Leading global executive search firm Odgers Berndtson sub-Saharan Africa’s CEO, Jamie Robertson, looks at major trends that have emerged in the executive search field over the last decade, and the challenges facing modern CEOs in a changing global business environment.

One of the major trends we have noticed over the past 10 years, is that SA has now become a far more attractive destination for senior executives from all over the world. Despite the country often getting very bad press internationally, many of our global candidates are very open to taking up positions here. They no longer ask about crime itself, they ask about home security arrangements. They no longer enquire about the quality of education, they want to know about securing school placements. They not only know where SA is, they are knowledgeable about developments here.

South Africans based abroad are much more open to opportunities in their home country. Whereas 10 years ago they wouldn’t have considered returning, many are now realising how much has changed here. Our infrastructure has developed considerably — we now have world-class airports and the Gautrain, for example — and SA is a desirable place to raise a family, with top-quality schooling, medical facilities and housing.

In a recent global search we conducted for a Cape Town-based retailer to find a senior executive, we looked within SA, but also went as far as North America, Europe, the Far East and the Pacific Rim. We found a potential British/Spanish candidate based in Zurich. The family of four, while initially concerned about security and schooling in SA, were completely convinced after an in-depth visit and experiencing the reality of our country.

Another important trend is the massive inroads we’ve made in transformation in SA. There are now many more talented black leaders in our country than before. During a recent executive search for a large retailer, we had a short-list of no less than six top people, none of whom were white. And our client would have hired all of them on the spot. Our short-lists are now far more diverse than they were a decade ago, without any conscious effort on our part to seek out black candidates.

Company boardrooms and executive teams have evolved naturally into much more diverse entities. This is a global trend — multi-national companies are increasingly led by a different nationality to where they were founded. For example, Nestlé, originally founded in Switzerland, today only has one Swiss left on the board. And most of the retailers in SA are run by non-locals. This is to be expected given the nature of the global economy and the impact of the digital era we live in. It is interesting to note that when we started in SA 10 years ago, about 30% of our work involved global executive searches — it is now about 65%.

Diversity in the boardroom and on the executive floor brings with it unique challenges, however. It has transformed what we look for in a good CEO. The ability to manage diverse teams requires highly developed personal interaction skills, as well as a strong dose of emotional intelligence. It is therefore no longer enough just to bring the required job skills to the table — today’s CEOs need to be so much more. They are not judged only on their performance — they are also judged on their behaviour and their values. In addition, they are constantly in the public eye, and in our “switched on” world, have to be available 24/7.

For us, the highest performing leaders today are those who are self-aware — they are interested, listen, seek feedback and are able to change behaviour. They have the ability to focus on what is important. But crucially, they have emotional and social intelligence, and a developed sense of empathy and compassion. I believe that up to 85% of the skills required by CEOs today are related to emotional intelligence, and the ability to put themselves in another’s shoes.

Over the next 10 years, the challenges facing CEOs will increase even more. The speed of change will be faster than it was over the past decade, as internet availability and connection improves and air travel expands further. This will likely generate more creativity and innovation, which will lead to greater competition.

The CEOs of tomorrow will also have to take into account the so-called millennial generation, or Generation Y — young people born during the 1980s and early 1990s. They are not particularly brand loyal, and have grown up with constant access to technology. Remaining in tune with the world-view of this generation, both as employees and as customers, will require even greater self-awareness, as well as a clear understanding of the direction companies need to be steered in.

The main challenge for tomorrow’s business leaders will be how to remain relevant and connected, and yet find the time for freedom of thought to find focus, creativity and innovation. Most importantly, to find simplicity in a world of increasing complexity.

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