As some industries start to see signs of recovery from the economic gloom, there is increasing demand for executives in the UAE with experience in areas such as customer service, selling in slow markets and streamlining business models. The problem is that most companies do not want to pay the larger salaries of these so-called "grey-haired" executives. But Charles Willson, an executive recruiter based in Dubai, says if companies do not become aligned to the changing market, they will be slow to recover in the months and years ahead.
"These companies are doing a lot of window shopping and a lot of fishing," Mr Willson says. "The issue is that the longer you take to get people on board, the longer the company will be in a difficult financial position. If you have no income coming in, saving costs is not the priority. It's, 'where is the money going to come from and how are we going to get it'?" One solution Mr Willson is suggesting to more clients is interim executive management, where an experienced veteran is brought into a company for three to six months.
It is a step beyond a consultancy because the interim executive has real power to make changes at a company. This is a common tactic in Europe and the US, but it has not yet caught on in the UAE. One reason for this is the difficulty in obtaining a short-term work visa for an employee. Another is a general lack of familiarity with the set-up. But Mr Willson says he is seeing increased interest from banks and other companies in the country.
"Sometimes you don't need a new CEO," he says. "You may want some good advice from a guy who has been through a few recessions and you don't want to pay a consulting firm a ridiculous amount of money ? An experienced executive can help you assess who you need to replace and how to reposition yourself in the market." Ehab Anis Hassan, the chief of human resources at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD), says interim executives are a powerful tool but difficult for banks because of the due diligence process for new employees.
"For a small organisation or an organisation that doesn't have the security restrictions of a bank, it would be a good idea," Mr Hassan says. He says NBAD is investing more money in human resources and training today than it did in the boom times. "This is a good time to make the foundations of the bank stronger, so that we can be ready to strike when the market turns around," Mr Hassan says. "We are investing in our branch network and our people because we know the light will come out of the tunnel soon."
In fact, consultants say human resources is now one of the most important functions in a business. While the priority was once having enough people to handle all the business coming through the UAE, now it is about having the right people to handle a new business environment. "Many companies cut first before evaluating which employees were necessary going forward," says Peter Christie, the director of reward consulting at the Hay Group in Dubai. "What is needed is to find out which people are high performance and have a high potential going forward."
Mr Christie says he has been recommending that clients keep a long-term view when evaluating their business models. This includes keeping a strong sales staff who can earn income in the slowdown and focusing more on customer service to stay competitive. As well as interim executive management, companies can cut costs more efficiently by offering staff the option of working just four days instead of five, or a two-month unpaid leave.
"The more flexible approach is important because it creates a better environment at the company for when things get a bit better," Mr Christie says. One of the problems in Dubai and other markets, including London, is that companies have been laying off staff through e-mails, in company-wide meetings and other ways that damage a company's "employment brand", he says. "You need to be ready for when things pick up and they will probably pick up sometime in early 2010," Mr Christie says.