Hiring A Country Manager: Our Expert Panel Reveals How to Find the Perfect Candidate

Human capital pros at Dell, Stream, StarTek and Matryzel point to cultural savviness, independence and team-building skills as essential

By Dennis Barker

Searching for the ideal country manager is the kind of thing that can keep you awake at night. And it should. That person is going to be responsible for making sure your company’s mission is being actively pursued and accomplished. He or she has to be able to manage operations, staff members, sales/marketing efforts, government agencies, and customers. And be a collection of talents in one: business person, strategist, negotiator, promoter, diplomat, acrobat.

We spoke with a virtual panel of people who know from direct experience what to look for when hiring a country manager. They recommend cultural affinity unanimously, and also say you want someone who is a leader, prefers teamwork, is decisive, can manage everything from conflict to budgets — and doesn’t just parrot the line from corporate HQ. Their advice, condensed, follows. (Plus, 3 Rules for Hiring a Country Manager from Dell’s Julio Mosquera)

The Advisors:

Julio Mosquera, Talent Acquisition Senior Manager, Dell

Salvador Salazar, Stream Global Services VP of Latin American Operations (and member of the Nearshore Americas 2010 Power 50 Ranking)

Bobby Varanasi, Chairman & CEO, Matryzel Consulting Inc.

Brian Gray, VP, Manager, Latin America, StarTek

You need a country manager. Where do you start? When and how?

Julio Mosquera: The first step in looking for a Country Manager is to understand the needs of the business and the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities the individual must have. Once we have identified these, we must build a profile that lets us compare all candidates against the desired qualifications. We then start looking for those candidates.

Bobby Varanasi: Most firms are beginning to seek out a country manager right at the beginning of their strategic planning, at the point when a business case is finalized and approved. It has become important for such managers to come on board quickly and get involved in the pre-implementation aspects so as to gain much-needed insights, particularly into the manner in which the new operation will dovetail into the overall corporate endeavor.

Salvador Salazar: I start by looking inside our own call center. We have programs to develop our employees. If I don’t find the candidate, I look in the other sites in the region. But for us it has been very effective to promote internally, because they know the company culture, processes, and so on.

BV: In today’s complex marketplace, the most appropriate place to find qualified senior managers seems to be to focus either on LinkedIn groups, or reach out to those in the advisory community in the industry who have extensive contacts within, as well as insights into the performance of senior people. Peer recommendations have also been solicited from time to time.

What are the key qualities and skills to look for in a country manager?

3 Rules for Hiring a Country Manager from Dell’s Julio Mosquera

Rule #1: Not all that shines is gold. There are professionals who are very good at selling themselves, but may fall short to deliver. Make sure you are carefully reviewing the candidate’s track record of successes and even areas of opportunity. Talk to other professionals who may have been in contact with him or her in different capacities to obtain diverse feedback and angles. Have candidates be interviewed in a 360 format (by the position’s leader, by peers of the position and by direct reports of the position). That way you’ll obtain a better assessment of the candidate’s abilities and fit in the organization.

Rule #2: Don’t settle for the first person that you like. Even if you think you have found the perfect candidate, give yourself the opportunity to talk to other candidates, you may find someone that completely blows you away or even come to the conclusion that that first person was the perfect fit. You just have to consider all options before you make a final decision.

Rule #3: Get out of your comfort zone. Traditional channels are a great source of candidates; however, you may find a viable candidate pretty much anywhere. So, be on the lookout for candidates wherever you go and talk to people who show interest. You may be surprised by what you discover about them.

JM: A country manager requires a combination of skills, experience, and education. When we think of the skills, we are looking for outstanding leadership, teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving and conflict management skills. This is a position that has responsibilities over all areas of the organization, so thorough understanding and experience in operations, human resources, finance and general administration. Good communication skills are key for both internal and external purposes.

When evaluating candidates for country leadership positions, we must consider their ability to think outside the box, while considering the impact of their decisions in all aspects of the organization, its associates, stakeholders and the community. We must look for leaders that value diversity and collaborative working. We look for professionals that are self-confident, results-driven, people-oriented, courageous and that take action. It is of upmost importance to also consider the candidate’s capacity to listen and to be a role model to the rest of the organization.

BV: Most importantly, the ideal person would have demonstrated experience acquiring clients consistently, and retaining them as well. Further, an innate ability to negotiate, reason, and articulate end-user benefits that have a tangible impact on balance sheets is of primordial importance. An ability to embed into various cultures seamlessly is mandatory. Leading by example is important too — glorified pen-pushers are not invited.

Further, such individuals should be able to make and own up to decisions, instead of cowtowing to corporate HQ every time. Most cultures do not like to deal with “management couriers,” hence it becomes important that the corporation allow the country manager to have autonomy so as to enable his or her abilities rather than curtail them. One surely doesn’t want an excellent manager to be burned out because of corporate rigidities.

SS: I look for leadership skills, teamwork, people skills, strategic agility, being goal-driven. They should have a track record of developing their people.

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Brian Gray: Biggest thing for me is cultural fit.  To even be considered a candidate for a country manager-type position, the background is what gets the most consideration. Experience and what you are currently doing and what you have done in the past gets the door open. Being a good cultural fit:  understanding the country, people, clients, and how you blend all that together is what gets you the job.

A gung-ho American approach doesn’t always work in places like Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, etc. – Bobby Varanasi

Does a country manager have to come from the country where they’ll be managing?

JM: Not necessarily. Depending on the needs of your business, you may want a Country Manager that has more specific business knowledge, which makes nationality indifferent; or you may need someone with more cultural knowledge, contacts and local savvy, then, nationality becomes more relevant.

BG: No. They do have to have an understanding of the country as well as the region. They also have to have a deep understanding of any countries that will be supported out of their country and how to make it a cultural fit.

BV: No. But having said that, it is important to look at three key aspects: (a) Does the individual have the necessary reputation and contacts to back his or her claims regarding performance? (b) Does the individual command marketplace respect for his/her strategies and thought leadership, evidenced in public forums? and (c) does the individual exemplify specific and measurable achievements, particularly with P&L, revenues, cost management, and client acquisition capabilities?

For service providers, in the USA it has become important to leverage native resources as they choose to penetrate the mid-market sector. (This doesn’t necessarily apply when selling to the Fortune 500 firms.) As we look beyond the USA, particularly in Mexico, or in the LatAm region, it has become de facto to look for local resources, given the particular challenges posed by culture, business practices, and language nuances. A gung-ho American approach doesn’t always work in places like Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, etc. It is important to source individuals who have experience across the different business cultures so as to make significant positive impacts.

(Only Salazar disagreed. A local candidate guarantees no problems in terms of cultural affinity.)

How big of a deal is it that a prospective country manager have government connections?

SS: They are very important. I think working in Latin America and having excellent government relations is one of the goals for any country manager. But it is not one of my top priorities when hiring.

JM: Experience working with the government becomes a plus, not a must, though. A country manager who has the ability to influence public policy and/or understand how to best use government opportunities for the advantage of the company’s objectives is definitely a good way to go.

On top of everything else, what else is important in a country manager?

JM: In most cases, you are looking for someone who has the capacity to manage and lead a country’s operations and financial performance. Industry knowledge will be required in order to understand how to optimize those operations, and obtain better financial results, as well. Although being an expert is not always required, understanding of the industry and transferable experiences and knowledge is necessary.

BG: This person is the face of the company. They should have deep knowledge of the industry as well as the company and its service offerings.

SS: It is important for the candidate to know the business. The outsourcing industry requires a certain type of personality and expertise.

Any red flags to look out for?

JM: Anything that sounds like unethical behavior would be a sign to not consider a candidate. Also, responses that position the candidate very far from the company’s overall philosophy and objectives should be a point of important consideration during the interview process.