Oct 232013

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“What do African employers really want – local or international expertise?” Although phrased in many ways, this was the most recurring question received, following my last article – and the best African employer to work for in 2014 is…. Thanks to everyone who contacted me via LinkedIn, Google +, Twitter and the Contact Page of this website.

An analysis of all the questions received, show that a good number of locally and internationally based professionals are not quite sure of what companies look for when they recruit roles across their businesses. Interestingly, while some locally based professionals feel overlooked in recruitment processes by African companies even when they believe they have relevant expertise, some internationally based professionals on the other hand, feel they are given less preference because of their distance from the “action-spot”.

Each group feels somewhat marginalised. But is this the real situation on-the-ground? What are employers actually thinking? Do they really have a favourite group? If so, which? Unfortunately, there is no straight forward answer to any of these questions. However, there is an interesting trend I would like us to explore…

Despite the abundance of human resources in Africa, we have in the past struggled and are still struggling with the issue of skills shortage in specific countries, industries and functions. Previously, companies were happy to resolve this problem by hiring expatriates. After a while, it became clear that in many cases, this did not work. In fact, in some situations, bigger problems came about. Many expatriates struggled to do business locally, causing significant corporate losses. Some also failed to integrate into the local environment and with local employees, resulting in corporate tension.

Of course there were many successful cases of expatriate hires, but it became increasingly evident that a more sustainable approach was needed to deal with this issue. Many companies refocused their plans, aligning them to ensuring the transfer of skills from expatriates to local employees. But skills transfer takes time and something else needed to be done in the interim.

The focus shifted particularly in the last decade to hiring very experienced internationally-based Africans looking to return to their countries and regions of origin. This was seen as a particularly good corporate move as it meant companies had less to worry about high expatriate remuneration packages, visa issues, long term location commitment as well as government local content and localisation policies. But this on its own did not resolve all of the problems, as a significant number of Africans living in foreign countries had lost touch with their roots and the realities of the African environment by the time they were hired.

Like some expatriates, some “returnees” struggled integrating with local employees and understanding how to effectively do business. Unlike many expatriates, some were able to knock at business doors, but unfortunately not walk through them.

On the flip side, there were many “returnees” that brought with them, wealth of experience. They were able to work with local employees in efficient and productive ways, succeeding in their roles and transforming their businesses. These professionals where the lucky ones, who either knew what it took to adapt their skills to a different environment or had local colleagues ready for the “right” type of change. With these successes not withstanding, executives of companies knew that more needed to be done.

In the last couple of years, some forward-thinking companies have once again adjusted their recruitment approach. They have carefully analysed the different issues faced over time and found that:

  • They need local expertise more than they initially thought they did. Local employees are born in their environments, grow up in their environments and generally know what works and what doesn’t.  They understand the cultures and appropriate ways to do businesses, how to open doors, how to walk through them, how to negotiate the best deals, how to …. it is endless.  It is a well known fact that the more local a company is, the more it is embraced by the people. This explains why some multinationals keep local company names after a takeover or merger.
  • There is stiff competition in many African core industries, especially with the recent economic growth and investment in the continent.  Professionals in the commercial and other functional areas of businesses are increasingly aware that they need to connect more with their local customers or lose out to competitors. It is no surprise that many adverts and sponsorships are more “African” today than they were ten years ago. Customers feel more attached to what they know, so it makes sense for companies to employ people who have this understanding.
  • They need international expertise as well. While local employees may have lots of knowledge that their international counterparts do not have, some businesses need specific skills to take them to the next level of their corporate growth. Unfortunately in some African countries, especially when an industry is in its infancy, there may be challenges finding some of the relevant skills locally.
  • To address it, more than ever, companies are sponsoring promising employees to other countries for further education or transferring them to international operations with the aim of fast tracking their expertise. This is particularly so for highly technical industries such as the Oil and Gas sector.
  • Most importantly they need the perfect blend of “local and international”. Companies are now acknowledging the need for both local and international expertise and as a result,  adopting a careful blend of both in their hiring activities. This explains the recent interest by many companies in hiring only professionals with local and international understanding.

As a Recruiter in the last two years particularly, a lot of my clients have indicated clearly during anew role briefing that they would only consider candidates who can demonstrate both local and international experience. This is a topic I will elaborate on in another article.

The world has become a global village with interactions from every corner only imagined a couple of years ago. For any corporate entity to survive and effectively compete, regardless of how remote it is, it needs an equal measure of local appreciation and international exposure.

So what do African employers really want now?

In simple terms, employers are not only seeking early, mid and senior level professionals with relevant technical expertise. They are also increasingly keen to hire people who understand how their local environments and the dynamics of the international environment interact and affect their operations and vice versa. To them, this is the new basis for many strategic decisions.

My thoughts:

Employers should continue paying great attention to skills transfer, but not just the usual foreign to local transfer, but also local to foreign transfer. This way, both locally based employees and “returnees” or expatriates are better equipped to face their corporate challenges and that of their immediate and international environments.

Oct 092013
And the best company to work for in 2014 is

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It is that time of the year when Africans like professionals from other parts of the world, start seriously assessing their work activities for 2013 and making plans for 2014.

As part of the process, we reflect on the goals we set out to achieve in January, what we were successful at, what we failed at and what we are currently doing. We compare our thoughts and give ourselves the push to accomplish as much as possible in the remaining weeks of the year.

In all of my years of recruiting into the African market, this is the time I receive the highest number of job queries, from locally and internationally based Africans alike. One of the most popular questions I get asked is “what is the best company to work for in ABC industry or XYZ region”. My new candidates are always surprised when I respond by asking two questions – “what is your expertise and what are you looking for?”

Candidates generally expect that because of my recruitment reach across Africa, I will immediately give them a short or long list of potential employers to target, possibly across multiple industries. This is not how recruitment, at least good recruitment works. The process should be the other way round, in this order:

  • What is the candidate’s expertise?
  • What is the candidate’s interest and
  • What companies should the candidate target?

As a Recruiter, it is important for me to first understand what a candidate has done, where they are at professionally, what they are looking for and why, before suggesting companies they should focus on. This information provides me with the tool I need to give the most appropriate industry and regional information.

Interestingly, I have similar conversations with my clients. I try to understand what they have done as well as their current and future plans. In doing so, I am able to figure out where their immediate and future resourcing needs are and the sort of professionals needed to take them to the next level.

No two companies are at the same stage of corporate growth. Structures and operations are often different, even with direct competitors. As a Recruiter, part of my responsibility is to understand these differences and map out strategies for identifying the best talent  my clients need at all times and for all opportunities. Some times, I have a shortlist before the end of a client discussion, partly because I have built relationships with many professionals over the last six years, understand their strengths (and weaknesses) as well as know the sort of opportunities they seek.

One of my colleagues describes a Recruiter’s brain as a real-time processor. When I respond to a candidate’s question with my questions and get the responses I need, I immediately process the information, eliminating companies and opportunities that may not be relevant to the candidate and automatically creating the short or long list they so desire. In addition to specific company information, Recruiters have general market knowledge and sometimes are able to point candidates in the right direction when they can’t help.

So what is the best African company to work for in 2014?

Ventures Africa, Top Employers Institute and other organisations have their list for 2013 and will probably have for 2014. Selected companies are assessed based on specific criteria and a list drawn based on how well they meet these criteria. These lists can serve as useful guides to job seekers. However, ultimately, the best determinant is a combination of:

  • A candidate’s situation – expertise & professional interest and
  • A company’s situation – current plans & future strategic goals.

The closer the match, the better…

I strongly believe this because I have seen candidates who are leaders in their disciplines and can almost pick any job they want, choose to work for companies that some describe as “bad places to work”. To some of these candidates, what makes a company a “bad place to work” is the same thing that drives them to seek a career opportunity there. They are driven by the fact that they have the expertise needed to make the right changes and turn things around. They are hungry to make significant positive changes. That is what motivates them.

Candidates should take it upon themselves to self-assess. Understand their strength, weaknesses and interests, then use available resources (online, professional networks and Recruiters) to research information about companies that are walking in the same direction as they are and want the same things they do. Only professionals who can combine all of these harmoniously, will know the best African company to work for in 2014.