Leaders have to be agile to win; it's even more important in India: Krishnan Rajagopalan

Krishnan Rajagopalan on why new-age companies are struggling to find the right talent in the country

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Image: heidrick.com

Krishnan Rajagopalan, president and CEO of executive search and leadership advisory company Heidrick & Struggles, recently discussed with Forbes India the impact of technological changes on leadership, and what India’s new-age companies ought to look for while hiring for senior positions. Edited excerpts:

Q. Can you set the context for us, in terms of the tech disruption in the human capital world?

Technology disruption isn’t isolated to one industry. It’s happening everywhere and the service-based models in India are rapidly changing as a result of that. It has even bigger implications here because of the type of business models that are prevalent here. The bigger change and the promise of what will happen is more around Artificial intelligence (AI) and the implications of that. Computing power now is so strong and so cheap.

The biggest thing that will happen now, is to take all this information at one’s disposal and use it to make decisions. That’s what AI will be about — how to make better decisions. In the long term, people might say it will eliminate jobs, but hopefully it will also boost productivity and a redefinition of jobs.

These are some of the massive changes we’ll see and it’s happening everywhere. We are seeing it happen in our business. We’re a 64-year-old business and we’ve been in India for 20 years. The majority of the industry truly hasn’t changed, and how people view the industry hasn’t in some ways changed as well.

We will now go through rapid change. We’re moving to data-driven solutions. We’ve got deep frameworks on how to assess clients in this changing world; we’ve done a lot of research on what type of companies succeed and why, and we’ve built all these changes in, which over time will be algorithmic as well.

If you were a client, you and I can do a search on an iPad today. We’re expanding our services to provide a lot more on team and organisational level of effectiveness. We are becoming more of a leadership advisory firm. We are using technology and data to wrap all this together, and over time, AI will hit us big as well: We have so much data on people, and once we marry it to performance data, we’ll be much better in predicting performance as well.

Q. What should Indian corporations look for to get good leaders?
In India, when you look for leaders, we believe that speed is going to win. Leaders have to be agile to win, and in India it will be even more important. There are four things we look for, in this context: Foresight, learning, adaptability and resilience.

Corporations here too will have to become more data driven, with frameworks, measurements and how does one push down on this. For Indian companies in particular, based on the environment here, agility will be a big, big differentiator.

Q. Give us an example of an Indian company that is doing well on these points.
A large fast-growing Indian internet company is starting to do well on these dimensions. By definition they have to be good at this, but they are really sharpening their focus in terms of thinking about leaders when they try to hire, to be systematic about what they’re looking for.

Traditionally, the most important thing has been what their experiences were; black and white. Rather than what are their leadership competencies, how agile are they for the future, and how well do they fit into our cultural context. Either at the leadership level, how do you want to change the culture, or if one is happy with the culture, how will the new leader fit into it.

Q. What are some of the top issues that companies are facing today in looking for the right leaders?
If I were to contrast India with the rest of the globe, in Asia in general, and in India as well, the lack of right talent ends up being a top-five issue. If you go into the US context, it may be the fifth or sixth issue, but it will not be the top issue. The biggest things that these companies are still facing (in India) is trying to find the right talent with the right mindset.

That’s a much bigger topic here in the conversation. Therefore they have to expand their thinking, they have to do more global searches, look at talent pools of Indians who have gone abroad, but fit all the right characteristics, or others who may want to come back over here. And therefore what is the culture fit, and how are they going to fit into the business models and the environments here is a big topic.

Q. So what is missing in India?
There are a lot of traditional models here, and good news is that people are well trained. In general, they are adaptable, but they haven’t seen enough business models to be at the leadership front when things are changing fast. There’s not enough cycles yet, almost. People originally, they went to Silicon Valley area for two reasons, I would say: There was so much innovation happening there and the ability to be agile, and also, the pay scale was better.

If you are going to bring that type of people back, you have to adjust the pay scales. Because companies here clearly have the market, they’ve got the capabilities, the brand, but those skillsets do exist out there, but I think there is a generational issue out here.

If you look at the old IT services companies, they weren’t full of innovation. Silicon Valley provided the innovation, and maintenance was done here. So there’s a generational issue, basically. And all the people who were good at leading those IT companies, they didn’t have to think about it (that kind of innovation.) They were focussed on cost per unit and not necessarily on high-speed innovation; how do we pivot. In many ways that was outsourced, right? Now you have to bring that back.

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