Lisa Emami is the Chief Talent Officer of Averda, the largest environmental services provider in emerging markets and a respected Mercer partner. As CTO, Lisa is helping to accelerate Averda’s business transformation through leadership, a unique culture of performance and engagement, and the attraction and development of adventurous talent in emerging markets. She also acts as a trusted advisor to the CEO and senior leadership team.
Ms. Emami began her career with General Motors Corporation at their world headquarters in Detroit, gaining exposure in various HR areas including Global Compensation, Talent Management, Global Workforce Planning, and HR Consultancy Services. Lisa holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA, a Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management & Labor Relations from Michigan State University, USA, and an International MBA from IE Business School in Madrid, Spain.
Mercer had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Emami, who was more than happy to discuss Averda’s dedicated focus on emerging markets (such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa), how their unique employee assignment models and philosophies allow them to get the most out of their global workforce initiatives, and much more.
Could you provide a short introduction of your company?
Averda is an international waste management company headquartered in Dubai, UAE. We have operations in 10 countries across the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), Africa, Europe, and more than 14,000 employees serving millions of people every day.
Our extensive service portfolio addresses a broad range of environmental needs including cleaning, collecting, recovering, recycling, diverting, and disposing of all forms of solid and liquid waste for various industries. Our successful partnerships with both private and public sector organizations help preserve residential, commercial, and industrial areas.
How large is your assignment population, and how many countries do you cover?
In a given year, we have 30-40 assignees who are primarily assigned to African markets (Gabon, Congo, and Morocco), with a few assignments within the GCC.
What is the main objective for sending staff overseas?
As a company focused on emerging markets, deployment of talent is a critical part of Averda’s international business strategy. We deploy assignees on a short-term basis primarily to:
- Transfer knowledge (attain local-market insights or deliver group-level expertise).
- Perform duties on short-term cross-border projects.
- Cover a critical vacancy short-term, until permanent local talent is acquired.
- Launch / roll-out operations in newly acquired markets.
Our long-term assignees are deployed primarily to:
- Develop high-potential and high-performing leaders in business-critical roles that support strategic growth objectives.
- Fill critical skill-gaps where there is a proven shortage of local talent, and where the cost of filling the gap through external sources (e.g. recruitment agencies) outweighs the benefits.
- Retain a high-performing or high-potential employee whose career path extends beyond available roles in the home country, and whose retention value outweighs the cost to replace him/her.
- Stabilize or grow operations in newly acquired markets.
We adopt a "70-20-10" rule of thumb as our leadership development philosophy, which emphasizes that the most significant and effective form of professional development (70%) occurs through on-the-job shadowing (formal mentorship accounts for 20% and in-class training contributing 10%). As our assignees are groomed for senior positions, it is the exposure and visibility to top leadership and diverse work experiences that uniquely position them to serve as the future pipeline to our key roles.
You built your mobility program on the back of new opportunities in Sub-Saharan African countries. Hence, you were faced with two challenges: sending staff out of the Middle East, and sending them to so-called “hardship” destinations. How did you overcome these challenges?
We operate on the philosophy that the outcomes of every assignment and their value to the business must outweigh the total cost of the assignment. Therefore, we focused on maximizing the benefits while controlling costs, rather than cutting costs without analysis and optimization of the assignment’s benefits to the business.
After a period of observation and cost-benefit analysis of our first pool of assignees out of the Middle East to Africa, we (1) identified the need to set clearer expectations for the results to be generated from each assignment, (2) enhanced some non-monetary allowances and in some instances, (3) reviewed the selection criteria for assignments.
Setting Clearer Expectations for Assignment Results:
Our employees understand that we value adventurous, mobile talent who can power through any challenge that comes their way. By making assignments performance-focused and ensuring clear linkages back to assignees’ career paths, we were able to reduce the perception that assignments are solely money-making endeavors and highlight them as opportunities for professional growth.
Enhancing Non-Monetary Allowances:
By leveraging Mercer’s tools and market data, we were able to clearly demonstrate to assignees where we were already meeting and, in a few cases, exceeding market-rate allowances. This enabled us to take a more confident stance on our monetary provisions and focus package negotiations around non-monetary benefits such as additional home leave days and flexible pay delivery set-ups.
Reviewing Selection Criteria for Assignments:
Following our observation and analysis period, we began to assess the possibility of fulfilling some assignments from regional markets like Morocco, instead of turning to the Middle East talent pool by default. We found this strategy to be effective given the level of education and enthusiasm for overseas opportunities among our Morocco-based staff.
Averda does not follow the traditional short-term (up to one year) and long-term assignment model (over one year). What was the reason for deviating?
Our assignment durations are aligned with the nature of our business. It typically takes 3-6 months to roll out operations in a new city, so our short-term assignment duration is capped at 6 months. Thanks to the assessment centers we run to source and recruit local talent, 6 months is sufficient time to fill key positions, transfer knowledge to new hires, and get the operation fully up to contractual standards. Beyond this period, only a handful of expatriate staff are typically required to stay on long-term to ensure operational sustainability.
This structure has also helped us to better control mobility costs and minimize assignment tax liabilities, while creating the space to focus on training and upskilling local talent which is a big focus for us in the emerging markets we serve.
Many Averda assignees do not bring their family on assignment. Has this created an increased assignment failure risk, and if so, how have you tackled this?
For long-term assignments, we require the first year to be unaccompanied, as this gives the assignee a period to adjust to the new location and his or her family an opportunity to determine their own comfort-level with the market via short-term visits. After the first year, assignees do have the option to bring their families. However, due to the nature of our business and the hardship locations we operate in, most of them opt to keep their families in their home countries to avoid disrupting their children’s education or their spouse’s career progress.
We ensure our assignees who opt to leave their families at home have the means to stay in regular touch with them via more annual leave days and quarterly home-country flights.
We’ve found that this approach actually reduces the risk of assignment failure as it places the choice in the hands of the assignee and gives them an opportunity to make the decision based on hard facts gathered through personal experiences in a new market, rather than assumptions and hypotheticals.
Based on what you’ve learned from your experiences so far, are you looking for ways to review or improve your policies over the next few years?
Yes, we are looking at reviewing some elements of our current International Assignment Policy to ensure we continue to adopt best in class market practices, offer a holistic value proposition to our assignees, and to enable us to drive our overall business strategy for the next 3-5 years.
We aim to create a learning & development-focused short-term assignment category wherein opportunities for job rotation will be offered to our employees globally.
What would be your recommendations for other companies that are thinking of sending staff out to new operations in Sub-Saharan Africa?
As a first step, there should be a clear organizational need and a compelling reason that the assignment need can’t be fulfilled through local hires. We believe that a key to operating sustainably in emerging markets, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, is to hire and develop local talent, and eventually give them opportunities to gain international experience.
Otherwise, it is important to select assignees who not only possess the required technical skills and meet the tenure and performance requirements, but are also growth-minded and willing to adapt to new cultures.
For companies that are new to the global mobility space, as we were just four years ago, it is tempting to rely on publicly available market data and industry word of mouth when designing your first program. However, a thorough understanding of the nuances in market conditions, costs of living, hardship, housing costs etc. can help you structure a more relevant and employee-friendly value proposition. This should be based on insights received from a trusted third-party data provider coupled with your own assessment of on-the-ground realities.
Above all else, a happy assignee who has some degree of autonomy is more likely to meet his or her assignment objectives than one who feels heavily restricted. Therefore, we recommend applying a degree of flexibility in non-monetary areas of your policy (where feasible) such as home-leave and structure of pay delivery.