Recruiters set sights on continent’s scarce executives

With the best executives creamed off by international firms, finding the right candidates remains a challenge for companies in Africa.


With the best executives creamed off by international firms, finding the right candidates remains a challenge for companies across the continent. David Thomas looks at how specialist recruitment firms are stepping in to hunt talent for their clients.

 As the former global head of recruitment for PZ Cussons, a venerable British soap manufacturer that became one of Nigeria’s biggest consumer goods companies, Steve Hasson was tasked with unearthing a talented local supply chain director in a country responsible for over $200m of the company’s annual revenues.

With multinationals and Nigerian firms involved in a “bunfight” over a limited pool of gifted local executives, the ideal candidate proved elusive. 

“The one thing we faced over all of our African businesses – and PZ Cussons was mainly in Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya – was the fight for local talent,” says Hasson. 

“A lot of people expect that in a place like Nigeria with over 180m people it’s not too difficult to find people, but it’s actually the opposite, especially finding a good cultural fit with the right technical skills.” 

Short on options, Hasson turned to an executive search company specialising in headhunting on the continent.  

“We went through executive search and found a Nigerian working on an assignment in Singapore who wanted to come home. I would never have found him,” he says. 

Hasson’s problems in attracting local talent during his time at PZ Cussons will be familiar to frustrated human resources departments across the continent.

According to a 2015 survey of 230 African executives by recruiting firm Russell Reynolds Associates, 53% of Nigerian respondents highlighted the challenge of attracting leadership talent, with 43% of Kenyan and 46% of South African respondents similarly pessimistic about their ability to lure gifted executives.

Traditional management skills, including team building and an ability to drive change, were scarce in all three countries, according to those surveyed.

Many firms rely on recommendations or in-house promotions to fill critical roles, stymying boardroom competition and restricting leadership dynamism.  

In a bid to better match executive talent to Africa’s increasingly sophisticated businesses, specialist recruitment and executive search firms are talent hunting for their clients, honing in on local executives and diaspora business leaders tempted by robust growth, exciting professional opportunities and improved pay packages. Yet the tradition of word-of-mouth hiring and occasional technological barriers present unique challenges to the young recruitment industry. 

“Recruitment as a profession is very young across Africa, except South Africa,” says Sarah Fitzgerald, managing director at UK-based Executives in Africa, where Hasson now headhunts.

“We’ve seen companies developing in the last five years, and a lot of those firms are playing the tech game and running a high volume, low-quality consulting approach.

Where it starts to struggle is where you’re looking at critical hires. Its [historically] very much about asking around, who firms can get the CVs of, and hoping they’ve got the best possible selection.

You’ve got the benefit of a recommendation but you’re losing the ability to do an independent search of the market.”

Talent trackers

Executives in Africa, based in the UK, says it has placed over 500 executives on the continent in industries ranging from technology to agriculture and education.

Once recruiters have discovered candidates, the difficulties generally begin. Uncovering reliable email addresses for Africa-based candidates is a challenge, and attempting to contact executives through company switchboards often proves a lengthy, tedious and unrewarding process. 

“The fundamental process of mapping relevant candidates and assessing and screening them is the same.

The difference lies in the approach. You can’t just rely on online, you’ve got to do primary research.

You’ve got to source mobile numbers or make that first approach by somehow getting an email address. You have to go back to old-fashioned search – who are the companies, what are the telephone numbers, who can we phone to get referrals?” says Fitzgerald.

If they can track them down, companies are often prepared to pay a premium for domestic talent with exposure to the right market – Hasson says that an excellent Nigerian candidate costs as much today as traditionally pricey expats.

Yet homegrown talent remains scarce in all but the biggest African markets, with the best executives creamed off by foreign firms or attracted to the regional hubs of Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg. 

Given such shortages, business leaders in the diaspora offer an alternative pool of potential recruits, with a slowdown in mature foreign markets and relatively robust growth on the continent spurring thoughts of home.

Many of these professionals combine an African outlook with first-hand experience of sophisticated foreign businesses.

This homecoming trend is increasing – nearly 70% of African MBA students at the top 10 US and European schools plan to return to the continent to work after graduation, according to a survey by private equity firm Jacana Partners.

Companies are increasingly moving away from the parachuting of foreign expats with limited African experience, placing more emphasis on domestic talent management programmes, succession planning and staff retention than ever before.

Those factors mean that some expatriates are better suited to executive work on the continent than others. Of the 31% of non-African candidates placed on the continent by Executives in Africa, some 20% are Asian, reflecting their experience of fast-growing, occasionally volatile emerging markets. 

“Some of these group roles are looking after up to 40 countries, and the complexity of managing something that size is attractive to people if they’ve worked in a regional role in the Middle East or Asia. It’s attractive and there’s a huge amount of growth,” says Fitzgerald. 

That positive view of the continent as a frontier of opportunity will drive continued company interest in the best and brightest candidates with relevant exposure, offering compelling future growth for recruitment, according to Hasson.  

“A lot of multinationals are saying that Europe has limited growth potential. If you look at Asia, the tigers are slowing a bit, there’s still pockets of growth but it’s not what it was.

“Africa is the new area of huge potential so a lot of people are trying to get in there. They need talent.

“Talent is better off than it was 10 years ago, but demand is still outstripping supply.”

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