AfDB's Nafissatou Ndiour-Bella on the role of HR in transforming the bank

Nafissatou Ndiour-Bella, HR Division Manager at the African Development Bank. Photo by: personal collection

Having only returned to its headquarters in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, in 2013, the African Development Bank Group is once again in the process of transformation. This year, the bank will recruit for some 600 positions, both internally and externally, as part of an organization-wide shake-up to ensure it has the skills to meet the Sustainable Development Goals and specific targets on African poverty reduction. This includes hiring for completely new profiles and attracting candidates from non-traditional backgrounds including the private sector, to bring in new perspectives as the bank prepares for the future.

Nafissatou Ndiour-Bella, human resources division manager at the bank, is currently focused on recruitment and is involved in leading the huge hiring initiative, but previously worked on employee relations and welfare at the bank, which she described as “people centric” and “a critical area of HR.”

“Beyond the needs of the business, you have the needs of staff. By creating a conducive environment for your staff, you are just making sure to have a happier and more engaged and productive workforce” she explains.

Devex spoke with Ndiour-Bella about AfDB’s hiring surge, how HR is leading the effort and aligning their efforts with the needs of the bank to be a true business partner.

On strategy and restructuring at the bank

Having worked in global HR for over 10 years, Ndiour-Bella has seen HR evolve to become a strategic business partner. Adapting an HR business partner model, the bank embeds an HR expert within each business unit so that their work is aligned with the business needs. Successful companies and organizations, particularly those going through a transformation like the bank’s, are those who put human capital at the center of their decisions in practice and not just on paper, she explains.

AfDB’s new strategy outlines the “high 5 of the Bank” with priority areas including Light Up and Power Africa; Feed Africa; Industrialize Africa; Integrate Africa; and improve the quality of life for the people of Africa. These bank priorities and its plans to achieve these cannot be done without putting HR at the center of decision making says Ndiour-Bella, so the bank has restructured itself with the support and involvement of HR at the most senior levels. “Not only has HR had a say on the structure but also on the implementation so HR is at its core.”

“The bank has embarked on a massive recruitment campaign with hundreds of vacant positions to fill and HR is working hand in hand with the business to take such a challenge,” says Ndiour-Bella. “Together, we will attract the best-in-class talent, then we shall ensure their development, engagement, motivation and retention.”

With human resource playing an increasingly critical role to the implementation of the bank’s future strategy, the HR function — both the HR departments and people managers — will be working “hand in hand to anticipate the needs and challenges,” says Ndiour-Bella and “the ways of overcoming them in order to achieve a common goal.”  HR professionals must therefore continue to develop their own skillsets to keep up with the evolving function of human resources. In addition to great communication skills, human resources professionals must have a good grasp of the business needs and be able to challenge line managers and push them to make the right decisions, while also taking into the account the HR dimension Ndiour-Bella says. HR professionals should see themselves as a strategic adviser more than a support role.

On the biggest challenges in recruitment

Like many multilaterals and development agencies, AfDB still faces challenges in achieving gender balance in its workforce. “We still all struggle in this area”’ says Ndiour-Bella, and not just in achieving a gender balance overall within the organization but at all levels and functional areas. Rather than just focusing on the pipeline, AfDB has been using an approach where candidates are shortlisted in gender-specific lists. Instead of interviewing the top four candidates overall, the top two men and the top two women from the shortlists are invited for interviews and this has been working quite well says Ndiour-Bella.

The ongoing recruitment project has also been an opportunity for the organization to adopt a more competency-based approach to ensure they are selecting the right candidates. While the results of this are yet to be seen, feedback so far from hiring managers indicates this approach is a success and has improved the calibre of candidates hired.

On HR-driven improvements in the workplace

Ensuring a good work-life balance has become a focus for a lot of organizations but when it comes to practice, few can put their hands up and say they are really doing it well says Ndiour-Bella, adding that is so important because “a happier workforce will be more engaged and productive.”

There have been some improvements at the bank though, including an on-premise gym which allows staff including Ndiour-Bella to start work early each day “in a great mindset and mood, feeling that I can achieve literally anything.” The introduction of a lactation room at the bank and the revision of their travel policy to allow breast-feeding mothers to travel on missions with their baby or nanny has also made a huge difference she says. This should also allow the bank to attract more female candidates and work toward achieving gender balance.

As the bank looks to bring on hundreds of new staff members in the coming months, potentially many from the private sector, they will look at new ways of attracting and supporting the evolving workforce. This hiring push is an opportunity for HR to demonstrate the value of their role to the bank’s goals and the importance of including HR in future business decisions.

Over the next month, Devex, together with our partners will take a look at how human resources can be a real driver for innovation, efficiency, and impact in global development. Join us as we share the people and ideas leading the next generation of HR by tagging #HRLeads.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.