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Managing Talent in Africa

Unilever have been members of SAGEA (South African Graduate Employer’s Association) since inception 13 years ago and have always been at the forefront when it comes to growing and developing young talent.  For three consecutive years, Unilever has been certified as the top-ranked company in the prestigious Top Employer survey in Africa, certified by the Top Employer’s Institute – a global certification programme run in over 100 countries.  This accolade confirms in no uncertain terms that Unilever is getting things right when it comes to developing and managing talent in Africa.

As African economies continue to grow exponentially, corporates are increasingly investing in talent development and best practices in Africa in order to secure superior performance.  But what does it take to be successful in Africa?  What are some of the nuances of getting things right in a vast continent of 54 countries with differing cultures where approximately 2 000 different languages are spoken?   How can business achieve a coordinated and seamless talent management practice across the Continent and what are some of the key challenges to be overcome?  SAGEA chatted to James Hu, Talent Manager at Unilever.

Top Employer in Africa
The Top Employer’s Institute certification programme is research based and there are nine different dimensions that are evaluated.  These are as follows:

  1. Talent Strategy
  2. Workforce Planning
  3. On-Boarding
  4. Learning and Development
  5. Performance Management
  6. Leadership Development
  7. Career and Succession Management
  8. Compensation and Benefits
  9. Culture

The certification process involves answering questions on each of the above areas as well as providing supporting documentation and evidence of measures achieved in each area.  Submissions are then evaluated, checked and scored by the Top Employer’s Institute who allocate scores based on different weightings.  Unilever participate in the certification process in multiple countries and the submission for Africa is coordinated by South Africa with individual countries submitting for areas which are not consistent due to local variances e.g. the compensation and benefits section.

Achieving a seamless talent management practice across Africa
Unilever’s presence in Africa has been organised around four main clusters:

  1. Southern Africa
  2. East Africa
  3. Ghana/Nigeria
  4. Francophone Africa

A key lesson learned has been the need to adopt an integrated and yet simple approach, “we started off with six clusters and have now reduced to four, the continuous attempts to simplify our business is important as it impacts on our ability to be responsive and agile,” James explained.
Unilever has a long history in Africa and have the valued benefit of having been through the learning curve a number of times!  This means that when the business is rolling out talent development initiatives they are often already tailored for the African market, as they provide extensive input during the global design process.  Generally implementation will be driven by a subject matter expert who has the relevant expertise and relationships in order to ensure consistency across the region.

A practical example of this is the Unilever Africa Idea Trophy – a business game aimed at second and third year students across Africa and includes multiple real business challenges across three main stages.  The competition aims to build business acumen and helps Unilever to identify future talent across Africa.  James explained that in 2016 the competition format was re-designed in order to allow for one competition to be run across each of the clusters using one platform and ensuring consistency across the continent.  This has meant that all countries had access to the same resources and resulted in an increase in the calibre of candidates who competed.

A further example is that of a General Management Programme that has been designed for Managers across Africa.  The programme has been tailor made in partnership with GIBS for Unilever managers in the African context.  All Africa managers in general management attend the programme thus ensuring a seamless experience.

Attracting Talent in Africa
Unilever is single-minded in their goal of developing African talent, with a high number of graduate intake as well as frequent promotions of African talent into senior levels within the business.  The company’s commitment to achieving this goal and its reputation for nurturing talent is well-known in Africa.

Use is made of various initiatives such as the Lipton Tea Party to attract and interact with potential talent. These initiatives allow experienced professionals to understand the company vision for Africa and to get a sense of whether they are a right fit for the organisation. For Unilever, it is not just about attracting the top talent, but attracting talent who are as passionate as the business is about driving sustainable development across the continent.

Customizing Initiatives for Africa
James explained that due to the variety of cultures encountered across the continent the need to focus on both diversity and inclusivity is important, although different regions may require different focus areas. Because Unilever is a global brand, however, there are numerous touchpoints via which Unilever’s people are exposed to the business in other countries and they develop an understanding of the company’s global culture.  Certainly a one-size-fits-all approach does not work and there is a need to customize products and initiatives to suit different markets.  When it comes to customisation about 70% of things work across all regions, 20% of content may be customised for a specific continent and 10% becomes locally specific.

Turning Challenges into Opportunities
The macro-economic challenges in Africa are very real: unstable currencies and political challenges are common.  The business arena is volatile, complex and often ambiguous.  There is a war for talent which is perceived to be scarce. But is this really the case or does it depend on how we frame it?  Ask any CEO in the world what his or her biggest business challenges are.  You will get similar answers such as, “talent shortages”, “operating in a global market place”, “solving problems with limited resources,” or “the threat of disruptive technologies”.

Thinking about Africa, though – this is business as usual!  Africans are naturally adapted to a VUCA environment (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) and have learned how to deal with challenges and make a plan.  The absence of previous generations of technology has meant that mobile technologies have become ubiquitous and have been easy to implement and readily adopted by both business and consumers.

The proof is in the pudding – McKinsey’s September 2016 report entitled “Realizing the potential of Africa’s economies” states that “Africa is home to 700 companies with annual revenue of more than $500 million, including 400 with annual revenue above $1 billion, and these companies are growing faster and are more profitable than their global peers”.

Harnessing Unilever’s Lessons
James concluded by saying that there is much more talent in Africa than we think – we just need to learn to look at it differently.  He advised businesses venturing into Africa to take time to understand the people and their nuances – Africa must be “de-averaged” and not to be seen as one homogenous region. Businesses must see how they can help the countries and communities in which they operate in to succeed and to look for opportunities where you can make a sustainable difference to people’s lives and to be agile and responsive to challenges.

Camilla Pennington is a freelance project manager for SAGEA.

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