A clear trend has emerged from leadership search briefing patterns over the past six years, of global multinationals moving away from filling top African roles with expatriates towards seeking explicitly to place local leaders in key roles.

An analysis by executive search firm Jack Hammer shows that during 2017 to 2019, global companies sought to have a local executive placed for only 29% of key vacancies, in line with historic trends.

However, this number has increased dramatically over the past three years, with the average from 2020 to date already at 78% of executive search briefs calling specifically for a leader from the region (South Africa or the rest of Africa) as opposed to the net being thrown open to global candidates.

“This is a significant new trend providing insight into the direction of the future of leadership and leadership opportunities in South Africa and the rest of Africa, in particular Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, where these briefing patterns are being observed,” says Advaita Naidoo, MD: Africa at Jack Hammer Global.

She says there are push-and-pull factors involved in the dramatic shift over the past three years. On the one hand, the regulatory environment is making it harder to place expats due to visa and quota issues, as well as higher costs and shorter incumbency associated with expat placements from for instance Europe, the US and the Middle East.

On the other hand, companies have, without a doubt, also come to understand the importance and value of placing senior leaders who have a real connection with the environment and cultural context in which the company needs to operate.

“What the above highlights, is the importance of and necessity to build a substantial pipeline of qualified and experienced leaders on the continent. This is of course also good news for young people who are actively and strategically working on their careers, indicating that there currently is and will continue to be opportunities for them in South Africa and beyond,” says Naidoo.

She says it should also be noted that while the global economy is taking strain, multinationals are still recognising the value of and investing in Africa, where the population growth continues to be the fastest in the world and where, despite the slowdown effects of Covid-19 and climate, economic growth is still predicted.

“The impact of that is that companies and organisations across all sectors – from consumer goods and services, to venture capital organisations and NPOs – will continue to establish a presence where markets exist.”

Naidoo says the executive search briefing patterns of global multinationals on the continent is objectively good news for the future prospects of a new generation of leaders.

The question then is how they can strategise their career trajectories to ensure that they are in line for these opportunities – based on the ideal skills and experience that will position them competitively for leadership appointments. Based on current client briefs and skills projected to be in high demand in future, future leaders should craft their approach as follows:

* Tertiary qualification – A commercial/financial/computer or data science qualification from a top university remains essential.

* Hybrid qualifications – A second skill or qualification to complement the first is important – think a postgrad or an MBA. Through institutions like Getsmarter, it’s possible to gain valuable additional qualifications more affordably.

* Experience – When qualified, aim to land a position – even if it is an entry-level one – at a company in a role relevant to your field of expertise. Entering at a lower level is preferable to not making a start at all. Then actively manage your career within the organisation – don’t leave your career progression to chance. Ensure that you diversify your exposure and seek out work that is not necessarily restricted to your current wheelhouse. If you’re in sales, don’t just stay there. Seek out cross-functional team projects and learn to understand the business from end-to-end. Learn the entire value chain of the business. Put up your hand for projects. Make yourself visible.

* Mentorship – Seek out the support of a mentor or a sponsor – someone who can help you navigate your career, and who isn’t necessarily your line manager. Many organisations offer business coaching which is extremely useful to help you work on the softer skills that are crucial to master as you move into leadership positions. These skills include relationship skills, and the ability to navigate difficult internal and external situations. Coaching and mentorship help you become aware of blind spots and shift your behaviour accordingly.

“While the future remains volatile and uncertain, connecting the dots of the positives that are happening on the ground in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa provides not only hope but fantastic incentive for future leaders who are serious about rising to their full potential. It is clear that the demand for their skills and experience is growing, and that the opportunity pipeline is real for those who position themselves strategically,” says Naidoo.