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The talent catchers

They are instrumental in hiring top talent for India Inc. BT profiles the leading ladies of executive search.

Saumya Bhattacharya        Print Edition: November 29, 2009

When Narendra Patni, the Founder-CEO of the global IT services provider Patni Computer Systems, decided to become the Non-executive Chairman last year, the board found itself looking for a chief executive for the business. The transition to the new management structure was not expected to be effortless. It was a complicated task that required gentle, yet firm handling. Little surprise then, the company turned to a woman whose specialisation, in her own words, is “complex searches”. Anjali Bansal, Managing Partner, Spencer Stuart India and Global Partner, Spencer Stuart, steered the search for the new CEO of Patni, Jeya Kumar, who joined the company in February 2009.

Similarly, when the board of Axis Bank was faced with the formidable task of finding a CEO to replace P.J. Nayak early this year, it had to fall back on the persuasive skills of Namrita Jhangiani, Partner, Egon Zehnder India, who roped in former MD and CEO of ICICI Prudential Life Insurance, Shikha Sharma, for the top job at the bank.

SONAL AGRAWAL, CEO, Accord Group India
HELPED HIRE
Top team at NM Rothschild
Top executives at Deutsche Bank
Top team at Standard Chartered
 
ANJALI BANSAL, Managing Partner, Spencer Stuart India
HELPED HIRE
Arun Tadanki, Managing Director, Yahoo! India
Bala Deshpande, Senior Managing Director, NEA India
Suresh Gurumani, CEO, SKS Microfinance
Jeya Kumar, CEO, Patni Computer Systems
 
PREETY KUMAR, Managing Partner, Amrop International
HELPED HIRE
Shireesh Joshi, Director- Marketing and Krish Shankar, Director-HR for Bharti Airtel
Top management team at Marico, including Saugata Gupta, CEO for India Business
Top management at SAB Miller, including MD Vinod Giri
 
NAMRITA JHANGIANI, Partner, Egon Zehnder
HELPED HIRE
Shikha Sharma, MD and CEO, Axis Bank
Madhu Kannan, MD and CEO, BSE
Shailendra Bhandari, MD and CEO, ING Vysya Bank
 
SANGEETA SABHARWAL, Senior Partner, Transearch
HELPED HIRE
Pallab Talukdar, CEO, Fujitsu India
Sameer Chhibber, CFO, Benetton India

Both Bansal and Jhangiani belong to a set of influential women on whom top Indian companies have come to heavily rely for hiring top executives. The talent search history of these women reads like the who’s who of India Inc. and their influence extends to the highest ranks of their client companies. Whether it’s Preety Kumar, Managing Partner of Amrop International, on whom Bharti Airtel relies for hiring its top honchos or Sonal Agrawal of Accord Group India, who is reached out by a host of multinational banks and professional services firms every time they need to hire top business leaders, it’s a handful of women who now call the shots in the talent market.

Recalling last year’s CEO search, Loek van den Boog, Non-executive Director, Patni Computer Systems, says: “It was a complicated and a very important search for the company. Anjali assessed the situation very well. What we appreciate is that it was truly an international search, exactly what we wanted.”

But these women headhunters are not as forthcoming about their top assignments, given the need to maintain confidentiality about their work. The stars they helped hire are not as tight-lipped though. Kiran Karnik, the former president of NASSCOM, the apex association of Indian IT software and service companies, reveals that he almost did not join the IT industry lobby but for the persuasive skills of a headhunter. “When I finished working with Discovery, I just wasn’t interested in any offer,” recalls Karnik. He, however, changed his mind after a 30-minute meeting over coffee with Gita Dang, Head of Technology Practice at Korn/Ferry International and one of the most influential headhunters then (2000).

“The whole process was, of course, impressive, but Gita has this amazing ability to get someone interested in a job,” Karnik recalls. Dang did many hiring jobs for NASSCOM when Karnik was president. A little over a year ago, she moved on from Korn/Ferry to start her own boutique search firm, Talent Advisory Services, in Delhi. Says Dang, who got NASSCOM its current president, Som Mittal, as well, of her work: “It’s an intangible service that can go on for months and at the end of it, there could be no product to show.”

India Inc. understands this better than anyone else and so appreciates the work of these matchmakers. Eminent banker N. Vaghul, who is also the Chairman of Spencer Stuart Advisory Council, says of Bansal: “She has single-handedly built Spencer Stuart India into a top executive search firm today. Her amazing entrepreneurial skills come through in the way she can relate to people.”

Gunit Chadha, CEO, Deutsche Bank India, who has engaged the talent search skills of Accord’s Agrawal over the past 10 years, vouches for her expertise in the financial services sector. “She runs her search with impressive discretion,” says Chadha.

So, what makes the work of these women so special? Anita Ramachandran, one of the first headhunters in India who now runs HR consultancy Cerebrus Consultants, explains: “As a recruiter, you have to be a no-holds-barred person; you should be non-threatening, yet be assertive.” According to Ramachandran, this has remained the basic tenet of recruiters over the years, but the workforce has changed a lot and that requires a change in the approach of recruiters as well.

Agrawal has an interesting perspective on her business. “The process, the science (behind talent search), is straightforward. It’s the art—how you do it—that matters.” She would surely know her art given her background— her father B.P. Agrawal started the oldest recruitment firm in India, ABC Consultants. Having started her business during the initial years of India’s economic liberalisation, Agrawal was looking for leadership and helped build companies from inception. These included the foreign brokerages and investment banks that set shop in India in the early ’90s and the first private sector mutual funds and life insurance and general insurance companies.

While her business now covers large conglomerates, Agrawal has maintained her networks in the financial services world. Madan Menon, Country Head India, ABN AMRO, says that some of his recent hires were made possible because of market intelligence of Agrawal.

According to Kumar of Amrop India, who started her career in the mid-90s, the executive search industry in India received a major boost with the evolution of new industries—technology and financial services, among others. “The crossfertilisation of talent across sectors brought dynamism to the search industry and to the careers of professionals,” she says. Kumar’s early clients included PepsiCo, Mahindra & Mahindra and Motorola. “For me, some client partnerships have been most satisfying—like working with the Bharti group for the last decade and contributing to their leadership build-up. Same with Marico,” says Kumar.

Again, it was two women, Sangeeta Sabharwal and Hastha Krishnan, who helped establish Ma Foi Group & Randstad India as a leading executive search firm, Sabharwal headed the CEO search business for Ma Foi before she moved to Transearch while Krishnan is the current CEO, Executive Search, Ma Foi. “Their primary strength is their deep knowledge of candidates,” says K. Pandia Rajan, the firm’s Managing Director.

That’s a trait common to all the leading ladies of talent search. “There’s never a moment you are not working. You could be at a social function, but you are constantly trying to think of a possible candidate,” says Sabharwal.

Managing Partner for Egon Zehnder India, Govind Iyer, recalls how when an assignment for lifestyle executive search landed at the firm three years ago, Jhangiani, a Wharton Business School graduate, spent several days at a number of stores to get a sense of what the fashion industry client could require from her.

“Our work is exhilarating and without a single dull moment,” says Bansal of Spencer Stuart, who had her first stint in the search industry at Egon Zehnder in 2003. She started her career as an engineer, but went on to work with McKinsey in New York before returning to India to join Egon. By 2005, she was ready to launch operations for Spencer Stuart, a global serach firm, in India. “It was an entrepreneurial opportunity, a chance to own and govern our company,” she says.

So, how would Bansal describe the search business? “It’s the backstage pass for the best show in town,” she says, quoting Spencer Stuart’s global CEO David Daniel.

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