War for local talent in sub-Saharan Africa has only just begun

Successfully navigating this environment requires businesses to do more than comply with minimum standards and recognise unions. They must engage with all stakeholders with the genuine intention of co-creating a shared future.

A fistful of dollars alone won’t get you far

In the same vein, there is danger in assuming that performance and reward programmes with a Western bias can be transposed into Africa. Figuring out which aspects of the total reward offering can be standardised continent-wide at scale, and which must be finely tuned to local needs, requires on-the-ground understanding. A willingness to acknowledge how unconscious Western bias shapes the employee value proposition is important.

While adequate pay is the basis for attracting talent, long-term winners will be employers who offer meaningful learning and development opportunities, and sustained career growth, given Africa’s underinvestment in education. African employees are not simply looking for jobs – they want to build careers. Stretch assignments and international secondment opportunities are key, as is effective management of skills transfer from expatriates to local successors (particularly since immigration officials are demanding tangible evidence of this).

The significance of learning and development extends to performance management systems. Systems that place undue emphasis on differentiating individual performance and pay can be ‘counterproductive. Instead, the focus should be on building a nurturing environment, investing in skills and capabilities, and providing regular feedback.

Harnessing a unifying culture – the silver bullet for African competitiveness?

If Africa is not a blank canvas on which to impose Western practices and ideologies, is the opposite true? Can African traditions and cultural values, properly understood and harnessed, translate into a competitive advantage? Proponents of this view invariably reference the concept of ubuntu – representing respect, solidarity, conformity, compassion, dignity and humaneness, interdependence and hospitality. Such proponents would argue that organisations in sub-Saharan Africa that foster a workplace culture that gives expression to these values will achieve higher levels of employee engagement, and therefore improved performance. This is flawed logic, for the following reasons:

  • It assumes that ubuntu is a pan-African phenomenon, and that all Africans are the same.
  • It fails to take into account the significant role that status differentials play in shaping workplace behaviour.
  • There is a risk that those in authority manipulate the ubuntu values of respect and conformity, often provoking employee resistance.
  • Generational differences may well trump traditional cultural differences, as do personality, education, class and a number of other factors that shape human behaviour.

Social identities are dynamic and prone to rapid change in the globalisation era. Not denying the importance of recognising and respecting cultural diversity, there is no substitute for receptiveness to inter-personal feedback, good observation skills, effective questions, and other attributes associated with emotional intelligence (EQ). Evidence shows that managers with above average EQ stand a better chance of enhancing workplace performance by fostering employee engagement – anywhere in the world.

Global research by Gallup has consistently demonstrated that engaged employees are more productive, more profitable, more customer-focused, work more safely and are less likely to resign. Measures that increase levels of employee engagement are universally applicable, with some customisation for local circumstances, such as cultural variations. If the local culture in an African country is characterised by ubuntu-type attributes, employee engagement interventions that embody those values are likely to resonate.

Build a better working Africa

Don’t fall into the missionary trap of preaching the merits of Western business practice in Africa, or of stereotyping a continent of over one billion people. Do help to build a better working world in Africa by understanding its nuances and complexities, and by adopting partnership-based approaches to developing sustainable and productive human capital practices.