What drives black talent in South Africa?

There is a significant disjoint between what young black talent in South Africa wants and what most corporates are delivering.
This is according to new research findings which concluded that this mismatch was also contributing to the damaging culture of job hopping in corporate South Africa.

The research – a qualitative survey carried out by Cape Town based market researcher, the Consumer Insight Agency – involved in-depth, videoed interviews with over 60 black individuals drawn from a pool of corporate talent at entry, middle and senior management level.

It delves into the psychology of job hopping – a topic that has received widespread coverage in the media in the last decade – in order to reach a deeper understanding of how and why personal drivers are clashing so badly with what corporates offer.

“The research was sparked by corporate complaints that black talent in South Africa is hard to hold onto,” said Claudia Cruz, project manager.

“While the phenomenon of job hopping is by no means unique to South Africa, it appears to be exacerbated here by transformation imperatives combined with a scarcity of black talent,” said Cruz.

Few studies exist to prove or disprove this perception although recent research by the Unilever Institute at the University of Cape Town found that a significant 65% of black employees had changed their jobs at least once within the last three years.

The Consumer Insight Agency research aimed to get behind these statistics to find out what’s really driving black talent in South Africa and to interrogate some of the popular perceptions of job hopping, for example, that hoppers are largely driven by the promise of higher salaries.

“In fact it is hardly ever money on its own that is driving these individuals,” said Cruz. “While money is considered to be important – particularly as it relates to being properly recognised for a job well done – our investigations found several additional factors that contribute to restlessness among black talent.”

Top of the list is the spirit of entrepreneurship. The research found that almost all of respondents dreamed of starting their own business.

Driving this are a series of complex motives which include the desire to ‘call the shots’ and to set the tone of the organisational culture as well as the desire to give something back to their communities and to create a legacy.

“Many respondents voiced the feeling that, as black individuals, they had been previously barred from accumulating significant wealth and resources for themselves and their families and communities.

“There was a strong sense that giving back is a major contributor to the desire for success and, in particular, the desire to start and run their own successful business,” said Cruz.

What is startling about this response is that few are dreaming solely of climbing the corporate ladder to become the CEO or the board chairman – the conventional career path that most corporates offer.

“This is not a typical Western dream of individual career success. It is a different head space entirely – one that is informed by our unique history of discrimination and the spirit of ubuntu,” said Wendy Cochrane also from the Agency.

Personal growth also plays a key role in people’s desire to move between jobs,” said Cruz. “They want to be constantly challenged – to gain skills across a broad range of disciplines – often because they see themselves skilling up to the point where they will be able to start their own business.

“Moving between roles is another good way to build networks and cement ties which are perceived to be useful in the longer term for going solo.”

Both of these factors are exacerbated by the perception that there is a finite window of opportunity in which to gain this experience. “Many respondents reported that they felt they had no more than ten years left before ‘black goes out of fashion’ and the opportunity to gain maximum experience is lost,” said Cruz.

In addition to the pull of self-employment and self-actualisation, black employees also experience significant push factors within corporates that lead them to switch jobs. According to the study, there was a strong message from those interviewed that culture clash, hostility at work and lack of recognition are big contributors to changing jobs.

“Stifling corporate cultures that seek to stamp out difference, accusations of tokenism, open resistance from line managers and being sidelined are all issues that we encountered in the research,” said Cruz.

“Many spoke of a fear of failure; they feel that where white colleagues are allowed to fail, their own failure is taken as proof that they are just token appointments. This places undue pressure on individuals.”

This situation is clearly intolerable to ambitious young black individuals who are keen to make their mark, to prove themselves and are eager to be recognised for doing a good job.

“The challenge going forward will be to take these insights back to the corporates so that new solutions can be found to enable them to hold onto black talent long enough to recoup their investment,” said Cochrane.

“These findings are very much a starting point,” she said. “We, in association with training consultancy, Learn to Lead, will be taking the research forward with corporate clients to workshop new working solutions that will effectively close the gap between what black talent wants and what corporates can deliver. The goal is to bring about a détante in the war for top black talent!”

“Job hopping? Ask any HR manager who will have something to say on the topic. It is a subject that has received widespread coverage in the South African media in the last ten years with many claiming that affirmative action has led to an increase in job hopping amongst black talent in the country,” said Moses Ngobeni who heads up MVN Business Development, an executive recruitment agency based in Cape Town, in his reaction to the research.

“The problem of course is that job hopping is damagingly expensive to corporates. It is expensive to recruit and train talented individuals only to lose them within a three year period.

“The recent research by the Unilever Institute that found that 65% of black employees had changed their jobs at least once within the last three years, is well short of the five year time period most HR managers would aim for in retention.”

Ngobeni believed that it could cost more than R80 000 in commission and advertising alone to place a person earning between R400 000 and R600 000 per annum.

“Then there are training costs and the associated opportunity costs of taking someone out of their ordinary function to train a newcomer.

“Hardly surprising then that the topic at the top of most HR managers’ minds is what is driving this black talent and how can we figure out ways to hang onto it.

“The Consumer Insight Agency’s research is shedding some light on the matter. It seeks to get beyond the statistics and the speculation to reach a deeper understanding on how and why personal drivers are conflicting with what corporates are offering.

“And it has confirmed what many of us have known for a long time – that the factors driving black talent are far more complex than just the lust for ever greater salaries.

“It is a common misconception that money is the main driver of job hoppers – and it is a belief that has led too many corporates paying a premium for a black employee rather than a white one.”

According to a recent Finweek report this premium can be as much as 30 to 40%. Undoubtedly the money is attractive. According to figures from the South Africa Institute of Race Relations, income trends in recent years has seen the movement of black South Africans into high income brackets accelerating since 1998 (35,7% of blacks migrated to the bracket of those earning more than R153 601 a year in 2004).

But many corporates are now finding that paying salary premiums, far from having the effect of securing employee loyalty, may actually be contributing to job hopping.

“The Agency research identifies a number of additional drivers that corporates would do well to take note of if they want to be more successful at holding onto hot black talent.

“Top of the list is the spirit of entrepreneurship,” Ngobeni suggested. “The research found that almost all of the respondents dreamed of starting their own business. Driving this are a series of complex motives.”

Prof Chris Breen who runs a course on embracing complexity and diversity at the UCT Graduate School of Business, thinks that the inability to let black talent develop and shine amounts to a failure on the part of big business to take advantage of a major tool for competitiveness.

“South Africa’s business landscape is dominated by a drive to enhance work force diversity in our companies. But, in meeting these diversity targets, are the real performance benefits of diversity being missed by our organisations?” he asks.

“Diversity is becoming a key factor for competitiveness globally with analysts increasingly highlighting that, with organisations today operating in intensely competitive and complex conditions needing rich information processing, having a diverse work force that adds flexibility and real-time problem processing power to an organisation is critical.

“This is a performance aspect that may be obscured in South Africa if we continue to focus only on getting the numbers right.”

While the Agency research is only a starting point, the obvious jump off for corporates is to use these insights to generate new ways of doing business.

Many South African corporates are already doing innovative things to attract and retain black talent and it is not surprising that these companies usually appear somewhere near the top of the list of the top companies to work for in South Africa. However, they are not enough.

The challenge for all of us in business in South Africa is surely to learn from and emulate these successes while finding new ways of getting the balance right so that black individuals and big business can get along together for the greater benefit of us all.

by Claudia Cruz

Claudia Cruz is project manager at Consumer Insight Agency, a Cape Town based market research company.

Source: Management Today

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