. While I brought my practical experiences to the table, the program also emphasizes theoretical frameworks and cutting-edge research. The aim is to equip us with not only practical knowledge, but also the ability to apply rigorous analytical thinking and problem-solving techniques to complex business challenges. This integration of theory and practice was eye-opening for me. The models and frameworks used in Data, Models and Decisions, Systems Dynamics, Analytics Edge, Micro and Macro Economics, Global Strategy and Financial Management were game changers. The program’s focus on the higher-level aspects of leadership, like vision-setting and organizational change, was also transformative for me.
You've spent most of your career in the Saudi Arabian oil and gas industry, but during your first week of classes, you decided sustainability should become your priority. What inspired this shift?
I, like others, unconsciously harbored three dangerous assumptions: that Earth's resources were infinite, sustainable growth was a realistic concept, and my individual actions couldn't make a significant impact. In my first week, Professor John Sterman shattered these illusions. I came to realize Earth's resources are, indeed, finite, and in that pivotal moment, I had a profound shift in perspective. I understood that the sustainability of our planet was not a distant dream, but an urgent imperative. Sterman helped me see that sustainable growth was not only possible, but crucial for the well-being of future generations. Moreover, I realized I couldn't remain a passive observer. I discovered a profound sense of purpose in dedicating my life's work to sustainability. I now believe that every individual has a role to play and by joining forces, we can collectively create a more sustainable and resilient future for our planet.
You mentioned that working on case studies with fellow students from diverse industries, backgrounds, and cultures was a valuable part of your EMBA education. What did you take away from that experience?
Collaborating on real case studies exposed me to a diverse range of complex business challenges. With my classmates, I learned to approach problems from multiple angles and perspectives and think critically to identify innovative solutions. Working as part of a diverse team of peers proved instrumental in my growth as a manager, too. I now place great importance on creating an inclusive and open atmosphere in my team. Encouraging diverse viewpoints and facilitating effective communication creates a space where creativity and collaboration thrive.
Embracing a non-hierarchical approach has revolutionized the way I lead and manage my team, enabling me to tap into each individual’s full potential. The exposure to diverse perspectives has deeply influenced my approach to problem-solving and decision-making. I now seek to build diverse teams within my organization to harness a wider range of talents and viewpoints.
You value the fact that "MIT teaches you to be okay with ambiguity, to not have all the answers, and how to be comfortable with this." Why is this lesson so important to you and to future business executives?
Embracing ambiguity encourages a mindset of curiosity and exploration. It opens space for creative thinking and innovative solutions, freeing individuals from preconceived notions or rigid structures. This is especially crucial in industries requiring constant innovation to stay competitive.
The ability to be okay with ambiguity is a transformative and essential skill for individuals and business executives alike. It empowers them to navigate complexity, drive innovation, and lead effectively in a rapidly changing world. Embracing uncertainty isn’t a sign of weakness, but a powerful attribute empowering leaders to make better decisions, foster resilience, and create opportunities for success in the face of ambiguity.
During your EMBA, you continued to live in Saudi Arabia, work, and manage family repsonsibilities. How did you handle this situation…and was it worth it?
Throughout the 20-month program, I grappled with intense challenges, flying approximately 24 hours door-to-door every two weeks, juggling work demands after landing home on Sundays, and diving straight into the office Monday morning. The strain on my personal life was palpable, forgoing countless family moments and pushing through sleepless nights with calls and classes scheduled between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. due to time zone differences. Amidst this whirlwind, my wife and children's unwavering support and encouragement became my anchor; their belief in me made this arduous journey not only possible but deeply meaningful.
"If you're trying to find a purpose and leave a legacy, MIT is the place." This is how you summed up your EMBA experience. Looking ahead, what legacy will you leave?
The program emphasizes the importance of finding one's purpose and making a meaningful impact. It encouraged me to reflect on my values, passions, and long-term goals, igniting a sense of purpose and a desire to create a positive legacy through my work. My next step is focused on embracing sustainability as my guiding principle. I’m eager to apply my newfound understanding of sustainability practices and hone my leadership skills to drive positive change in the corporate world. I’m also mindful of the global perspective, open to opportunities that will allow me to work on international projects and engage with organizations worldwide. Ultimately, my goal is to become a visionary leader who advocates for sustainability in every facet of business. With the knowledge, skills, and purpose instilled in me during the MIT EMBA program, I’m confident I can leave a meaningful legacy of positive change in the world of business.