Unlike many other regions in the world the Middle East is characterised by a diverse range of nationalities and different cultures. Official estimates suggest that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone are host to some 200 different nationalities.

Put in context, such diversity is both an enormous challenge and an opportunity for business. HR functions in particular will need to ensure they facilitate the appropriate people management practices and processes that will achieve competitive advantage and satisfy the career expectations of a largely transient expatriate workforce.

I have worked for a number of years in HR-related capacities in the Middle East and on balance (with no dismissing of the very good work being done in many quarters), I think that these practices and processes are still evolving in the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) region.  This apparent relative lack of sophistication in parts may be due in part to the attitudes, preferences and expectations of the multicultural workforce, a workforce that may for the most part prefer an autocratic style of management.   Put crudely, if you are there to make a quick tax-free buck for a short period and then return home, you may be less concerned about the ability of your employer to look after and develop you in the longer term.  Equally employers could be forgiven for taking the view in the past that the last word in pastoral and man-management best practice might not be necessary when the income and expatriate lifestyle will draw in a solid stream of replacement candidates.  No doubt this is an over-generalisation and attitudes are certainly changing, but they have left a legacy which may take some time to disappear entirely.

Two separate reports provide evidence of the position in these areas: Boston Consulting Group’s (BCG) 2008 Global report ‘How to address HR challenges worldwide through 2015’ did not even include the Middle East in their Global research and HAY Group’s ‘Lift Off-Unleashing performance in the Middle East’ highlighted that the dominant leadership style in the MENA region tends to be coercive, a command and control management style that is indirectly encouraged by employees’ lack of desire for greater autonomy.  However, the recent economic resurgence of Dubai in particular will undoubtedly have created a tougher environment for employers in the battle to retain talent.  Like everyone else, their tactics will have to continue to move away from pure cash towards these softer but differentiating factors.

What then are the implications for talent management and leadership in the region and how can we develop these critical areas to increase competitiveness?

  1. Continue to seek out best practice from around the globe and learn from other organisations about what works and what doesn’t.
  2. Get your recruitment process right hire talented people with potential and go out of your way to develop them.
  3. Develop a robust talent management process that can identify high potentials based on strict objective quantitative and qualitative criteria.
  4. Choose your management carefully and choose your leaders even more carefully.
  5. Assess, develop, evaluate and educate your leaders- know what an effective leader looks like.
  6. Examine and evaluate leaders in the round and not just based on their technical skills.
  7. Incorporate tools and techniques into your selection and development processes that can test a range of competencies, not just their technical abilities.
  8. Look for diversity in leaders- do not attempt to clone leaders or their existing management styles if you want to see those style change.
  9. Regional and sector experience are important but a premium should be placed on international exposure as a means of introducing (almost by osmosis) a more collegiate management style which may bring competitive advantage to a more mature and established workforce.
  10. Cultural sensitivity and religious tolerance are key competencies.