Head­hunt­ing in Africa

En­tic­ing top ex­ec­u­tives back to SA is no easy task

Finweek English Edition - - Business strategy - GARTH THE­UNIS­SEN gartht@fin­week.co.za

IF YOU’RE THE DI­REC­TOR of a blue chip com­pany look­ing for top ex­ec­u­tive tal­ent, chances are you may have heard of Jamie Robert­son, man­ag­ing part­ner at ex­ec­u­tive re­cruit­ment firm Odgers Ray & Berndt­son.

He’s the guy who lured South African-born Andrew Jen­nings from Saks Fifth Av­enue back to his home­land to head Wool­worths’ cloth­ing di­vi­sion.

The story goes that af­ter spend­ing some time in SA on hol­i­day, Robert­son fell in love with the coun­try and de­cided to set up shop in the fairest Cape – a de­ci­sion that meant turn­ing down a job of­fer in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia.

For­tu­nately, Aus­tralia’s loss was SA’s gain. The Cape Town of­fice now has a staff com­ple­ment of eight, with an­other four based in Jo­han­nes­burg.

Of course, with a home in Camps Bay and work sit­u­ated in nearby Tam­boer­skloof you can hardly blame him for want­ing to stay.

How­ever, it hasn’t all been plain sail­ing for Robert­son. Though he rat­tles off the usual ep­i­thets to de­scribe SA – such as “a land of op­por­tu­nity” or “the gate­way to Africa” – he con­fesses that it’s been hard go­ing lur­ing top South African tal­ent back to this coun­try.

“To con­vince some­one who left in the re­ally tough days that they should come back and help grow the econ­omy takes some do­ing,” he says. “And it’s par­tic­u­larly tough to con­vince white males that there’s any fu­ture for them here.”

He says SA is the only place he knows of where Odgers gets more re­jec­tions for job of­fers than they do ac­cep­tances. “It’s un­usual. We don’t usu­ally make an of­fer un­less we’re rea­son­ably cer­tain that a per­son will ac­cept the of­fer, but in SA a lot less have ac­cepted than is nor­mally the case.”

Robert­son says that in many ways SA is still seen as a hard­ship post. “South Africans don’t re­ally see their coun­try like that, but for peo­ple from abroad that’s the re­al­ity and they’re only will­ing to move to a hard­ship post if they can make con­sid­er­ably more money than they can else­where. South African com­pa­nies are still get­ting used to that idea.”

Robert­son’s anal­y­sis of the South African psy­che is also in­ter­est­ing, with many of his ob­ser­va­tions con­tra­dict­ing the no­tions we of­ten have of our­selves as a rough-and-ready, can-do na­tion.

“Many South Africans still have a ‘can’t do’ men­tal­ity,” he says. “They’ve been told for so long that they can’t do things that, un­for­tu­nately, many South Africans have started to be­lieve it.”

Sur­pris­ingly, he also cites a “lack of con­fi­dence” as an­other prob­lem, a point made all the more as­ton­ish­ing when he re­veals that he’s re­fer­ring to “ex­ec­u­tives at the very top of their pro­fes­sion”.

“De­ci­sion mak­ing could also be bet­ter,” he says. “South African ex­ec­u­tives of­ten look to Europe or the United States for so­lu­tions in­stead of look­ing for a uniquely South African so­lu­tion. SA has pro­duced great man­agers in the cor­po­rate world but it could be pro­duc­ing much bet­ter lead­ers and de­ci­sion mak­ers. The role of the CE in­ter­na­tion­ally has changed dra­mat­i­cally and in a sense SA man­agers have had to grow up very quickly to get that com­pet­i­tive edge against the rest of the world, es­pe­cially in de­vel­oped mar­kets.”

De­spite his role as pro­fes­sional head­hunter, Robert­son’s own en­try into the world of re­cruit­ment was quite co­in­ci­den­tal. As a young squash coach with a de­gree in in­ter­na­tional mar­ket­ing and sup­port­ing sub­jects in French and Ger­man, Robert­son stum­bled into the re­cruit­ment world when he de­cided he needed “a proper job”.

“I ap­proached Michael Page In­ter­na­tional look­ing for a job in sales and mar­ket­ing. In­stead they of­fered me a job and I’ve been in re­cruit­ment ever since.”

Part of the rea­son for his hav­ing re­mained in the world of re­cruit­ment stems from what he calls the gen­uine sense that you’re help­ing peo­ple.

“Since the tech­nol­ogy revo­lu­tion and the com­put­er­i­sa­tion of many busi­ness func­tions the hu­man el­e­ment has be­come the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic that dif­fer­en­ti­ates busi­nesses from each other,” he says. “That’s where re­cruit­ment can be of great value to an or­gan­i­sa­tion and a coun­try, es­pe­cially one like SA, as it will only grow if it has the best cor­po­rate lead­ers.”

Given his role in at­tract­ing highly skilled ex­ec­u­tives back to SA, Robert­son says the bu­reau­cratic bar­ri­ers to set­ting up a re­cruit­ment op­er­a­tion in Cape Town evap­o­rated once the au­thor­i­ties caught wind of his in­ten­tions. “I ap­proached the South African High Com­mis­sion in Lon­don and I had my busi­ness per­mit in one month,” he says. “They were won­der­ful.”

Pre­dictably though, he says SA’s De­part­ment of Home Af­fairs could be a lot bet­ter. I ap­plied for a re­newal of my busi­ness per­mit in March last year and it ar­rived eight months later,” he says.

Of his new home, Robert­son also ex­presses a gen­uine love. “South Africans have a re­ally won­der­ful lifestyle. The qual­ity of life here, al­beit be­hind barbed wire, is in many ways ac­tu­ally a lot bet­ter than in Aus­tralia, where prop­er­ties are smaller and ev­ery­thing is three times as ex­pen­sive.”

Hope­fully, he can con­vey that mes­sage to SA ex­ec­u­tives who have gone in search of greener pas­tures.

Many South Africans still have a “can’t do” men­tal­ity. Jamie Robert­son

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