Headhunting in Africa
Enticing top executives back to SA is no easy task
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