• Right to work

    There’s high-calibre talent in Africa, but one needs to know where to find it. Silke Colquhoun asks the experts
    Right to work

    The job offer comes out of the blue, via the company switchboard, your cellphone, LinkedIn or Facebook messenger – unsolicited, but not always unwelcome. If you are in a senior position, with a solid track record and leadership credentials, you may already have had a call. And if you happen to be a female black executive with a strong accounting background, you might even find yourself ‘hunted’ by several executive search firms (popularly called ‘headhunters’).

    For instance, there’s the company secretary of a medium-sized JSE-listed local firm, who fields an average of two such cold calls every month.

    ‘She has had offers doubling her current salary and told me: “These headhunters assume everybody wants to leave their job for more money, but they are wrong,”’ says Tinus Baard, managing director at Joburg-based executive search firm Baard & Partners. He explains that a successful headhunter needs to combine in-depth research with people skills, intuition and discretion to ‘entice a particular talent to consider a role change’.

    While financial incentives (a big salary and bonus) and wealth creation (shares in the company) can provide sufficient motivation for many professionals, the high-calibre talent in Africa also looks for factors such as improved work-life balance, a certain company culture and good corporate reputation.

    Under the radar

    The crux with recruitment in Africa is that many potential candidates are not actively seeking a new position and they would not respond to a job advert.

    ‘These men and women tend to be well nurtured in their current positions, which breeds corporate loyalty,’ explains Sarah Fitzgerald, managing director of UK-based recruitment specialist Executives in Africa, which has a large Africa-centred network. ‘The best African nationals often remain under the radar, unable to be accessed through advertising or from local recruitment firms working purely on a contingent basis. The result is a common misconception that “there’s no good talent in Africa”.’

    As such, she advises companies to take a ‘more aggressive and proactive approach’ to attract the best local professionals for new projects and expansion.

    A typical executive search campaign includes talent- or market mapping, before discreetly approaching suitable individuals at their workplace to identify those interested in a role change, and then shortlisting the top candidates.

    Mapping the market

    Talent mapping provides data and insight on the potential candidates within their specific market segment. ‘It’s an essential service to ensure that companies gain a sustained competitive advantage when it comes to talent sourcing and competitor insight,’ says Baard. More specifically, this includes information on competitor and market activity, working conditions and compensation of prospective candidates, and how employees are retained and prefer to be retained, all while helping companies identify talent gaps within their organisation.

    Executive search firm Jack Hammer, which is headquartered in Cape Town and serves large global investors (based in Europe, the UK and US), in addition to South African investors with operations in various African countries, says: ‘Our clients use talent maps to help answer questions such as: What does the market of diversity talent in South Africa look like for a specific role, and who are the top black (or female) leaders? Should we make an internal appointment, or is there a more suitable candidate out there? How do we create leadership succession? What does the market for African executive talent look like in the various regions and countries in Africa?’ 

    High-quality talent maps can be invaluable. But because it’s a resource- and time-intensive process, they can occasionally be ‘a colossal waste of time and money’ says Jack Hammer; the firm advises its clients to thoroughly assess upfront whether it’s the right option for their specific needs.

    ‘Companies need to really unpack – before starting their search – exactly what they understand in terms of what they seek in a new leader,’ says Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, CEO of Jack Hammer. ‘They need to take into consideration the mountains of proof that diversity in terms of race, gender, age and background are crucial for growth, providing a competitive edge, because it allows the company to think differently, respond to markets differently and evaluate things with fresh eyes, all the time.’

    Traditional hiring methodologies are ‘increasingly irrelevant in the face of a dramatically changed environment in 2018’, she says, cautioning companies of an over-reliance on psychometric testing (‘it’s helpful as a management tool, but not an exact science’), and too much emphasis on formal qualifications and not enough on interpersonal ‘soft skills’, empathy, critical thinking and problem-solving (‘qualifications are easy to measure and verify, but very often have almost no bearing on leadership success’).

    She further argues that companies that want to fill a senior vacancy should move away from formulating a brief that recruiters simply need to fill, and towards giving the search experts ownership of the hire. That way, they can truly explore the market and access candidates who may not fit a traditional brief, but can deliver in a role.

    Local is lekker

    There’s an ever-growing trend to source corporate leaders locally or from other African nations rather than hiring expats from Europe, Asia or America.

    ‘We’ve found that over the past couple of years, diasporas (candidates working outside of their home country) are much more willing to come back home, wanting to be part of the growth of Africa,’ says Danelle van der Merwe, a senior executive search associate at CA Global, which specialises in Africa recruitment. ‘We find that in Africa, people are more willing to look at new opportunities and to consider relocation.’

    Research by Jack Hammer confirms this. ‘Many of these leaders are currently working in multinationals around the world, and it is particularly these individuals who are in hot demand to fill key leadership roles in their home countries,’ reads the firm’s fourth The Africa Report, which analyses the top leadership of multinationals operating in the continent.

    ‘Local leaders are almost always in a better position with regards to under-standing the environment, having local networks and insights required to grow the business and build solid local teams, and having none of the risks associated with resettling in an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile environment,’ states the report. Around 75% of the surveyed executives are African nationals and 30% of expat leaders are from another African country or from the African diaspora.

    In South Africa, one of the challenges is ‘over-headhunting’, which means that particularly sought-after talent keeps moving from job to job, according to Baard. ‘This creates a situation where they are overpaid and start to have a bad track record, which tarnishes their reputation and makes companies hesitant to employ – or be able to afford – the said executive.’

    Headhunting firms are now acting as executive coaches and advisers to prevent professionals from making mistakes but advance their careers. All sides benefit when leaders stay longer to fulfil their mandate and create a legacy.

    The leadership landscape in numbers

    Leadership in African multinationals

    65% are locals

    35% are expats

    Executive teams comprise

    73% men

    27% women

    Key leadership roles

    90% men

    10% women


    84% have financial, commercial or engineering qualifications

    52% have postgraduate qualifications

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