INTERNATIONAL. Panos Manolopoulos has recently been appointed Managing Partner of the Middle East operations of Stanton Chase International, one of the top ten global executive search consulting firms. In this interview he says that Dubai and the Middle East is no longer seen as a posting for candidates to just make money. Increasingly there is the attraction of experiencing the fastest-growing markets in the world.
Based in the Dubai office, which is flagship office for the Middle East region and the first in a series of offices to open around key markets of the Middle East, Manolopoulos oversees the growth of the Middle East region as a whole.
He joined Stanton Chase in 2004 when he started as General Manager of the Bucharest office and became Managing Partner of that office in 2005. More importantly, Manolopoulos is the Global Practice Leader for Stanton Chase's Consumer Products and Services practice group. He has an extensive background and expertise in the Consumer Products and Professional Services industries. Some of his previous positions include Chief Administrator of the University of Wales Swansea and Managing Director of IKRP Rokas and Partners, a law consulting firm with offices in 12 Southeast European countries.
He holds a Bachelor's degree in Politics and International Relations (American University of Athens), a Master's degree in Diplomacy from the University of Lancaster in the UK and a PhD specialising in International Law and Relations.
Studies regularly show that CEOs and other top executives are deeply concerned about the strength of their current leadership teams in the Middle East and whether they have the pipeline of talent necessary for long-term business success. Rapid shifts in company strategies and people requirements: transformational mergers and acquisitions, numerous strategic hires, changes in how executives view and manage their careers, and the increasing speed of business competition require a more holistic approach to the way companies manage talent. We asked Stanton Chase about its particular approach to integrated human capital solutions and the extent to which the Middle East can benefit from the roaming talent in some sectors that may become surplus to requirements in the West, with the looming recession.
BI-ME: Stanton Chase has joined the trail of the international search firms coming to Dubai such as InterSearch/Talent 2, Boyden, Options and Heindrick & Struggles. Many other training firms, HR charting specialists and knowledge firms like KPMG are also involved in executive search. What is the background to Stanton and Chase coming to the Middle East?
PM: We have been established in the Middle East since 2006 as we realised that a lot of international companies were in the region and they wanted our services, but the actual operations as a service company started in mid-2007. Since our business depends on having the right people, it took time to put that in place, and we consider that date as the actual kick-off of the operation.
BI-ME: How is Stanton Chase structured now in the Middle East?
PM: Dubai is considered the hub, as part of the 20 offices in the EMEA region, with the other regions being North America, South America and Asia Pacific. Previously we had nothing in the Middle East.
BI-ME: Now after one year, have you observed any trends or patterns regarding which skills and which sectors have a particular demand for people?
PM: We have a lot of work with construction and real estate in general. There is also a shortage of people with particular skills in IT and technology. Also in the past we have worked in hospitality. Our group has individual practices that cover technology, financial services, consumer products & services in addition to industrials, manufacturing & engineering, and construction & real estate. We also have a logistics and transportation group so we can cover many sectors.
Generally there is a need for talented people to come to the Middle East. There is a high profile of Dubai as a part of the Middle East in the global market. But there is still the perception that the Middle East is a dangerous environment politically. This is especially true for the Americas and Middle America in its view of the Middle East, but I would say that lately there has been a change.
BI-ME: So there is greater recognition of the opportunities here amongst the multinationals?
PM: Firstly there is absolutely huge demand. Second, there is a demand for specialised people. In banking there is a requirement for people with international credit experience and people working in securities and stocks, and in real estate positions in project management. There is big demand for very experienced managers in hospitality and in some technology sectors such as mobile telephony.
BI-ME: Is the market becoming more crowded and competitive? Given the shortage of talent, would you say a large part of your work is involved in actually explaining the Middle East as an opportunity, and bringing in the people?
PM: The fact is that Dubai is now considered an attractive place. It is still the case that an executive search firm is actually selling the position to the candidate, then selling the candidate to the client. The most important aspect of this is to understand the company very well, and we have many long-standing clients.
Then we go for the best-fit candidate, not just the best-available candidate. So we sell the package, the company’s plans and its future as well as the region. It is a major challenge with an executive search company. We are always understanding well the position. And we are fully linked to hundreds of people around the world in our other offices.
BI-ME: So the Middle East region is more recognised as an interesting part of the world to work. Are there still some misconceptions with candidates and do you give them any preparation for coming here?
PM: We talk to them about the structure in the UAE and other Islamic countries and we somehow educate them in the opportunities. I would say that Dubai and the Middle East is no longer the place people come to make money. Yes, some packages are good and competitive with the rest of the world, but it is increasingly about quality of life. We tell them to come and experience the fastest-growing place in the world. They can tell their kids that 'I was there, in the UAE, at this point in time'.
We have observed the changes in the last few years. This is no longer necessarily a place to make money and make savings. Increasingly people spend money and they want to enjoy what is around them. The local environment makes you spend a lot of money. Dubai is not considered a dangerous place anymore. We are not in the 1990s and the cost of living is not as low as it used to be. So money is not our main argument any more. It might be the case only for some special project management positions in Afghanistan, Iraq or Eastern Europe, but not in Dubai.
Once we have secured a hiring, we spend time with the candidate to prepare them for the challenge. Coaching is an integral part of our executive search services. Our aim is to create successful employees that can add momentum to their company.
BI-ME: Are there any other tools or services other than executive search and selection that the company offers?
PM: We offer assessment and development of higher personnel. We can use some tools and we are reaching some conclusions about whether people are a correct fit for certain positions, whether they are over-qualified or not. We offer these complimentary consulting services. If there is a certain value of a person or a direction they can develop, we would mention that.
BI-ME: In Dubai in particular there are some many different nationalties and cultures in the average working environment, with something like 200 nationalities in the city. How can you prepare people for that?
PM: Yes there is a cultural challenge and sometimes candidates face a culture shock. We say that this might be the most important part of your CV for some years to come. It is important for candidates also to know that one day here can be like ten days in the West. You have to be very analytical and you have to solve a lot of problems on your own.
In our Dubai office we have 15 people and 14 different nationalities. One client, [real estate group and master planner] Nakheel, has 3,000 people and 75 nationalities and this creates automatically big challenges for any major company. But once you decide to stay here, you get a lot of experience, and a blend of the Western and Arab worlds that you don’t see anywhere else.
We use a Latin phrase ‘tabularga’, meaning empty board or stone. We tell candidates to come here and empty their minds of things they knew before, to use their experiences, but to start learning.
BI-ME: Can you give any details or insights into the cultural differences? Are there particular traits of Westerners, Arabs or South Asians for example?
PM: It is difficult and there are differences between some local customs and very demanding Western attitudes. We are seeing people here now from China, Asia and all over the world.
Even multinational companies will have a different culture in their branch, from their headquarters, with a blend of 50 or 60 nationalities that is the norm in Dubai. So those people have to be ready to adapt and learn to work in a slow process. They really need to invest some of their time in their belonging.
BI-ME: Isn’t it true that clients are becoming more and more specific and more and more global in their requirements? Do you receive requests for very specific qualities, nationalities or types of abilities?
PM: Lately, as they say, the world is flat. Yes, we work assiduously on any assignment but still the vast majority see no borders; they are international. For us it is the same process, providing it matches the criteria that have been set. Increasingly we are seeing the repatriation of a lot of Arab professionals in the US and elsewhere coming back to the Middle East because things have changed. This is especially true of the Lebanese, Egyptians and Jordanians.
BI-ME: When candidates think about the Middle East a lot of them think only ‘Dubai”. To what extent are there opportunities around other parts of the region and how do you explain the changes in these other markets?
PM: I believe that the big change in the following five to ten years will not be in Dubai, it will be in Saudi Arabia. This will be the big surprise for the business world. The competition in the region has increased dramatically for skills. If we take just the financial sector, there is the new financial centre in Riyadh. Bahrain is struggling from its former dominant position, but it will also be a surprise for the world. Qatar is investing in all areas and these things will signal a major change in the following five years.
It is likely that the professionals around the world will become more and more adept at doing their homework. We see that candidates around the world have started to have a much more analytical approach, because of the information on the web and other changes. They see opportunities elsewhere, not only in Dubai. We believe that Stanton Chase can play a role in all these markets that companies are considering, such as Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and the other Emirates.
Another major change will come when all the family-owned businesses will start to develop themselves with a multinational model. At one our recent business breakfast meetings, Dr Tommy Weir [consultant and head of learning and development at UAE property developer Nakheel] made the point that if we put the world’s top 50 companies in a list, a lot of them would be unknown as global brands.
If we look at Middle East companies like Al Futtaim, Al Ghanim, Nakheel or Emaar, these are companies that are really starting to behave as multinational companies and restructure themselves accordingly. So we will see a major growth in all the regional hubs with these conglomerates trying hard to change their models.