Headhunting Across CEE Region Reveals Wide Range of Managerial Skills, Behavior Patterns


Felicia Beldean

While countries in the region exhibit many similar characteristics, each has its own cultural, societal and political facets, all of which affect managerial behavior. This manifests in subtle, yet often telling ways. Within this human resources mix, Hungary, while excelling in some areas, also frequently finds itself an outlier.

In his Buda office meeting room, Klemens Wersonig has the words “Welcome Back” on the presentation board.

“I wrote that last August. The end of the summer was a positive mood, hopeful for restarting. Many people thought – I thought – that from September, it would be booming again, business as usual, which obviously did not happen,” he says, referring to the COVID pandemic.

Nonetheless, after the initial shock, “Companies realized that you cannot stand on the brakes forever, so they turned back to recruitment, more cautiously, but still, the markets started to pick up again,” Wersonig, founder and chief executive of Target Executive Search, says.

An Austrian who has built up his headhunting company group across Central and Eastern Europe over three decades, Wersonig is particularly sensitive to different national characteristics across the region, differences which, at times, showed up dramatically during the pandemic.

True, with the surprising exception of Romania, business was down more or less equally across the region by some 20-30% over the year, but in most countries state support helped reduce the cost burden, except in Hungary.

“In Austria, Poland, Czech and Slovakia, we got money from the government, but in Hungary, this help existed only on paper. We asked our accountant, and she advised against [applying], because it meant huge paperwork. It’s like an EU tender, 30 pages to fill out per person,” he told the Budapest Business Journal.

To manage costs, Wersonig negotiated a deal with his staff for part-time working, while his landlord proved sympathetic on rent. But how does executive search in the region compare to the Hungarian experience?

Klemens Wersonig

Quite Different

“These countries, I think are quite different from Hungary. The Czech Republic is very developed. For them, Germany is the pattern. So, they are going very much in a German direction, in a positive way, to be very correct and organized,” he says, in a short, sharp bout of praise, before focusing on the “small brother” next door.

“Slovakia has built up a very good reputation in business. You probably know they produce the most cars per capita in the world. Because they are the small brother of the Czech Republic, they want to prove themselves, to be as good as the big brother. They work a lot, work hard, are trustworthy and modest.”

Such qualities, together with Bratislava’s adoption of the euro, and the country’s location, means Slovakia gets high marks in Wersonig’s books. But, he admits things are rather centered on Bratislava, which can cause issues.

“We have countryside projects, yes, but these are very difficult, because of the location, Young people want to be around Bratislava, but factories are often in the country, such as in Kosice,” he says, speaking of Slovakia’s second city, 400 km east of the capital.

As in Hungary and the region as a whole, with much of the Slovak economy based on manufacturing, demand is high for engineers with management skills.

In spite of Slovakia’s progress, developments in Poland are perhaps more significant, with the potential to influence the entire region. “This year has started extremely well, the best quarter ever for Target in Poland,” says Wersonig. “It’s also German-linked, of course, but it’s interesting because Polish people are increasingly becoming regional managers across Central Europe.”

Naturally, this is in part down to basic demographics: Poland’s 38 million souls outnumber the combined total of Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic (at 26 million) and some more.

But there is more to it than mere statistics. “I think they are very tough negotiators, above average, I would say. I think the Polish personality is tougher than the rest of CE,” says Wersonig, and this makes them stand out in management roles such as purchasing and human resources.

Máté Seres

Romanian Surprise

Of Hungary’s larger neighbors and economic competitors, that leaves Romania, a country twice the population, but which has suffered from mass emigration, widespread petty corruption and is more distant from its principal export markets in Western Europe.

“Romania has a big infrastructure issue. The roads are a disaster. You need to reach the factories, which is easy in Hungary but is a big issue in Romania,” Wersonig reasons.

Yet, astonishingly, Romania was alone among Target’s seven-company grouping in shrugging off COVID woes and its team of just three people identified market needs to produce 40% growth in 2020.

“This came mostly from diversifying our portfolio, including international healthcare, pharmaceutical and technology players, while maintaining relationships with key partners in the automotive, financial services, retail, and other manufacturing sectors,” says Felicia Beldean, Target’s managing partner for Bulgaria and Romania

Indeed, in spite of earlier emigration, Wersonig says it’s easier to find the right caliber of manager in Romania than Hungary, which is in part down to government reforms.

“People in IT jobs pay no income tax. They realized that if they didn’t do something, all the people would leave, so they did something,” he says. As a result, IT, along with the construction, trading, and sales segments are all “booming” Wersonig says.

Romanians also shine in language skills, a particular weakness in Hungary, where, if anything, Wersonig argues: “It’s getting worse.” (See Box).

Magyars, Watch Your Language!

If there is one area where just about every head hunter agrees, it is Hungarian language skills, or the lack of them. This is a generalization, of course, there are many Magyar exceptions but, overall, language skills in Hungary are well below those in the country’s neighbors.

“The situation is much better than 10 years ago, of course. But still, there is an issue regarding language knowledge. For every candidate, we have to test their English,” says Máté Seres, managing partner with Arthur Hunt in Hungary.

Klemens Wersonig is less sure the situation is improving, since the requirement to hold a foreign language certificate to obtain a university degree was waived during last year’s pandemic.

“I think language skills are actually decreasing now here,” he says. “Romanians, for example, have always been good at languages, English and French. Also Slovakia is quite good, maybe because they are close to Austria, so there is a good amount of German interest.”

This has consequences for employment. “At mid-level, for example a chief accountant, a person with English can earn double the money in Hungary, compared to someone without,” he notes. “Furthermore, it shows that the supply is not there if there can be such a difference [in compensation].”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of  April 23, 2021.

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