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(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Talent Strategy for Emerging Economies

Two top leaders of the Middle East telecom company Etisalat explain how they recruit and retain people in frontier markets — the most challenging business environments in the world.

In recent years, many multinational companies have adapted to the challenges of doing business in emerging economies. But as countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRICs) become more familiar, unfulfilled opportunities await in other, less-developed countries. These frontier markets, as they’re called, include much of sub-Saharan Africa, along with some countries in Central Asia, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. The telecommunications industry is frequently among the first sectors to enter these newly emerging economies, often bringing financial services as well as connectivity to poor but ambitious populations who are eager for education, telecommunications, electricity, and mobility.

Companies operating in frontier markets face hurdles more challenging than anything they have seen in the BRICs, especially in recruiting, retaining, and developing employees. Implementing a talent strategy might involve persuading expatriate managers to spend a year in Afghanistan and convincing homegrown talent in Nigeria not to jump ship when recruiters are beating down their doors.

One company in particular — telecom operator Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat), based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — has deliberately built the capabilities needed to provide a variety of services on the frontier. Since 2007, Etisalat has energetically expanded its footprint beyond the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt into 14 more countries, many of which represent uncharted territory for many multinationals: Afghanistan, Benin, Central African Republic, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, and Togo. With 27 operating companies in the countries it serves, Etisalat now reaches 167 million customers and employs 53,000 people.

Because frontier markets are at the heart of the company’s long-term growth strategy, Etisalat has adopted a deliberate approach to talent strategy, to ensure that it can compete effectively in emerging economies for years to come. We sat down with Ahmad Abdulkarim Julfar, CEO of Etisalat Group, and Abdulaziz Al Sawaleh, Etisalat Group’s chief human resources officer, in Abu Dhabi to discuss what they have learned from launching and maintaining operations in frontier markets.

S+B: How critical is talent management to Etisalat’s overall strategy?
JULFAR: Although we are in the technology business, technology is not our main challenge today in the way that it was 20 years ago. Our main challenge is having the best people in the market. Telecom is making a steady transition to becoming a service industry. Although we still have considerable assets in the form of infrastructure, at this point our most irreplaceable asset is our human capital.

The nature of our industry and the dynamics of the market dictate that we need people who are not just very capable but very adaptable. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, for example, we needed people with the skills to cope with the boom time of the 2000s and the downturn that followed. We also need people who can adapt to different environments — working in markets like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as well as less-mature markets such as Ivory Coast and Afghanistan.

Our strategic plan for 2011–16, which we call “Engage,” addresses these demands. Naturally, it covers the aspirations critical to our business — being a premier provider of digital content, leading the market in mobile broadband, actively driving the regulatory agenda. One of the key pieces of this strategy is to be an employer of choice in the markets where we operate.

That means that building our people capabilities is at the core of the strategy, with programs that identify and nurture high-potential talent. The CEOs of each of our operating companies — not the people below them but the CEOs — have KPIs [key performance indicators] related to talent management. It is at the top of the leadership agenda.

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