For us, one of the most difficult issues is not just finding but retaining talent. Because Etisalat invests so much in the development and education of our people, our employees are targeted by other companies in the markets where we operate, especially where talent is scarce. CEOs of other companies have told our employees that if they have been with Etisalat for five years, they can consider themselves 90 percent of the way through the interview process, since they must be good. So we began developing more robust retention packages and incentives in response.
S+B: What are the key elements in your approach to keeping the best people?
AL SAWALEH: Our capacity to attract, retain, and manage executive talent depends not just on the compensation package, but also on our ability to create a long-term relationship and opportunities for professional development. We try to create a snapshot of each individual in our talent pipeline in terms of the three Es: education, experience, and exposure. And then we create the opportunities to make sure that they are well rounded.
We provide education through Etisalat Academy, a state-of-the-art facility for leadership training in Dubai, and through qualified local training services in the markets where we operate. In terms of experience, we ensure that high-potential employees rotate through a variety of assignments to get a broad background. This may include placement with outside companies that have international expertise [including Booz & Company, publisher of strategy+business]. Last, for exposure, we want to ensure that people are comfortable in different working environments. They must be culturally resourceful. So we make sure they have the chance to work in different markets.
S+B: Is this approach to creating loyalty effective in all markets?
AL SAWALEH: It varies by individual, of course, but it also varies by market. In markets where there is no long-term stability — such as Afghanistan and West Africa — people will naturally focus on short-term incentives rather than long-term development opportunities. But even in these countries, people are attracted to us because of our brand, our values, and our reputation.
Naturally, we make sure that we offer compensation and benefits that are competitive, and other perks that make Etisalat an attractive place to work. First and foremost is the safety and security of our people, especially in high-risk locations. It is really important to us to ensure our employees’ well-being. There have been cases where a member of an employee’s family had a medical issue, such as cancer, that was not fully covered by our health insurance, and we have picked up the full cost of care. And then we have family gatherings, social clubs, social networks. Finally, functional forums let people — for instance, in HR — from different operating companies meet and network.
S+B: How does the talent strategy work on the ground in some of your more challenging markets?
AL SAWALEH: Take Afghanistan as an example. Since the 1980s, there has been a steady exodus of educated, qualified Afghan nationals to other countries. The challenge now is to develop a new talent pipeline amid a continuing state of war.
To do so, we’re focusing on two programs in Afghanistan. The first is our graduate trainees program, which takes 60 new graduates and fast-tracks their career via a two-year training program in Afghanistan and the UAE. We teach them skills in technology, finance, marketing, sales, and customer service, together with programs in personal effectiveness. The other is the management succession program, which in 2010 identified 50 managers, all Afghan nationals, to participate in a 15-month program to build their skills and enhance their performance.