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Africa's economic boom points up the need for managers

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JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Africa's rapid economic growth has helped change the stereotype of a hopeless continent of starving people waiting to be rescued, but it has also created an intense need for strong managers, according to a report released Tuesday.

Poor management is hurting the effectiveness of global multinational corporations, major local companies, governments and charitable foundations in many African countries, says the report by the African Management Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on training managers to help business development on the continent.

The study found common problems across much of Africa, including big firms having to bring in overseas managers who don't always understand the local culture; charitable foundations spending heavily to train people, only to have them leave to work elsewhere; and entrepreneurs who struggle to find savvy managers to handle key duties.

Several businesspeople quoted in the report said their concern about hiring mid-level managers might involve issues such as skills and ethics. Many times, senior managers take on mid-level duties rather than risk turning to someone they don't trust to do the job well.

"We really want to hire locally, but the fact that we still can't is really a mark of the fact that those people aren't there," said a Nigerian banker quoted in the report.

AMI, which officially launched its efforts Tuesday in Lagos, Nigeria, also aims to develop a register of experienced managers with strong records. The managers on the register will sign a pledge of integrity and excellence.

"Poor management can be a matter of life and death. If a hospital is poorly managed, death can follow," Jonathan Cook, chairman of the AMI steering committee, said in an interview. "In the private sector, it's more a matter of livelihood.

"What I hear again and again from people in various parts of the continent is that one of the biggest constraints on going into new markets is the limited availability of people to manage," Cook said. "It's difficult to find people with the experience and exposure to be able to manage new business."

Brad Magrath, founder of a mobile money company in Zambia, hired middle managers from elsewhere because he wasn't satisfied with the skills and experience of the people he met in the country.

"It would be easier and a lot better if there was a ready middle management," Magrath said. As it stands, "we would bring in managers who would sit around waiting to be told what to do."

Jerry Parkes, the British-Ghanaian chief executive of Injaro Investments, a fund manager and investment advisor specializing in small and medium Ghanaian firms, said there was no shortage of imaginative entrepreneurs, but many were unfamiliar with specifics about the costs of producing goods.

In bigger African firms, there was often an authoritarian boss and a culture of fear that made middle management afraid of taking risks, Parkes said.

"Sometimes that management style is more command-and-control-based and too authoritarian. It reduces the capacity of the company because there's not enough empowerment happening," Parkes said.

"It's partly cultural in many African countries; younger people or subordinates or juniors are expected to do things only when they're told to do them," Parkes said. "You're better off doing only what you are told even if it has a negative impact, rather than going off and doing something yourself and maybe making a mistake."

For many African companies, business management courses are unaffordable. AMI hopes to create a network of strong managers who will mentor less experienced workers, including offering online presentations.

"AMI is not just about classrooms or textbooks," Cook said. "It's more to do with exposing willing management to new ways of thinking."

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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