Our recent HR Leadership roundtable events in Dubai took place over three consecutive days and were kindly hosted by PepsiCo, J. Walter Thompson and GE. We were delighted to welcome over 80 HR Leaders for the Middle East & Africa region from the likes of AECOM, AstraZeneca, Dell, Du, Gulf Capital, Microsoft, Palmolive-Colgate, PepsiCo, Philips, Shangri-La, Standard Chartered Bank and Weatherford. Chaired by Ben Davies, Managing Director of ChapmanCG, the sessions were also attended by Dubai-based Director, Abby Walters and Dona Battat, Director across EMEA.

The thread of discussion was the current state of ‘HR in the Middle East & Africa Today’, which led to some varied and lively debates, focussing on ‘Talent Life-Cycle Innovations’, as well as ‘Performance Management Death’ as we know it and the question of ‘The Middle East Region as a Global Leader.’ There was active participation from almost all attendees, and we are pleased to share below some pivotal market themes and regional trends from the three days.

Employer Brand Marketing - Who Are You as a Business?

PepsiCo’s Talent Acquisition Manager (Digital and Branding) gave us a great insight into the company’s employer brand marketing strategy, and the importance of truly understanding not only one’s employer brand and USPs, but also the demographics of the receiving audience. We discussed carefully targeting particular gender, age and skill-specific groups of individuals through different channels and with relevant messages, to make the Employee Value Proposition (EVP) campaign as effective as possible.

The availability of social media options was also considered in varying markets. Our host commented on the free usage of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter throughout the Middle East region, which contrasts with the ban of these sites in China, where WeChat is used as a result instead.

One Middle East HR Leader shared an example of how her company had dealt with the challenge of meeting high ‘Saudisation’ targets by marketing effectively to, and tapping into the large pool of talent in divorced, Saudi national females. This ultimately led to a 33% drop in attrition levels across her business.

Furthermore, we discussed how EVP campaigns could also be directed at the current workforce within a company, to maintain levels of passion for the brand, following the first few years of ‘employment honeymoon’. If done well, this type of marketing can serve to combat typically high attrition rates in years three to five of employment, when motivation levels can drop.

Be Open to Innovation

The HR Lead for one of the international banks commented on the fact that innovation can often present an increased challenge at more formal, traditional corporations, especially when senior management can hide behind the excuse of regulations. He felt that an Executive Team must nonetheless lead with the clear message, ‘it’s OK to try new things’, if creative behaviour is to be encouraged across different lines of seniority.

A previous Leadership & Talent Management Head from Emirates Airline & Group talked about the importance of ‘CQ’, or the ‘Curiosity Quota’ as a way of calibrating an individual’s openness to embracing change. He also spoke about the need for leaders to collaborate effectively and network well, if this region is to stay profitable and innovative.

Ben Davies, who leads the EMEA business for ChapmanCG and chaired the meetings commented, ‘’It’s fantastic to see our MEA network of HR Leaders in Dubai and hear such innovation-driven discussions across all the roundtables. With our team in Dubai and Turkey we are working on HR leadership roles in the region from Ghana to Saudi Arabia, and the HR challenges are some of the most complex we have seen.''

An interesting point was also made about the distinction between innovation and technology. It was mentioned that technology should simply be considered a platform, or tool, while it is critical that the creative skills of the workforce (using that technology) must be developed, if a business really wants to succeed from an innovation perspective.

This spurred a lively debate surrounding the use of technology in Talent Acquisition and Talent Management generally. An HR Director from Standard Chartered Bank voiced a concern that ‘people data’ is still hugely underleveraged in the Middle East region, which can in turn lead to conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace here. Without proven data, assumptions may be made about people’s career goals and capabilities that may be inaccurate. By contrast Senior HR Recruitment Lead for MENA at SAP gave an example of how he has successfully utilised a Predictive Index tool to measure cognitive skills and identify talent in Saudi Arabia. This has resulted in him doubling his Saudi female headcount. Overall it was felt that greater levels of investment in data analytics and social collaboration tools are needed across Middle East & Africa region, in order to improve and develop cultures of innovation and diversity.

Performance Management- But Not as we Knew It!

At all three Roundtables, Regional Heads were in agreement that the days of very process-orientated performance reviews are coming to an end, in favour of managers taking a more conversational approach. There seemed to be a firm belief that exemplary cultural behaviours should be linked directly to reward, rather than just the traditional tangibles of sales/revenue generation. Transparency surrounding performance, particularly in the case of high potentials, was considered crucial.

One MEA HR Director from major electronics company, Philips, talked about the very positive ‘Anytime Feedback’ concept that has been rolled out internally, where daily check-ins and ‘feedback souqs’ serve to create a very open, caring working environment. Another peer at GE positively described the use of a new, internal app where feedback can be posted at any time on an individual. One HR Director explained that her organisation suffers from over-assessment and too many progress-monitoring activities and workshops, making it clear that those present represented organisations at differing stages of the performance management evolution.

We touched on poor performance and how it tends to be handled. An HR Head from one of the biggest regional retail conglomerates remarked that some large, local companies would rather live with mediocrity than sever ties with long-standing members of their teams who have become almost ‘family members’ at the organisation. Equally he felt that the plentiful wealth in the Middle East has sometimes sustained underperformance in the past.

Is the Middle East Leading the Way Globally?

Feedback from the GE Roundtable was varied and insightful. The Middle East/Africa region certainly seems to be viewed as an exciting market in terms of future growth due to its time zone interlink between APAC, Europe and the US and its cultural diversity and investment levels. Lifestyle was also mentioned as a major ‘pull factor’ for talent joining UAE, particularly Dubai. Africa specifically was described as one of the world’s most promising emerging markets.

However, there was an overall view that the region is perhaps currently ‘pivotal’ rather than ‘leading’, in terms of global change.

Some of the areas where the region falls short of being ‘cutting-edge’ globally were identified as follows:

  • Political instability was suggested as a potential threat to maximising growth;
  • The transient nature of the market can be problematic when trying to retain talent. By contrast, some companies suffer from ‘Middle East overkill’ where employees do not want to leave the region;
  • Lack of female business executives in the region means diversity levels are behind many more developed regions. This can lead to premature promotions in an attempt to remedy the problem
  • Logistical and security issues have slowed progress for distribution operations and companies.

It was very helpful to gather these groups and exchange information, learnings and challenges currently being faced in this rapidly developing region. Many thanks go to our hosts in Dubai, as well as the participants, for these thought-provoking meetings. We look forward to bringing the groups together in early 2016 in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Ben Davies is a Managing Director with ChapmanCG and plays a key leadership role in the business.

Abby Walters is a Director at ChapmanCG for the Middle East and Africa region and is based in Dubai. She is the key point of contact in the Middle East.

Dona Battat is a London-based Director with ChapmanCG for EMEA and is the key point of contact in the UK.