Managing talent

Telcos face many recruitment and staffing challenges that are unique to the region


Like companies in all sectors, a telecoms operator or vendor is only as good as its people. Companies in the MEA region’s telecoms sector have a higher than average reliance on expatriate talent, and so recruitment and retention often prove to be a major challenge, particularly given the highly competitive nature of the industry.

The challenges are numerous: from bringing executives to less desirable markets, to arranging visas and coping with bureaucracy. For Richard Guest, principal at Heidrick & Struggles in Dubai, one recruitment challenge that stands out in the MEA region’s telecoms sector is finding the right executives to take roles in “less desirable” locations.

Indeed, while most of the big telecoms groups have their headquarters and group functions in popular locations such as the Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha, Riyadh or Kuwait, the individual opcos are often in less attractive, or at least less secure, locations.

“The main issues we come across are undesirable or less desirable locations and the inherent transient nature of expat or heavily expat leadership teams,” he says.

Indeed, while senior executives are in general comfortable moving with their families to most Gulf countries, roles in countries such as Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan are far less attractive.

“In terms of the hardest locations, it’s the ones that have personal safety issues and that's normally less linked to the executive and more linked to their family circumstances,” Guest says. “Normally if you're looking at c-level or director level executives they typically have children of school age.”

Interestingly, Guest says that it is easier to recruit executives for senior telecoms roles in Saudi Arabia than many people expect. “In the Middle East, Saudi has always taken a bit of an unfair wrap. It's not as difficult as people believe because it is a very dynamic market,” Guest says. “It has got big scale relative to the rest of the ME in particular. So the disproportionately high level of opportunity on offer outweighs any issues that certain people might have about the social side.”

Looking at some of the big markets in terms of opportunities for telcos – and telecoms executives – Nigeria, Iraq and Egypt are huge markets and very important for the telco groups, Guest says. “Those are the sorts of places where there are opportunities and I believe a lot of these groups would very much like to hire best in class executives. It is challenging to sell the value proposition to an executive who is in a good role somewhere else.”

In terms of the roles that are proving difficult to fill, Guest says that most of the functions are relatively similar. “There’s not a great difference between a CEO, CTO or say a CCO search. The main issue is more around attracting the best and the right people to go into a certain market, or role or group," he says.

Another issue around recruitment is the transient nature of expatriate life, which leads to a higher than average rate of movement. “Typically expats are on relatively short term contracts and or they are brought in to take on a specific assignment. You often see people do their three or four year stint, sometimes less, and then move on to the next thing, whether that is in the group or elsewhere,” Guest says. “It is a sort of never ending conundrum. Whenever you find that good individual you know that in a relatively short period of time, they will be moving on.”

To address the issue of high staff turnover, Guest believes companies need to consider putting in place succession planning strategies and leadership development programmes. “Whether that's in house or putting top people through programmes at academic institutions, is obviously very positive. Groups could be more strategic and less reactive in their recruitment,” he says. “Because of the pressures and dynamism of the telecoms market, often a gap appears and speed is of the essence. They're being reactive rather than going out and finding someone who can really change the game.”

Sean Rutter, managing director, KWR Middle East and Africa, agrees that telecom companies could do more in this respect. Rutter highlights the importance of staff engagement and morale, explaining that telecom operators and vendors in the region appear to lack in areas of employee satisfaction. Indeed, he points to a ranking of the best companies in the region to work for by Aon Hewitt and few telecom operators or vendors ever make it to the top of the list.

Staff engagement and moral is also an important issue and strategies in this area can help companies to attract and retain the best candidates. “Why is it that some companies don't pay the best in the market but they have people queuing round the block to join them?” Rutter asks. “Why is it some companies pay 30-40% above the market rate and they have massive turnover? Often the ones who get engagement right, and take bad news on the chin, usually they are the ones with better retention, and quite often they pay less," he adds.

Rutter stresses that this is not specifically a regional trend. "There are a lot of companies in Europe and the US who could do more. It's the make-up of the board and the executive team. Some of them are quite open to it, some are not," he says.

Companies could improve their recruitment and retention practices if they invested more in their HR departments, according to Rutter. "We need to compete on the HR side," he says. "Respect of HR is dropping, and has been for 20 years. Companies can make it better by making HR become competitive in what they do."

For Rutter, one of the main issues the operators and vendors face with hiring and retaining staff is “generation Y”, which is typically taken to mean people born between the 1980s and the early 2000s and who have grown up closer to technology such as mobile devices and laptops.

“Recruiters always talk about money, but the biggest thing is generation Y, which has completely different ideas of job expectations, work life balance, hours worked, and promotion prospects,” Rutter says.

“I know a lot of organisations where you have executive teams in their mid-forties or fifties and they are being hit by people in their early to mid-thirties demanding promotion and quicker access, more time off, more flexible hours. That is something a lot of organisations have not grasped,” he says. “It is the fact that this generation has a different set of values, a different set of ideas. Sometimes companies are out of sync with that because HR policies are written and very rarely changed.”

But companies that have not adapted to this new age may be forced to. “These people [Gen Y] are now in their early thirties so in the next 10 years they are going to be at that executive level and sometimes if you look at the boards they are non- execs and sometimes quite old,” Rutter says. He points out that the top executives at the top operators in various countries in the region have shown a high turnover of CFOs and CCOs, for example. In some respects this is not a problem, as operators may need fresh blood to bring in a specific skill set, such as a person who has knowledge of deploying LTE in a metropolitan area.

“Telecom has moved so fast, years ago we didn't have managed services, MVNOs, or OTT. With the market moving so fast you do need new people. You might need someone who had done LTE in Japan,” he says. “When it comes to finance, raising capital now is very different to what it was a few years ago and that is why some of the turnaround happens.”

In terms of hiring new executives, John Armstrong, founder and MD of JCA Associates, a recruitment firm based in Dubai, says that the main staffing issues in the region vary significantly from country to country. Many of the challenges are often about red-tape. For example, in some Gulf countries, visas can be a problem. "Qatar is quite challenging at the moment because only certain nationalities are allowed in. For Syrians it is almost impossible to get a visa anywhere in the GCC now, so that is one challenge, and it is tough for Egyptians."

In Qatar, another issue that can affect companies looking to employ staff from overseas is the high cost and scarcity of school places. Many executives are at an age when they have young families, which makes this a pressing issue.

However, for telcos and vendors, one challenge that is the same across all countries, particularly with vendors and operators, is the speed of hiring. "If you look at the hiring process of a big vendor or operator, from when the job becomes live to when the person starts, the gap is usually quite long. It can be anywhere from three to six months," Armstrong says. This problem often boils down to bureaucracy, with the heads of various departments each having to rubber stamp a senior hire. He adds that smaller companies, for example a medium size multinational telecom company, the recruitment time would probably be just one to two months.

But bigger operators and vendors should not underestimate this problem, according to Armstrong. For global companies, recruitment processes can be so long that candidates either lose interest or they go elsewhere," he says.

In terms of the senior telecoms roles that are difficult to fill, Armstrong points to architecture roles. The reason for this is that the technology is now so complex that there is much demand for end to end architects with knowledge of billing systems, OSS, COM, SAM and more. "You can't have everybody who is an expert in all those areas. Even to be competent in all those areas, you might have someone who has got six out of the 10, but you're never going to get 10 out of 10," Armstrong says.

"With OSS and BSS etcetera, it's all getting so close that you can't just have someone who only knows the billing system, he's got to know what's going in at the other end, and that's part of the challenge."

Armstrong says that telcos and vendors could speed this process up by "getting everything signed off and agreed before the hiring manager starts his interview process". "That's where a lot fail. Empower line managers and get sign offs done before the interview process starts, streamline the process," he suggests.

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