Navigating executive recruitment in a turbulent economy


Adjust your approach to filling executive roles according to the business environment.

High rates of unemployment in South Africa and growing global economic uncertainty are making life harder for recruiters. Candidates can be more selective about the jobs that they take but they are also less likely to take any significant risks.  Added to this are daily reminders from yet another JSE listed or state-run companies that are going through a restructuring process. It is a terrifying time for every employee, whether you are at a higher level of management or even just part of the working class.  

Recruitment is rarely a straightforward task, it is coupled with hours of research, phone calls, meetings with candidates and negotiating between candidates and clients. Even filling temporary, unskilled positions requires perusing CVs, holding interviews, assessing attitudes and whittling down candidates.  The process is neither shorter or longer if it is a permanent role or long-term investment for the company, something more temporary or part of the restructuring of the company and its needs.  

Companies are also considering merging in order to avoid the restructuring process and this brings with it a level of complexity that is far beyond what ordinary recruitment agencies and HR Departments were previously subjected to.  All of this contributes to the hiring process and makes it a key business challenge that needs to be dealt with delicately in order to maintain calm within the workforce, especially at the executive level.

We’ve witnessed the results of such turmoil in the UK and USA during the 2008 global economic crash where the change was unsettling and the long term effects have been devastating for both the economies of the countries as well as long term staff retainment – are we ready for this level of turbulence in South Africa?

Executives are choosing the safe bets

With unemployment in South Africa at its highest, the loss of skilled individuals to other countries and senior executives who are seeking alternatives by moving to better opportunities, leaving the country or changing their focus entirely; operating on a consultation basis but not necessarily committing to a certain sector or company it is glaring that, when executives perceive the market to be unstable, they choose the road that they are most comfortable with and have less appetite for risk.


Organisations looking to recruit top executive talent can no longer rely on traditional methods to acquire the best people and the result is that there is more pressure on recruitment agencies to provide advice, ensure that the process is seamless and that both parties are happy with the ever worrying issue of counter-offers looming at any stage.

Naturally, the channels through which companies normally access talent must be diversified and augmented, but there are other powerful endeavours which can help attract and keep the right executives.

Culture is still key

To attract great people, you must offer them a great place to work. Truly successful working environments are cultivated by having the right mix of personalities and skillsets. Often, HR departments are overworked. They play the role of payroll management, creditors, debtors and HR policy management and sometimes don’t get to attend to the basics of ensuring that all people within the company feel valued.  

No pool table, Friday afternoon drinks sessions or flexi hours can substitute a culture built on mutual respect, and shared ambitions.  Truly successful working environments are cultivated by having the right mix of personalities and skillsets.

Your employees are ambassadors of your organisation and if they are unhappy, it shows very quickly. Believe me. One day you might think all is well with your employees but you are always one decision away from upsetting your staff and that discontent spreads like wildfire.  By investing in the development of a strong, supportive culture, open and transparent communication and involving your staff contingent in as much of the companies decisions will go a long way towards inspiring their enthusiasm and contentment – this quickly becomes a more potent advert than anything published online or in print.

Managing expectations

It’s vital to remember that however challenging it is to recruit the right executive, it is nothing compared to the challenges that come when it becomes apparent an executive is a poor fit for your organisation.  In the world where we do want to rush the process, there is a balance between taking the first guy who gets the entire interview panels vote and compromising on your expectations as a means of filling a position more quickly.

When interviewing a candidate, share with them your expectations and your thoughts for the future of the company and be willing to accept their insights and a different approach to things.  Often, we sit in so many board meetings that we decide that is the way forward and it takes one individual from the outside to change your whole perspective and possibly grow your company in ways that you never imagined. If you felt you needed that new executive, there must be room for growth and in turn, a broader perspective on the role too.

Broaden your outlook

How an organisation recruits top executives can often be restrictive, so maybe you need a new recruitment agency or the outside thoughts of people in a similar industry or perhaps even from a different sector entirely.  When organisation recruit based on a predetermined notion of what the perfect executive should be, there is seldom room for manoeuvre, which limits your company and the people who are working with you to fill the role.  

In times of market stability, this is an understandable and generally productive tactic, but these are not the times that we are living in – we need to be willing to explore, reach out and go back to critical thinking when it comes to investing in our staff.  

Organisations must instead look at broadening their search criteria and methodology by exploring sectors and industries outside of their own for talent.  Maybe there are things that have worked for other companies and can work for yours too.

An organisation, for instance, could also invest in current employees and ‘build’ them up to competently assume the role.  This is a way of retaining staff whilst opening opportunities for new candidates to fill the roles below them.  Your executives can build teams around them that are competent and have similar values and ethics about the company.

If the predictions of some of the most decorated senior executives and HR managers are to materialise, recruitment of top-level professionals is likely to become more difficult in the foreseeable future.  Exactly how difficult it will be, however, depends on business leaders and how willing they are to expose themselves to new ideas, approaches, and practices.

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