How this African consulting firm is redefining hiring and talent development

by Staff Writer

Hiring and developing talent can be a real challenge. Everyone wants to find that unicorn of a candidate, with all the right technical expertise, experience, and soft skills needed to make a big, positive impact.

But the reality of hiring is a lot less magical — most companies wade through resumes, judging candidates on the skills they have before talking to a single person about their ability to learn, grow, and develop the skills they need.

Open Capital Group is bucking that trend. They’re an African-based company with a mission to advance local economies and build the future generation of business leaders. And with their new staffing service line, Arcadia, they’re heavily investing in talent development in all the right ways.

We caught up with COO, Anne Stoehr and Group Communications Manager, Corazon Wandimi to learn more.

Give us a brief overview of Open Capital Group

Stoehr: We think about our work at Open Capital Group as a two-part mission, and both are equally important to us.

The first part is the work we do with our client base to advance African economies. Open Capital Advisors was founded to support high-potential African businesses by solving their tough problems, which can be everything from raising capital, to expanding to new markets, or tackling operational challenges. We’ve expanded to also work closely with investors from all around the world and development partners — agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and the Department for International Development (DFID).

The second part focuses on the work we do in building our people; developing talent to be a future generation of business leaders here in Africa. At Open Capital Group, we spend a lot of time recruiting top talent, locally and in the markets where we operate, training them, and providing the experience and guidance they need to become great leaders. So, we’re not just an advisory firm.

How did Arcadia develop from Open Capital Advisors?

Stoehr: It was partly a need we saw for our clients and partly an internal need. As of today, we’ve done over 400 engagements across the continent, and we noticed that companies were consistently struggling to find the talent they needed to enable their ambitious growth plans.

"80% of African CEOs say that human capital is the biggest threat to their growth."

We experienced those same challenges ourselves as we’ve grown Open Capital. We want to ensure that we’re moving our staff through the ranks and giving people additional opportunities for their career by advancing them into management-level positions at the right time.

In general, there's a consistent need around talent on the continent: 80% of African CEOs say that human capital is the biggest threat to their growth. The issue isn’t availability of raw talent, but developing that talent in areas like adaptability, problem solving, and leadership.

Is it mainly because of the available skills in the talent pool?

Stoehr: I think it's a combination of things. It's finding the right talent, exposing them to the right experiences, and continually training and coaching that talent on the job. There are also the broader challenges around employability.

Wandimi: In Kenya, like most other places in the region, there are also very few opportunities for students when they finish their university degree. Unemployment rates among young adults is quite high, so a platform like Arcadia really helps. We recruit most candidates straight out of university, we train them, and we give them the experience they need to build their careers.

How do you recognize talent potential when someone doesn’t have past job experience?

Wandimi: Most of it is part of our interview process, which is very well structured. We test candidates on their problem-solving skills and we give them scenarios to test their critical thinking on the spot.

Stoehr: Yeah, I think it's a combination of testing those soft skills and the technical skills throughout the interview process. Even if someone struggles a bit through the interview, you might see their perseverance when they ask for feedback. We emphasize growth mindset a lot at Open Capital, so we look for people who are willing to try again, who believe that intelligence isn't fixed, and who are willing to learn and adapt.

How do you develop and manage soft skills?

Stoehr: Throughout our training, there's a lot of application of soft skills. If it's a skill like public speaking, for example, an individual who's going through our training program will stand up in front of their co-workers and deliver a presentation.

I think what's important is that they're exposed to practicing that skill. They're given feedback on that skill, and then someone follows up with them to ensure that skill continues to be honed through our mentorship program.

Everyone in the firm has a mentor who helps them develop the right skills and ensures that they have exposure to skill areas where they might be weaker. Mentors are also staffing advocates.

One of the things we're currently exploring is having more gradation in our learnings. Depending on where folks are coming in, we want to create more individualized and targeted training. The goal is that people can opt in for some sessions, opt out of others, and really create an individualized learning plan for themselves.

But this expands beyond just formal training. On-the-job support, shadowing opportunities, coaching opportunities, the mentorship program — it’s the role that everyone plays in an individual’s development.

Wandimi: There’s also a lot of ad-hoc training on different topics. We have brown bag discussions, for example, where we have staff and external experts speak to the team about everything from blockchain to daily efficiency.

When do you decide someone's ready to go out in the field?

Stoehr: It’s never an easy call, but we have the benefit of lots of data from all the formal and informal training programs.

When we look at whether someone's ready, it's as much about the construct of the engagement as their skills. Who is managing them? What are the client deliverables? What’s the operating environment? We try to marry that with what we know each person is capable of.

We never want to put someone in a situation or environment where they feel overwhelmed or not adequately prepared, and where — as a result — they may under-deliver. We want our people to feel stretched but positioned to succeed and our clients to feel like they received exceptional support.

"Readiness is not only a point in time. We try to think about it in terms of what project might be right for that person, given the level of performance they've demonstrated thus far."

Based on your experience, what advice can you offer other companies focused on talent development?

Stoehr: First, you have to think about how to find the talent you want to develop. We use the interview process to test the actual skills that someone will be using on the job.

Wandimi: There were definitely a couple of areas during my interview where different skills were tested. Because I'm in communications, a bit of it was written, and a bit of it was samples of work I've done in the past, like documents and presentations. There were about five or six different pieces that I submitted before I even came in for the in-person interview.

I think more companies are going in this direction. They'll probably have a first chat with you, just to find out who you are, and then send out some work for you to do. After that, they’ll call you in for an interview.

That said, there are still many companies that skip all of that. I've been to interviews where it's literally just a series of face-to-face interviews with different staff and it feels like a subjective question of, “do they all like you?”.

Stoehr: Developing talent is also a function of our culture. One of the reasons for our high retention is having a culture of feedback: ensuring folks are getting consistent feedback as they're rolling on and off different projects.

For example, during each project kick-off meeting, folks share what they want to work on, what their strengths are, and what they think they can bring to the project. We make sure that dialogue is there.

I also think a lot of companies are moving away from just checking on performance once throughout the year. It's now an ongoing conversation, and Open Capital has multiple outlets for that. Your mentor will help, and your project manager can help. But really, anyone in the firm can be a resource for you.

One other thing that we didn't really touch on is staffing on internal projects, which is equally important to staffing on client projects. This gives folks exposure to people who might have different skillsets. It’s a different experience than what they would do on a client project and important for growth.

Wandimi: To add to Anne’s point, the culture here is very collaborative, something that other organizations should encourage. Everyone is very helpful and willing to assist you to reach your goals. So, it's not like you're given a project and told, “Okay, see you when you're done.”

People will actively come up to you and ask if you need help with anything. Your manager or your boss will always check in with you and will help you along the way. Collaboration is really celebrated.

Editor’s note: A version of this interview originally appeared on the 10,000ft blog. In 2019, Smartsheet acquired 10,000ft to enhance resource management capabilities for Smartsheet customers. Learn more about 10,000ft.