x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Courage under fire to coax out real-world potential

Workers seeking a professional edge are lining up to walk barefoot through burning coals. Is it worth the risk?

Executive image consultant Gloria Starr says body language can help people achieve their desired business objective.
Executive image consultant Gloria Starr says body language can help people achieve their desired business objective.

The bonfire has been reduced to a smouldering carpet of burning-hot coals.

More than 20 men and women have formed a tight circle around the pit, each staring into the heavy glow and contemplating the task that lies before them. A small band of drummers pound their instruments and chant into the night. Slowly, a young woman steps forward.

She stands in front of the coals and shifts her abaya nervously, willing herself to take that first step. But she remains frozen.

The agonising seconds drag on as the woman stares at her fiery path. She advances, stumbles and begins to walk away, but suddenly, a companion swoops in and takes her by the arm. Together, with heads held high, they both stride confidently over the coals.

Nabila Usman, 24, wasn't going to let her friend give up.

"I didn't want her to quit," she says.

"We're here because we can do whatever we want to do. I'm here because I need the courage to stop putting myself down. Courage is everything."

By the end of the night every person had triumphantly walked across the coals, without injury.

"I believe most of us are unaware that we're driven by certain beliefs," says Carol Talbot, a learning and development consultant with Matrix Training Solutions, who recently organised a fire-walk in Dubai.

"Sometimes we can sabotage our success. These reasons challenge our fears and limiting beliefs. Then you break through them."

The fire-walk was a surreal and impressive display, but this isn't the first time Ms Talbot has hosted this kind of event. Since 2005, she has held dozens of public and corporate fire-walks throughout the region. Last year, she arranged an 80-person event for General Electric in Dubai after a request by the company's managing director. In 2007, she organised her largest fire-walk so far for the Hilti Corporation, which featured three pits for more than 300 participants.

AXA Insurance, du, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Intercontinental Hotels Group are all local companies that have voluntarily walked the fire over the years. The Young President's Organisation, a global network of executives with more than 17,000 members, is also among Ms Talbot's clients.

But the flames, drums and coals are only secondary to the central idea behind the exercise, Ms Talbot says. Since she arrived in the UAE 20 years ago, she has made a business of coaching and developing individuals and executives to ensure they reach their maximum potential.

She believes that the money we earn and the growth we achieve in our careers are dependent on the intangibles - our image, our attitude and the will to succeed.

"These are people who are willing to invest in their development," Ms Talbot says.

"Most companies will also do this as a team event because it builds spirit. In these challenging times, more and more is expected of the average worker. The common thought is: 'I can't achieve that'. This is an action metaphor to create shifts and changes in life."

On this night, Ms Usman was determined to attend the fire-walk.

Held at the Polo and Equestrian Club near Motor City and Arabian Ranches in Dubai, Ms Usman and her friends got lost three times before they finally arrived at the event.

She says that 2010 has been a difficult year. In fact, Ms Usman admits that she had to borrow Dh495 from her father to cover the cost of the fire-walk.

She works for newzglobe.com, an online business and lifestyle magazine. But this job is just to pay the bills, she says. Her real passion lies in charitable work for the community - an ambition she hopes to develop into a full-time career.

In 2006, Ms Usman founded a recruitment-consulting business to help young professionals in the UAE find meaningful employment. With the help of training professionals, the consultancy ran workshops in Dubai, mostly pro bono, to educate and motivate clients.

As the financial crisis took hold, she says 2009 was her best year. "There were lots of people looking for jobs and with a little bit of a push and motivation, you could have employers and employees interact casually to help candidates find a job," she says. "So in that sense, it was a very fulfilling year for me."

The experience culminated in an awards ceremony she organised in co-operation with Kanoo Group, one of the largest independent conglomerates in the region.

Held on International Volunteers Day last November at The Shelter in Dubai, the company paid for 60 per cent of the event, which included awards, speakers and presentations. Ms Usman put up the remaining 40 per cent herself.

While the event proved a success, attended by more than 80 people, she says that several failed relationships and health problems caused her fortunes to wane. She suffered from a loss of confidence and self-esteem.

"I wouldn't be the person to ask for a raise, even if I deserved it," she says.

"I feel ashamed to ask for what I deserve. I need to fix my attitude towards life and everything I heard when people made me feel bad about myself."

With this in mind, Ms Usman arrived at the fire-walk on a mission. She walked across the coals an astounding seven times, and she plans to continue working with Ms Talbot to help achieve her goals.

Ms Talbot isn't the only consultant with an usual recipe for success. The intangibles are also of interest to Gloria Starr, a well-known image, etiquette and leadership coach, who was in Dubai for business this month.

During her career, she has worked with world leaders, celebrities, athletes, musicians and chief executives.

The personalities might change, but Ms Starr is hired because of one fundamental principle - image, etiquette and manners matter when it comes to earning potential and the ability to succeed. How to dress, how to eat, how to speak: these are all part of her intensive programme.

"The world is so casual," she says. "People drift through life in such a casual way. The world is desperately looking for leaders and this is often established by the words you choose, your manners and what you wear. You need an edge - and that's a level of precision."

Ms Starr isn't just available to the rich and famous. However, for personal one-on-one coaching, she charges between US$3,000 (Dh11,018) and $5,000 a day, which pales in comparison with the $12,000 to $20,000 she bills for corporate gatherings.

Sitting up straight on the edge of her seat at The Raffles Hotel in Dubai, she stirs her tea softly without clinking the sides of the cup and gently places it on the saucer. When she takes a sip, she makes sure to drink from the exact same location so her bright red lipstick doesn't appear in more one place.

"You want all the focus to be on the words spoken at a business meeting and avoid distractions," she says. "It's important to make the person of interest feel special, and extending them the appropriate amount of respect. If you can perfect your body language, you will dramatically improve your desired outcome."

Before sitting down to a meeting, if you are the host, Ms Starr recommends extending your arm widely to the seats to allow the inside of your wrist to be exposed. Smile politely and nod if they are speaking, showing that you are "assimilating" their words. Ensure that your business card is uncreased and blemish-free and, after receiving someone's card, never place it in your pocket while in their presence. Instead, keep it held in front of you until it's appropriate to do so. These gestures establish goodwill and trust.

Ms Starr says at meetings, there is often a "power seat" that you should immediately identify. Sometimes this is at the head of the table. At other times, it's simply the chair that affords you the greatest exposure and view in the room. It's also preferable, she says, to have the sun at your back.

Conversation is when etiquette becomes especially important. Apart from good posture, Ms Starr says how we speak can drastically determine success. During meetings or interviews, try using words with two, three or four syllables, as you will sound more articulated and educated. At the same time, never use words most people don't understand. And at all costs, do not use slang and "filler words" such as "huh", "what" and "eh".

Finally, Ms Starr arrives at the topic of clothes, or what she calls "visual credibility".

Ms Starr says not everyone can afford designer labels or to keep up with the latest trends. Nevertheless, for those who wish to improve their earning potential, secure that business deal or advance in their field, it certainly helps to look good.

"Clothes cover 90 per cent of the body," she says. "People make judgments very quickly."

For a polished image on a budget, she recommends quality over quantity.

Across from Ms Starr sits one of her latest students, who saved for months to buy a designer outfit and watch. Meanwhile, her light purple eyeshadow matches her business suit.

"I know it's a big investment," says the student, who has paid more than $8,500 for a five-day programme in Dubai to become a certified image consultant. "But I'm passionate about this business and promoting a positive image. I want to help people look and be successful."

The student, who wished to remain anonymous, considers what she wears to also be an investment in her career. She plans to leave her job at an engineering firm to pursue her own image consultancy full time.

Ms Starr also runs a series of courses geared towards the corporate image, including executive finishing school, executive coaching, dealing with stress and establishing leadership.

Back at the fire-walk, Muneer Samnani is also focusing on his leadership skills. He has been working with Ms Talbot since March and tonight, with a rake in his hand, he smooths out the coals as the participants prepare for the final round.

As a teacher and trainer for youth at the Aga Khan Development Network, an NGO that works in 25 countries in areas such as health, education and rural development, Mr Samnani says he often looks for new ways to inspire his students.

"I want to eliminate my negative emotions," says Mr Samani, who arrived in the UAE six years ago from India. "If you understand the language of the mind, I believe you can achieve your goals. Now I want to teach these techniques to my youth."

As he finishes raking, Ms Talbot signals for the band to stop drumming and quietly signals the fire-walkers to huddle closer around the pit. She says everyone - if they wish - should walk across the coals again. But this time, they should shout a word that means something to them.

Ms Usman immediately takes her place at the front of the queue. "Courage!" she yells, striding across the glowing coals.

Her timid friend follows, but this time, on her own. "I can make my own decisions!" she declares.

Ms Talbot echoes the words back at them. She is pleased with her students.

"We get some incredible people who have the nerve and guts to come to this event," she says. "If you're not growing you're dying. And I know what side I want to be on."