Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Debbie Stanford-Kristiansen, and I'm the CEO of Novo Cinemas. I've been here in Dubai for the last seven years. Before moving into the entertainment industry, I worked in tourism and hospitality, which I entered in my early twenties in Brighton, England. I was part of the team that launched the business tourism show in Geneva, Switzerland called EIBTM. Years later, I was part of the leadership team who launched IMEX in Frankfurt, Germany.
I started my career as an organising executive, moved into sales and marketing, and worked my way up to global VP before I left. I loved what I did; it was amazing.
My journey in the Middle East started in 2005, when I moved to Bahrain with my husband Jacob, my daughter Georgia, who was 9 at the time and our son Luca, who was just 3 months old. I met my husband in early 2004. My move to Bahrain was to help establish the Bahrain Exhibition and Convention Authority.
I reflected on what you can achieve in a short space of time. It has been a wonderful journey since moving to the Middle East back in 2005. When I relocated to Dubai, I was in my 40's, and thinking if I don't do it, I'll regret it, so just do it and if it doesn't work out, it doesn't matter.
What is your definition of success?
Success is being able to bring positive change and impact to the lives of others. For me, it's always about the ability to help individuals or communities. That's how I measure success.
What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about my job, my family, and my friends. As I've grown and matured, my passion for wanting to help others also grew. As such, I've been doing a lot of volunteering for mentorship programmes and speaking at events, giving hope and inspiration to others, as well as sharing my life's journey, hoping that it will resonate with somebody else.
With mentorship, I'm always emphasising that it's important to have someone who will bring out the champion in you, support and encourage you, but also to challenge you to be the best that you can be. I can say that with truth because I know from experience that you just need someone to give you that little push for you to step outside of your comfort zone, bloom and flourish as a person.
Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful CEO?
It's about seizing opportunities when they come your way; being not afraid to jump in, even if it doesn't work out. When you're given an opportunity, there's always a reason for that. It's your life story, and you have different chapters within your book. Each chapter is a different opportunity that leads to something else.
I was very fortunate to have had a great mentor who was my boss at the time, who really helped bring out that confidence in me. When I was in my early 20s, I really lacked self-confidence, but he saw that I had potential. He put me on the way to growth, to give back and to really develop. I owe a lot of my success to him and the opportunities that he's given me.
As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?
Since moving to the Middle East, I've had so many great opportunities. I've met company leaders who are strong men passionate about supporting women. I never faced a case of being denied a senior role because of my gender.
There was one occasion when an individual felt a little threatened by me. Unfortunately, it was a woman and not a man as many might have perceived. It makes me sad to think about that. She tried to put obstacles in my way, but I thought that truth will always prevail, and it did.
I'm a forgiving person, and I believe we need to support each other, especially us, women. There's room for everybody in this world.
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
Sometimes as women, we're our own worst enemies. We're able to talk ourselves out of opportunities and like to bring ourselves down. I would say, have self-belief, trust in who you are and your ability. Be passionate about what you do. Be prepared to work hard.
In this industry, I'd say we almost work 24/7, but it's because we're passionate about what we do. When you have a passion for something, give your everything. Be resilient. Don't be afraid to make mistakes because that's how you learn. Don't be afraid to take an opportunity when it comes your way. If you don't try, you will live with regret and wish you'd taken that opportunity. Lead with cause and purpose. Leave ego behind, there's no place for that.
How did mentors influence your life?
I was 23 or 24 when the managing director gave me an opportunity to grow. He moved me into sales and marketing under his leadership. He was giving a presentation in Amman, Jordan to around 300 travel professionals with the Ministry of Tourism. I prepared the presentation for him to deliver. Moments before he was due to go on stage, he said that things would be different that day and I would be the one presenting first, not him. I immediately began feeling sick because of nervousness.
I was not used to any kind of public speaking back then. He told me to breathe, calm down, find a spot at the end of the room and focus on that. He said that he would not put me in that position unless he believed in me. I didn't want to let him down because he'd done so much for me.
After getting off the stage, I remember him asking how I felt. I felt elated. He said that even though I'll get used to making presentations, I'll still have butterflies in my stomach and that's a good thing. It means that you're not overconfident, so you'll always be authentic in your delivery. I think that was definitely a pivotal moment for me, in my career, and I will never forget it.
Tell us about a time you had to deal with failure and how you dealt with it.
Prior to coming to Dubai, I was offered a role in Borneo, which sounded exciting. I got caught up in the moment. We packed up and left Bahrain. My husband said, "If this is something you want to do, we'll do it, I'll support you."
Within a few months, I realised I've made a very big mistake. It wasn't for me or for us as a family, and I felt incredibly filled with guilt. My husband said, "Don't live with regret; we made the decision together, and I support you."
The next six months were a little bit of a roller coaster because I had no idea what we were going to do or where we were going to go next. I ended up in Australia, then went back to the UK, and then back to the Middle East. Throughout that period, all of our belongings were moving from one container ship port to the next. We finally reunited with all of our belongings about eight months later back in Bahrain.
It was a very unsettling time in my life. I've learned that when you're making a decision, you must reflect on it and weigh up all the pros and cons. Take your time, and don't rush your decisions. Sometimes in life, it's not about making a bad decision or failing at something; it's how you bring yourself back from that and how you turn it around.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Believe in yourself because others believe in you, and they can see that you have the ability. Don't hold back and don't be scared.
I didn't think I was capable of achieving what I've achieved, but with someone as a mentor or support person: someone who will bring the champion in you, challenge and hold you accountable at the same time; and someone who will be your listening ear, you'll get there.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
The best piece of advice was given to me by my grandfather. He told me that whatever you do in life, make sure you give respect to everybody. Be authentic and be true to yourself. Never compromise on your values, who you are, and what you represent. I've tried to do that throughout my life, both in my personal and professional life.
If you were to write a book about yourself, what would you call it and why?
I haven't written a book yet, but I'm planning to write one with Nikki Williams, my best friend who I worked with for many years at EIBTM and IMEX. Nikki lives in England. We often talk about the trips we've been on together because we have been able to travel the world through work. I feel so thankful for those experiences. We've just got so many funny stories together.
We decided that when we write a book sharing our stories, it will be entitled Coast to Coast and Everything Else in Between because we have literally travelled the world. I think we've been around the world two or three times now, seeing amazing things and experiencing wonderful sights together. I'm not sure when we'll be able to write it, but at some point, I hope.
How do you look after your mental health?
I'm very conscious about what is happening every day. It started with the lockdown. One thing that we agreed on as a family is to maintain a routine because we're working from home and we're isolated from friends. We have breakfast together as a family, after which I'll come into the dining room, which I consider my office. My husband's ‘office' is in the kitchen. My son will go upstairs for his schooling through distance learning.
Our daughter is in Bahrain, and I haven't seen her since Christmas. It's been incredibly difficult for me as I have never been apart from her for this long. I'm very concerned about her mental health and work, so we make sure that we are pushing her to think positive.
I also calm my mind by walking along the beach, just gazing at the ocean. We'll go at 6:00 in the morning for an 8-kilometre walk. It's incredibly powerful. The sound of the waves is something special.
As a company, we make sure that we also have a daily connection with the team. Many of our cinema workers are far from home already. They're already far away from loved ones, which also puts a level of concern and worry in their minds. I don't want anybody left out. Everybody needs to call somebody, check on them, make sure they're okay. Kindness above everything else is important.
What’s that one quote you live by?
It's a quote by Archbishop Desmond Tutu who I was very fortunate to meet in South Africa. He was speaking at an event I went to, and one of the things he said was:
"Dream, dream and go for it"
It resonated with me over these years because he was such an incredible man, even with everything he'd been through in his life. He was probably one of the most positive and wonderful people I've ever met.