x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Gulf faces a challenge in the art of recruitment

Attracting and retaining the best employees is one of the biggest hurdles companies face as region lags behind in 'war for talent'

Panos Manolopoulos, the Middle East vice chairman and managing partner of Stanton Chase, says companies need to promote their brand to their executives and employees as well as to clients.
Panos Manolopoulos, the Middle East vice chairman and managing partner of Stanton Chase, says companies need to promote their brand to their executives and employees as well as to clients.

There is a "war for talent" taking place in the Gulf as companies try to attract and retain the best employees, which analysts say is one of the biggest challenges businesses in the Middle East face. "The region is way behind," said Ali Borhani, the director of corporate strategy and development at BSH Group in Dubai. "What is missing [in management] is learning, listening, engaging."

The war for talent, a term coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey and Company in 1997, refers to an increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting and keeping suitable employees. Of the situation in the Gulf, Mr Borhani said: "It's like love. Everybody talks about it but divorce rates are at their highest. Everyone talks about talent but retention rates are at their lowest." According to a recent survey of 638 top executives conducted by the recruitment agency Stanton Chase International, the issue is particularly acute in the MENA region. More than 97 per cent of executives surveyed said they believed Middle East economies were facing some kind of shortage in leadership talent, according to the company's second annual CEO Census released last month.

"This is most likely due to a lack of stable strategies and cultures within companies designed to retain talent," said Panos Manolopoulos, the Middle East vice chairman and managing partner of Stanton Chase. During the economic boom, hiring managers often put such matters to the side. "Before, they thought it was an El Dorado; they would come here, stay a few years and make easy money," he added. "Today, the environment is more difficult."

Since the downturn, however, managers have learnt that attitudes must change, said David Daniel, the chief executive of the recruitment agency Spencer Stuart based in New York. For the first time, retention and careful succession planning has become a priority for MENA companies. "Besides promoting their brand to the clients, the company needs to promote their brand to the executives and employees as well," said Mr Manolopoulos.

There is a false perception that talent is in abundance because of the recent economic crisis. It has put more executives on to the market, he said, but competent senior management was still hard to find. Among the most sought-after individuals are senior-level account managers and executives in fields including Islamic finance and human resources, and heavy industry such as infrastructure for water purification systems. Saudi Arabia is a particularly hot jobs market.

Once competency in a field is established the next, and often overlooked, step is retaining and developing talent, said Alex Andarakis, an experienced Gulf executive who has worked for Unilever among other companies. The traditional, top-down approach commonly adopted in the region, by which managers deliver edicts to employees, will no longer work, he said. "Very few people leave a job because of money. It's that they don't believe in the management or its strategy, that they don't believe they are vested in the company."

The additional volatility created in the past year as managers cut staffing levels during the downturn, and incidents of malpractice were exposed, has also made it difficult to recruit talent, Mr Manolopoulos said. "Two years ago, we were calling executives in the US and they were either interested in joining right away or to be on the short list without further details," he said. "But, now ? they want a lot more explanations about the company, its history, its business plan."

The transient nature of the workforce in the Gulf can sometimes be a reason why employers do not invest in employee programmes as much as they might in other regions, said Shirin Jarrar, the programme director at the Edinburgh Business School in Dubai. In the meantime, some educators are developing home-grown talent. One area that lends itself particularly well to these efforts is Islamic specialisation in the financial sector. Azeemuddin Subhani, an assistant professor of Islamic finance at Ajman University of Science and Technology, wants to expand the school's current course offerings in Sharia banking to create a standalone degree in Islamic finance, thereby training home-grown Islamic banking specialists.

For Peter Alatsas, the general manager of the Complex Mina Seyahi Beach Resort, which includes the Westin and Meridien hotels in Dubai, the war for talent is not about searching for recruits with a certain set of skills but about looking for specific character attributes. "If you don't have those[skills], people will not voluntarily follow [you] to take care of what needs to be done." Still, Peter Schultz, the sales director at NeuString, based in Dubai and which creates telecommunications software, said the word "Dubai" still held sway in general management recruiting. This was especially so in Europe where income tax rates can be in the high 50 per cent range.

"Many Europeans are still willing to listen when we mention the word Dubai," Mr Schultz said. ashah@thenational.ae