The recruitment of highly skilled leaders is crucial to any business. How are SA companies going about looking for the people with the best qualifications and the ‘right fit’?


Kenya Airways has hired a headhunter to find a new CEO. Mattel, the global makers of the Barbie doll, have done the same. And UK media giant ITV has contracted a recruitment firm to plan long term for the eventual exit of its CEO and CFO – although according to reports, neither person has indicated when this might take place.

For once, these news items have propelled the confidential world of recruitment of senior highly skilled leaders (officially called executive search) into the open. However, corporate SA has yet to follow this trend, as here the business of finding CEOs and similar executive-level leaders usually remains carefully concealed from the public gaze.

The fact is, the larger an organisation and the more senior the position to be filled, the more essential a headhunter becomes. But not many SA corporates talk about this. Those that do (by providing online testimonials for a local search firm) include Alexander Forbes, Swiss Re Africa, Absa Private Banking, Capitec Bank, Allan Gray, Barclays Africa, Mondi and Food Lovers’ Market Holdings. All of these companies are clients of SA headhunter firm Jack Hammer, which is headquartered in Cape Town and has on-the-ground presence in Johannesburg, Ghana, Lagos and Cairo.

Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, CEO of Jack Hammer, said in December that the hiring demand for senior leaders from SA companies had experienced a ‘massive spike’ (a more than 100% increase) during the previous three months.

‘Despite tough markets globally and locally, organisations are fully cognizant of the fact that they need key people to drive growth and navigate complexity,’ she said. ‘To do anything else is to accept organisational demise. And to postpone critical hiring any further places an already back-footed company at a significant disadvantage.’

Research by Jack Hammer on key economies around the continent found that locals make up the majority of the executive teams of multinational organisations active in Africa. The agency says 35% of surveyed leadership executives were foreign. However, about a third of them were from other African countries.

According to Goodman-Bhyat, the firm’s findings indicate that there is a pool of local talent ‘ready and able to take up senior leadership roles, and that companies are increasingly willing to take the step to do so’.

Executive-search companies use structured, standardised processes to find potential candidates and build talent networks for referrals. One way is talent mapping, where the headhunter compiles data and insights on the available candidates within a specific market segment.

Many companies rely on their own in-house recruitment teams, says Jeremy Bossenger, director at SA executive-search company BossJansen. ‘These have been relatively successful for mid- to junior-level roles but have varying degrees of success at the senior end of the market.

‘Companies sometimes try to source senior talent by making use of other methods, such as contingent recruitment or the placing of adverts. These simply don’t yield the same results as a structured professional headhunting exercise. The best way to tap into the executive pool of talent is to engage with a professional headhunting company, as the best talent in the market is not sitting on a recruitment database. They need to be sold a role and coaxed out of their current environment.’

It would appear Kenya Airways (KQ) agrees. Chairman Michael Joseph told the media in January that the national flag carrier had started the CEO search in order to fill the position by April, and that employing an executive-search firm was a better approach than advertising.

‘We’re using an international headhunter who has been engaged by KQ and Vodafone before,’ he said. Kenyan Wall Street tweeted that Joseph was looking for ‘an airline executive who is experienced in the sector… A turnaround specialist, someone who will improve the company’s performance. Likely to be an expatriate’. Airline bosses across the globe have undoubtedly been receiving hushed phone calls from the unnamed international headhunter, trying to coax them to Nairobi.

‘Discretion is of utmost importance. We know how rumours move the markets and can cause divides in companies,’ says Tinus Baard, director at Baard and Partners, a Johannesburg-based executive recruitment firm. ‘Also, we don’t want the current employer to know that you are possibly on your way out – this breaches trust.  

‘We always try to source the executive’s mobile number and contact them directly on that. Social media does make the initial confidential communication easier at times, obviously when a suited executive has a social media presence.’

That said, what makes a suitable candidate? This depends entirely on the company and its requirements. Part of the headhunting process involves getting to know the company and its culture, and then defining their ideal leader.

As Jack Hammer states on its website: ‘Determining “great” from “good” or “average” is not an easy thing to do – and the great ones are in pretty short supply. Most of the time, we’re helping you fill your toughest roles, where the pool of great people is in high demand – black executives in South Africa and leaders (expats as well as local nationals) throughout Africa.’

According to Baard, there is a high demand for ‘African females with a strong accounting or mathematical background coupled with a masters degree in commerce or business administration, who have a good track record of measured achievements in a specific industry of expertise’.

Jackie Launder, executive partner at Mindcor, a talent consulting, executive-search and recruitment firm, echoes this. ‘There is a strong focus on transformation and especially qualified and experienced black women, which is critical to ensure the transformation agendas are achieved.’

Meanwhile, the position most in demand is that of chief information officer (CIO), she says – a finding that is backed by her competitors.

‘The technology and banking sectors are seeing a great demand for people with technical and digital expertise as the shift towards automation and streamlining process through technology continues,’ says Launder.

‘Another industry that has seen an increase in demand in South Africa is the public sector – driven by the current need to fill critical C-suite positions.’

Jack Hammer explains why CIOs are so sought after. ‘The technology landscape has shifted at the speed of light and most big corporations have moved a lot slower, particularly in the tech space. So there has been an ongoing need to source executives who can add value with tech innovation insights – and who also have leadership kudos.’

Another top position gaining gravitas is that of CFO, whose function has evolved from being the guardian of strategic implementation to becoming a change agent through added responsibilities in IT, legal, HR and procurement, according to the UK-based PageGroup.

The specialist recruiter predicts that ‘it is conceivable that the CFO could ultimately supersede the CEO as the most important C-level position, making aspiring to the role of CFO a career ambition for young professionals’.

While degrees and formal qualifications are still crucial, SA companies are increasingly searching for leaders with a high EQ, and who are agile as well as a good ‘cultural fit’.

Matching the candidate with the organisational culture is absolutely critical. ‘We undertook a research project in 2013 along with a group of actuaries around why candidates “fall off” after being placed in a business,’ says Bossenger.

‘We found that the majority of senior candidates tend to fall off very quickly if cultures are misaligned, whereas at the more junior level, candidates tend to fall off quickly if there is a misalignment of skills.’

That’s why companies are realising that – while a university degree is always beneficial in a highly competitive market – it’s the relevant experience of the CEO candidate as well as their alignment to the organisational purpose and vision that drives value – not the degree.

According to Launder: ‘Requirements such as having an executive presence, agility, authenticity, integrity, availability and accessibility, and not leading by proxy are becoming more important. Businesses and employees want their leaders to be involved and they want to be part of creating the organisations of the future.’

Certain executive positions are becoming harder to fill, although the talent is still out there, adds Launder. She says leaders are being retained in their positions through incentives such as equity shares and large bonuses. ‘This makes it harder to attract them to alternative positions without the prospect of having the same benefits available and them earning enough to compensate for what they would have gained otherwise.’

With the balance of power shifting from employer to candidate, some headhunting firms are also taking on the role of career coach and adviser. ‘When engaging executive candidates, the conversation takes more of a coaching approach to ensure alignment and a meeting of “minds and brands” as opposed to pure skill and knowledge,’ says Launder.

Mindcor has an executive coaching branch that assists leaders in developing specific capabilities and personal strategies for growth and success – turning the old concept that headhunters work only for the company needing to fill a position, not for the job seeker, upside down.

This is a win-win situation, writes a Forbes blogger. ‘If you get that job, we get our fee. Plus we leave a trail of happy people – you and our client company – whose recommendations are good for business.’ 

By Silke Colquhoun
Image: Hanlie Huisamen