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Middle East Expansion Expected to Come to a Halt Mid-Year

In this interview, we talked to Shane Phillips, from The Phillips Group, about the results of the 2016 BlueSteps Executive Job Outlook report and his advice for candidates. Download the full report here.
 

Many executives expect the number of executive jobs to increase in 2016. Is now the time to make a move?

My advice is that it is not the time to make a move. The markets are heading into a very negative direction and the Middle East is facing one of its biggest geo-political challenges ever, with an arch of conflict that splashes across the Levant to North Africa. With oil prices at record lows, 2016 will most likely witness companies abandoning their growth agendas and expansion plans.

To make issues worse, boardrooms in the GCC can be reactionary and may not throttle back until the situation worsens. What this means is that in Q1 or Q2 a CEO and their board may be committed to a certain direction only to drastically change course by Q3 or Q4. You do not want to be hired for one strategy and find yourself arriving to a new strategic agenda on your first day on the job. This can be a career killer. There is also the chance that, with strategy changes in the next two quarters, there may be a few accepted senior job offers that will be rescinded by companies caught in a seismic strategic shift.

Executives need to tread carefully during this period and as the idiom goes “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”
 

shane_phillips_executive_job_outlookWhat global economic trends do you see having the most impact on executive jobs in the coming year?

It all depends on what economic story you subscribe to; for most they see the current situation as a supply and demand curve with oil in over supply thus driving prices down. If you subscribe to this theory then the economic environment will eventually warm up as the best remedy for a low oil price, is a low oil price. For others, they view this as a war of the petrodollar with the US in a precarious position of losing its grip on world banking markets. Russia, Iraq, Iran, China, Syria, Libya, Venezuela are all prepared to stop trading oil in US dollars and this would bring the collapse of America’s currency.

The current frosty political situation may drive the West and its allies to have a penchant for a prolonged low oil price driving a knife edge into their opponents. I believe this is why we saw such a quick shift by the US in foreign policy to Iran as the United States tries to pierce its growing opposition by bringing Iran back into Western influence. Many also believe this is why we see growing instability in other geographies. Perhaps the new Presidency will see warmer relations between Putin and the White House which would lend itself to warmer oil prices. If Iran becomes a pro-Western, moderate Islamic, state such as Turkey, and Putin shakes hands with Washington, I think we will see an economic boom. If the reverse happens we will be in a very challenging economic environment.

In summary, if you believe in the supply and demand story there is not too much to worry about as excess cash reserves by governments and companies should be enough to weather the storm. Markets in the Middle East could be hitting stride again by as early as mid-2017. If you believe that the moves in oil price are more politically driven than economically, we are in for a tough next few years. Companies need to focus on beta negative products and services and take severe measures now to streamline their cost positions and bullet proof their balance sheets as the low oil price could be a permanent fixture for the next three to four years.
 

How can an executive best present him/herself to get noticed by executive search consultants in today’s marketplace?

Executives who demonstrate intellectual curiosity in their professions and are striving to define the face of their industries will stand out. My question to any executive out there is which question is most relevant for you:

1. Are you focused on building your career?

2. Are you focused on building your company?

3. Are you focused on building an industry?

The latter is the most relevant for people who want to stand out. Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, JP Morgan and the greats among us have built their industries, or at least made a significant contribution to their industry. By definition, a leader is one who cares about the success of others. By being focused on making a contribution to your industry, you will by default become a leader amongst your peers. Individuals who just care about their own careers will end up living in a small world that revolves around themselves. They will not create a strong followership, nor will they stand out.

Finally, if you are focused on building your industry, create content, speak at conferences and bring visibility to your skills, insights and share you knowledge with the world. To get the best things in life you have to give them away; so share as much of your knowledge as you can. This is the best way to shine.
 

What would you rank as the major challenges for executives at the moment, and what executive skills are in high demand considering those current challenges?

The most challenging topic for executives at the moment is whether they should invest in growth or cut costs and brace for an economic slowdown. That particular issue aside there is a big emphasis on the following three skill areas for senior executives:

1.    Vision

2.    Strategy

3.    Change Culture Champion

Vision and Strategy

The current environment has pushed most groups to consider international diversification much more seriously; so executives who have a successful history of creating long term visions for businesses will be the most attractive to MENA Region Boards. There is a demand on vision and strategic skills in which employers want to see someone who is able to make long term and accurate predictions about where the market is going. In addition to this, risk has become a critical element to any business group’s strategy; so executives need to be able to build sustainable visions with fortified defensive positions carved into them. Thus, from a strategic perspective, executives must be able to create business plans that can deal with the new economic cycles of pronounced peaks and valleys. This will be a major focus moving forward and most companies do not have strong defensive positions in the MENA region.

For example, real estate developers are now keeping a large portion of their properties for rental; so in a downturn if their projects are not 100% sold, they will still have rental income providing cash flow. Also, many family businesses are complimenting their portfolio with FMCG items, like water, beverages, dairy and other defensive product areas.

Have you as an executive historically been able to build the right mix of beta positive and negative products and services to allow your company to endure a downturn and soar during a bull run? Those who get this mix right will be in high demand.

Change Culture

Thirdly, individuals are needed to help MENA businesses walk through the culture shift of moving from a regional power house to a global, competitive multi-national business. CEOs and business leaders who understand how to drive a large group of people to change direction and take ownership of a new strategy will be critical to any organization finding their success in the 21st Century. The way we are doing business and the way we are completing transactions is changing at light speed. Senior leaders who can lead culture change and are able to effectively re-construct the DNA of business, while maintaining employee engagement and low attrition rates will be the most valuable.
 

Why do you think most executives valued executive coaching and digital/social media training over other forms of additional training/education? Do you agree that this is the best way for executives to stay relevant in the job market, other than on the job experience?

At a senior level you have the technical skills for the position and now your job is 80 percent to 90 percent about influencing others. Where most managers focus on what message is being communicated, the top performing CEOs focus on what message is being received. In order to understand how you are being received, you should have a third, unbiased party, such as a coach or mentor, to provide that feedback. As you push your career past the top quartile into the top five or 10 percent, the differentiators become marginal. A coach can help you close these gaps, which matters because sometimes winning the next big job is secured by just a nose hair. So coaching is an area where top performers can get a competitive advantage over other executives.

Social media or digital has become the chosen channel due to travel schedules as it is much easier to log into a Skype call from your home at 9pm than to meet in person. In the MENA region, most executives travel 60 percent of the time, so face-to-face meetings can sometimes take weeks to arrange. So many of my clients do coaching via video conference.
 

Unfortunately, we did not receive enough survey responses in the Middle East to present expanded data for the region. What is your view on the region – is the outlook positive in comparison to the global outlook? Do you expect the number of executive-level jobs to increase?

When it comes to the Middle East market, the best advice I can give you is don’t bet against Sheikh Mohammed (the prime minister of UAE) because if you do, you will lose! The Middle East may be heading into a spotty patch in 2016, but that is nothing new for the region as we have experienced our slow-downs in the past and have always come out the other end stronger. By 2017, Dubai will have five theme parks, and by 2020, it will host the World Expo.

Additionally, the region is in sync with major economic trends, such as renewable energy, with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters being based in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. You also have an increased consumer presence from Africa in the region. For example, in 2015 many Dubai hospitals are now quoting that their most profitable customers are coming from Nigeria, Ghana and other African emerging economies. So the Middle East will continue to attract revenue and capital from Africa, Europe, the Levant, as well as Asia.

My prediction is the Middle East will experience a strong bull run in 2018 leading up to 2020. We will see continued growth among almost all sectors during this period, but unfortunately the cost of living will also sky rocket. Cities like Dubai will become increasingly expensive and governments will begin to impose taxes, tariffs and costs to anything and everything they can get their hands on. Net-net, in the medium term, the benefit of a tax-free economy will be slowly eroded away; a process which has already started.
 

If you could offer one key piece of advice to today’s senior leaders, what would that be?

My advice is take responsibility for your industry on a global level. Rally thought leaders around the world and become the center point of cutting edge innovation, approaches, methodologies, products and services for your industry. Then produce thought leadership content and be committed to making others successful. Become a shining light of knowledge and insight that has a gravitational pull on others. Focus on becoming a global guru in your field and stop thinking about small things like your career or your next promotion.


For more one-on-one interviews and commentary from leading executive search consultants, download the full report here.

2017 BlueSteps Career Outlook Report

The 2017 BlueSteps Career Outlook Report connects insights from more than 1,200 management-level professionals around the world, all BlueSteps members. Findings from the report include data on what industries, sectors, and geographic regions executives expect to see the most growth, with supporting data from AESC member executive search consultants. The data for this report was generated by BlueSteps and the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants. Download a complimentary summary of the report below.

Download the Summary

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