Global talent is finding India more attractive now: Krishnan Rajagopalan of Heidrick & Struggles
Nasdaq-listed executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles' CEO Krishnan Rajagopalan helps companies to figure out the best talent for CEOs.
Heidrick has handled two big transitions in the corporate world — the appointment of Satya Nadella at Microsoft and Dara Khosrowshahi replacing Travis Kalanick at Uber. How tough were these?
While I will not be able to speak about specific cases, what is true is that we are in an age where organisations are going through big transformations. Companies are looking for people who can lead digital transitions. But each case is different with its own nuances, and is shaped by the kind of changes they are trying to bring about. In some cases, you want a leader who will change the culture of the organisation (think Microsoft). At times, you are looking for a change agent who will shake things up. At other times, you need to bring in a leader who will mend things. It all depends on how much disruption companies are seeking and how hard the organisation is trying to pivot. Based on that, you have got to figure out if you are looking for somebody who will do things with force or who would be high on empathy. Every situation varies.
What attributes are companies looking for in the Clevel candidates today?
They are looking for leaders who are agile, adaptable, have foresight and are fast learners. Resilience has become very important as CEOs often face setbacks in most big transformations. We look for attributes such as are they curious, how have their minds evolved, are they open to new ideas, are they autocratic. For example, if someone has an attitude ‘let me tell you how to do it’, then we know he will find it difficult to lead in today’s world.
We hear of generational screening. Is there a bias against older candidates?
This isn’t so much about age or generational screening. It is not important for leaders in digital transformation to know everything. But they should know how to ask the right questions and be curious. Many have this unconscious bias that because you are in your 50s, you don’t know digital. You can overcome that bias by asking the right questions. Look at me, at 58, I am trying to lead Heidrick through big digital transformation and reinvent it. We are trying to wrap technology around our offerings where the entire search process will be done on a digital platform, paperless. Our clients will be able to track it remotely, with complete transparency.
At 58, how do you keep yourself relevant in the digital era?
We deliberately hired a lot of millennials in the past three years. All our analysts are very young. That helps. I also spend a lot of time meeting them. At least once a month, if not more, I either do a lunch or a town hall meeting, building two-way connectivity with them. Besides, I am not somebody who is afraid to try. I keep trying new technologies and gadgets even if I don’t use these. That helps. I balance this with learnings on the family side. I have two young sons who are working. Constant conversations with them keep me reasonably fresh and updated.
How does India look from the outside?
India looks very good. There is GDP (gross domestic product) growth and companies want to invest here. India’s domestic market is taking off. For long, it was about the promise of its potential — a lot of conversation and little action. I think the needle has moved.
India is very important for us not so much from the revenue, but from the innovation point of view. It offers a great environment to experiment. I know our new digital platform will roll out faster in India than in the US.
India is now beginning to build brands. A range of new business models are emerging here. Today, people in Silicon Valley know about brands such as Flipkart and Ola. However, India has some leadership gaps. A generation of executives here have grown leading back-office operations, where business was built on cost arbitrage with focus on cost per unit. Business models are now changing from cost arbitrage to innovation mindset, where customer experience is important. India has leadership gaps in this area and we do a lot of global searches to fill this gap.
But most global hires haven't worked out, like in Flipkart.
We are early on that journey. Management models are still evolving here. You will see a higher success rate soon. India¡¦s attractiveness is rising for global talent.
How is the digital era reshaping the executive search business?
Earlier, the focus was on getting a pool of candidates and then using our judgement to zero in on the right one. Today, thanks to platforms like LinkedIn, that pool is easily accessible and our job is more about getting the fit right. With tools like artificial intelligence, our judgement today also is more science-driven and helps eliminate human biases. Candidate due diligence has changed slightly. Electronic forensic analysis, where we analyse a candidate's presence in social media platforms like Twitter, is an important part of background check. Networks like LinkedIn have made candidate referencing a lot easier and we do it a lot earlier now in the hiring process. The turnaround time is shortening.
In the next 20 years, I don't think we will call ourselves an executive search firm. We will be more like a leadership advisory firm: focused on human capital, besides helping hire the C-suite candidates, we will also help companies onboard people better, accelerate team performance, smoothen cultural transition and handhold leaders to become more effective.