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Sameh Sabry: The Work-Life Balance

by Perihan El Etreby

Work, Achievements, Challenges, Social Life, Family, Sports, Traveling & More

An Interview with Sameh Sabry, Senior Vice President – Managing Director of Wintershall DEA

HE Magazine had the pleasure to have a very interesting and inspiring chat with one of the most influential figures in the Oil & Gas field, Sameh Sabry, Senior Vice President – Managing Director of Wintershall DEA.

We started it with a GAME!

“Introduce yourself” might be one of the most important questions and the typical questions that you get always asked in every interview. And since we know that it might get a little bit boring, we will make it a bit more interesting and turn it into an “Introduction Game”. So, it is a game where we will swap the roles this time. So, I’m going to give out some facts about you and you’re going to say whether they are true or not. Ready?

You’ve been Senior Vice President- Managing Director of Wintershall DEA for 2 years & 8 months now. 

Well, let me count the years, I started in mid-2018, so actually, it has been 3 years and 4 months.

You were born in March. This means that you’re a Pisces. 

Yes!! Even though I don’t necessarily believe in horoscopes, I definitely fit the common personality traits of a Pisces. Emotional, passionate and very adaptable!

You’re married and have two daughters. 

I married at an early age; 20 years ago, and my daughters are my sweethearts; Salma is 16 years and Hana is 12 years!

You have two Master’s degrees, one in business administration and another in petroleum engineering. 

Yes and no. I am a holder of an MBA degree, but so far, I am still working on acquiring my Master’s in Petroleum Engineering.

You have been in the petroleum field for almost 21 years now. 

Correct. I have started with the Downstream business (Fuel stations) in ExxonMobil, and then Chevron, and then moved to Upstream (Exploration and production) since 2008.

You have started your career with Exxon Mobil. 

Yes, and it was a great school! I learned there to have full ownership of what I do and to be always ready to perform regardless of the time, pressure, or how stressful the situation could be!

You worked in Germany for 4 years. Tell us more about your position and the transition phase. 

I worked in Germany two times on different assignments for different positions. The first role I had was from 2012 to 2014 when I was the Commercial Manager for Europe. It was quite challenging but also exciting to be responsible for our commercial activities in Europe. I learned a lot during the transition phase, specifically, on cultural differences and how to make the best use of my own background and experience to serve the business in another region. 

You’ve worked in Algeria for one year. Tell us more about your position and life experience there. 

In 2017, I have stepped up to the Country Manager level, and was assigned to run our activities in Algeria. This was a very successful assignment, where I have managed -in a relatively short time- to support the start-up of our gas production in Algeria and managed to establish excellent relationships with the Algerian authorities. This allowed us to extend our cooperation further. Algeria is an amazing country, both from personal and professional perspectives. It has a great potential for further Oil & Gas investments as well as an amazing pool of experienced labor and its nature is fascinating.

You’ve joined the EOG Technical Committee. Tell us more about the committee and your role in it. 

Once I was sent back to Egypt at the end of 2018, I was very keen to support the Oil & Gas industry in Egypt as a whole, beyond the individual interests of my company, Wintershall Dea. Joining as a member and then as the Chairman of the Egypt Oil & Gas Committee allowed me to help organize the efforts of the active International Oil & Gas companies to support the development and modernization program of the Egyptian Oil & Gas sector.

You like traveling a lot. 

In my view, the best way to spend your money is on new experiences; there is nothing better than experiencing new countries and cultures. My wife and I have this great passion for traveling. We have traveled to more than 20 countries so far, in Europe, America, Africa and Asia. Our next target is to visit South America and to explore its rich culture and amazing nature.

You’re passionate about sports. 

Well, I am addicted to sports! For me, doing sports is not only about maintaining good health and physique. But more importantly, I found in sports the best stress relief mechanism one could have. I vent out work stresses while working out and it is by far the most enjoyable time in my weekly routine. I extended my passion for sports from the Gym to outdoor activities. In particular, water sports, like rowing, wind and kite surfing, and wakeboarding. I do horseback riding, as well as gymnastics. I also participate in many of the endurance races organized in Egypt, like for example, the world-famous “Tough Mudders” race. 

There are not many people in your position at your age. Can you talk us through what it is like to be younger in a VP role?

Well, I am sure there are others in their early 40s holding similar executive positions in many industries. Nevertheless, this might be less likely in the Oil & Gas industry, where a lot of emphasis is still put on age and years of experience as criteria for Country Management roles. However, Wintershall Dea’s culture is more focused on selecting the right calibers for similar roles, based on their leadership and technical skills regardless of age, nationality or background. In general, I believe being younger comes along with more appetite to challenge the norm, be more creative, explore new ways of working. However, this has to be practiced with care not to shake the organisation too much beyond what really adds value.

What challenges have you faced in your journey towards a senior management position and how have you tackled them? 

The first challenge was to not get influenced by those negative voices who were questioning how far an Egyptian professional can go in the career ladder of an International Oil & Gas company. The second challenge was to continuously work on developing my skills & knowledge to be able to assume more responsibilities. But besides challenges, I was also keen to enjoy this journey -so far- because it also brought opportunities to work with different cultures, bond with some great colleagues and enjoy the feelings of fulfillment every time we achieve success. 

Tell us about your journey living in different countries with different cultures like the European culture of Germany, the Middle Eastern culture of Algeria, and then, of course, Egypt. You must have had many challenges on personal and professional levels. How did this make you grow, and affect you in your life and career?

Well, I have to admit that living in different cultures was both challenging but also enlightening. At first, you start with the assumption that you are fully aware of cultural differences because of visiting a place for many many years. Then you realize that living rather than just visiting, trying to blend as one of the team rather than just being the guest of the day, are totally different things. For example, I do remember an incident back in 2013, when myself and my German team received some negative news. My reaction, as a typical Egyptian, moved fast from feeling shocked to being sarcastic about the whole situation. Sarcasm and joking about our failures or miseries have always been a typical Egyptian way to embrace negative news and try to reduce its impact on one’s mood. However, this reaction was not welcomed at all by my German colleagues, who took a longer time in absorbing the news, using rather silence and careful thinking as a way of accepting negative news.

There is this trend of “follow your passion” and “quit the 5 to 9 boring working hours and routine, and start your own business”. This is certainly interesting and very encouraging for young people and even adults who once thought that it’s too late to do what they really want. But from another perspective, there’s another segment that we’ve been neglecting for a while; those people who are looking forward to being in managerial and senior positions in big companies and multinationals. So, when young people start small and dream to grow bigger, then they listen to something like that, they just lose hope and they feel like maybe they’re choosing the wrong path. So, first, what is your opinion regarding this controversial topic? And have you’ve ever been in this position of doubting whether you’re on the right track?

Very simple, there is no single recipe for career success! Everyone has to first identify his/her main strengths and see where his/her passion is and then decide whether a corporate job or a private business. For me, my father and most of my family members have their own business, and I doubted myself many times throughout my career. However, I always found my main strength was the ability to lead multi-disciplinary activities, also, I’ve always felt that materiality makes a big difference in my self-fulfillment. And both aspects are better practiced in multinationals and big companies. However, working for similar companies requires a high level of discipline and consistency. Some others may prefer a less formal career life and more freedom to move. 

Did your parents affect any of your decisions?

My parents raised me to be persistent but not stubborn, ambitious but not pushy, flexible but still disciplined and smart rather than just hard-worker. All these great personal traits helped me a lot in my career. They are still my best career advisors and the first people - alongside my wife - with whom I check my next move. They are my backbone and my biggest fans! God bless them both! 

What is a typical mid-week day in the life of a Vice President?

As you can imagine, my schedule is quite busy all through the week, mostly with follow-up meetings with my teams, external meetings with stakeholders as well as reporting tasks with the company board or the relevant headquarters units. Still, I manage every now and then to book some time to meet more junior colleagues from my team, those who I might not have the chance to directly meet in everyday business. I enjoy those meetings the most because I get to receive some real feedback and great suggestions from colleagues who don’t directly report to me. This keeps me grounded and more down-to-earth. In the evenings, I always try to visit the gym at least twice per week. 

What about the weekend?

For me, the weekend is all about family, sports and fun! Unless there is a work emergency, I avoid working on the weekend whatever it takes. I am always keen to meet my parents, spend time with the family, meet friends and do some good sports!

How do you keep the work-life balance? Any tips?

After decades of being a workaholic, I decided after turning 40 to re-balance my life. It sounds a little bit late but better late than never. I have always been keen on my social life with family and friends. I have always been athletic but was more practicing quick indoor-gym workouts in rushed sessions during the evenings of very busy work days. I decided to dedicate more time to traveling, widening the circle of my friends and practicing outdoor sports. I learned to work more smarter than harder. I have to admit this is more manageable in this stage of my career, however, I could have done that at least 10 years ago and my life would have been happier.

What was your first salary and what did you do with it?

Okay that’s embarrassing! My first salary was quite high with the standards of 2001 when I started my career. It was 3000 EGP! I remember I bought a small gift for my mom as an appreciation for all her support and I bought myself some formal outfits to cope with the needs of the job!

Best advice you received from an adult when you were younger?

Best advice was always from my dad, he always said “Never Give up! Try... try... try… till you die!” Persistence comes in my genes as you see!

Best game you play with your daughters?

My daughters; Salma, 16 years, and Hana, 12 years are my best friends! We love traveling together, watching shows & movies together, but our favorite hobby is riding bicycles together. Salma is my gym buddy as well! She is joining me now in many of my sports activities. Hana is the best card player I met, she is brilliant at board games and simply unbeatable! 

What are your hobbies?

Travelling, reading, movies, photography, sports... sports and sports!

What’s your favorite sport? And have you’ve been part of a team when you were a kid?

My biggest mistake during my childhood was not focusing on a specific sport. I was jumping from one to the next. I did a lot of swimming, basketball, karate, handball, etc. Now I’m obsessed with all water sports, like rowing, wind and kite surfing, wakeboarding and others.

Do you like jokes? The Egyptian jokes are really going places.

Definitely! I always use jokes and humor in leading my teams. Sometimes a joke is the easiest way to deliver a message. Jokes are unforgettable and quite impactful.

You’re a supporter of women’s rights and women’s issues. Is this because of your position and you do that from an organizational/professional aspect? Or does it have a more personal cause; it’s coming from a father’s perspective, for example?

Being a father of two daughters, raised by a mother, a sister, and supported by a wife who had great careers have definitely made supporting women not only an ethical belief but rather a personal cause for me. For Wintershall Dea , diversity is seen as a need and a target. Diversity ensures equal opportunity for everyone to add value to the organization regardless of their gender or background. This adds value to the organization and allows it to enhance its performance and maximize its outputs.

Technology has been affecting all industries. How is digitization taking place in the gas and oil field?

I think we have all come to recognize that digitalization is not a trend. It is an essential part of how the Oil & Gas sector must operate. The Oil & Gas industry has always embraced technology, and digital solutions, to always update its operating landscape, improve productivity, increase efficiency, as well as reduce costs! 

At Wintershall Dea, we are lucky to be a part of a global business that is operating worldwide, with a history of ‘Made in Germany’ engineering excellence, and that today applies to software engineering just as it does to traditional Oil & Gas engineering. 

We have an ambitious digitalization program that is seeking to get the most value out of our data and is applying some clever digital solutions, like an artificial intelligence-powered tool that is helping our exploration team, and that we are using here in Egypt.

What advice do you have for young people?

I advise younger people to always self-reflect, never settle for comfort zones, to always challenge themselves to achieve more, never make assumptions before testing them, and most importantly, to live a balanced life; work alone is not enough and social life alone is not as well. Balance is the real success!

Art Direction: Nour El-Din Selim

Photography: Gearbox Studios Jr

Interview by: Perihan El-Etreby

Location: RTJ Kempinski at Madinaty Golf Club