Spotlight on the Middle East and Africa

John Curtis Oliver, Managing Client Partner EMEA, reflects on the challenges and opportunities for the executive search and human capital market in the Middle East and Africa.


Tell us more about your role at RPI.

As Managing Client Partner EMEA, I lead the executive search, leadership consulting, telecoms and digital practices.


From your perspective, John, what are you seeing in the region?

We are seeing a greater need for retained searches in highly sensitive board and C-suite hiring scenarios, due to the fiduciary responsibility of the stakeholders to demonstrate due diligence and due process.

Companies are turning to their trusted partners to gain greater insight into the broader market and specifically their competitors. Having set our roots in the region over 15 years ago, we are well placed to support this. With so much more pressure on every decision, those able to offer insight, independence and true value to the decision-making process are increasingly relevant, to the point of offering a form of protection to the internal decision makers.


So what trends are emerging?

Organisations now make a dispassionate assessment of their human capital needs and are becoming more creative as to how they are solved. We are seeing a return to the traditional expat assignment, where an expat takes on a fixed-term assignment with a view to bridging a gap or supporting the transition to a new local leader.

Diversity and sustainability are now business critical factors. Managed transition from one leader to the next is statistically more likely to succeed than unmanaged transition. It is damaging for a company to hire a senior leader who makes sweeping changes and leaves without adequately preparing the business for this eventuality. If this transition is anticipated and planned for, it can be seamless and pain free for all concerned. Ultimately, the success of an executive appointment hinges not only on a well-managed assessment process, but on the company offering an environment geared towards extracting the maximum value out of the individual. If there is misalignment in culture and values, the hire will fail, irrespective of the calibre of the candidate.

In partnership we need to be aligned on the business objectives; are we bringing in someone with the aim of that person building a long-term future with the company and growing over time, or do we have a purely short-term issue that needs to be fixed? That appreciation is fundamental.


Sounds like there’s a lot keeping your clients awake at night

Companies are finding the value in developing national talent, rather than importing skills. Home grown talent can be a loyal, sustainable choice, and frequently comes with a strong desire to build something in their home country.

The key to any hiring process is alignment on culture and motivation. National pride, status, the sense of creating a legacy and personal reputation are major drivers here in the Middle East.

Independent of nationality, in the digital age there is greater emphasis on certain niche skills – particularly around digital transformation – that are needed, and the challenge is bringing those skills to a business while also driving positive, robust change. It’s finding that balance between bringing in international expertise where it is needed without destroying the essence of the company and its culture.

What could alleviate your clients’ talent anxieties?

Businesses seek partners they can trust to be insightful and transparent; someone that will bring a guaranteed solution to a particular business issue. As a former HR Director from a Fortune 500 company, I draw upon on real experiences from my past, offer true empathy and act as a trusted advisor.

Today, we are finding that the majority of our interactions are consultative, advising how to solve a business problem with a human solution. While traditional hiring processes have focused on past performance and achievements, our ability to assess future performance is a key differentiator.


What do you think lies ahead for the Middle East in 2019?

Supporting national development will be the priority throughout this year, both for political reasons and for long-term corporate success. Governments are rightly emphasising the need to develop local talents, but it is also in the business’ best interests to build their talent pipeline. Expat assignments are becoming exactly that – a fixed-term ‘assignment’ with a specific remit to develop a local successor.

As companies seek to gain competitive advantage, there is a culture shift away from traditional box ticking in the hiring process and towards braver hiring decisions. There is greater understanding of the impact of human capital on business performance. Our clients will be asking, ‘who will really make a change? What skills or attributes can have a long-term impact on our business?’ I suspect we’ll find ourselves engaged on the highly impactful cases. We are perfectly placed to deliver on the most challenging assignments, especially in these markets, where our deep understanding of the prevailing cultures ensures we can align and partner with our clients in a long term and sustainable manner.


Want to find out more about how RPI partners with clients to resolve their human capital needs? Get in touch with John today on +97143757503 or email