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Building careers

In times of surplus career opportunities, here’s how to make the most of it.

Saumya Bhattacharyaand Tejaswi Rathore | Print Edition: March 23, 2008

Atul Kumar, Partner India, Amrop International
Atul Kumar
Amit Kumar (name changed), the CEO of a consumer durables company, recently approached a leading executive search firm with a dilemma. He had spent close to 10 successful years in his present organisation, but was sitting on a couple of attractive offers that tempted him to leave his cushy job. The compensation package on offer was attractive; so was the role. His predicament: would he fit into the fastpaced, ever-evolving telecom sector where the offers were from?

Or, take the case of Ravi Sharma (name changed) who works as a functional head in a leading BPO company. He wants to quit as he feels he is stagnating in his job. “I am stuck in the rut. The nature of my work profile has also led to health issues,” says Sharma. His quandary: how should he go about looking for an option? Where should he start his search for a job that’s not just regional or national, but global? Finding the right job and in times of an acute talent crunch, opting for the right one can turn out to be a Catch-22 situation. When employees have multiple job offers as consumers, taking a decision becomes tough. That’s where the executive search firms come into the picture. These firms play the role of matchmakers for the employer and the candidate. Says Gauri Padmanabhan, Partner, Heidrick & Struggles: “There is tremendous shortage of people at all levels. If you ask a CEO what keeps him awake at night, the answer will be the retention of his team.”

The biggest demand and supply gap, according to the search firms, is at the C-level, which comprises functional heads and CXOs, and is unlikely to be plugged any time soon. Then, there’s a second level of managers who are talented but are yet to come up to the level of leadership. This second level of talented managers is being aggressively targeted by the search firms. “In the next five years, we will see a wave of these young leaders,” says Padmanabhan.

Asim Handa, Country Manager, Futurestep
Asim Handa
When the opportunity is big, what exactly drives these search firms to zero in on the right candidate? “The answer is right fit,” says Atul Kumar, Partner India, Amrop International, adding, “and for candidates, it’s very important to identify the requirement, the new job challenge and the learnings in terms of best practices.”

For the uninitiated, there are two types of recruiters and search firms—retainer and contingency. Retainer recruiters are hired by a client company for a specific assignment, typically for 90-120 days, and are paid regardless of the results of the search. Retainer firms are hired by a client company for a given job opening, more often to fill higher level positions. For these assignments, the search firms assemble a short list of candidates. “Therefore, if a retainer firm seriously considers you for a position, you will probably be part of a small group of candidates,” explains Asim Handa, Country Manager, Futurestep.

Contingency recruiters are more often used to hire junior and midlevel executives and do not usually work on an exclusive basis with their clients. “Since they are competing with other recruiters to provide candidates for each assignment, they tend to work fast and to submit to the client company as many candidates as they can. This means you may be one of many candidates for a given job,” explains Handa.

Recruiting firms are often generalists, covering many different management functions (e.g. sales) and industries (e.g. textiles). Quite a few firms and many individual recruiters, however, do specialise.

 Find the perfect fit

A ready reckoner of the dos and don'ts.

  • Clearly spell out your goals and needs

  • Think of the search firm as a partner

  • Be a good listener. Understand that communication is important

  • Ask the right questions about the prospective employer

  • Focus on cross-cultural issues, these could be landmines

  • Be upfront. For example, if you believe relocation is going to be an issue, say it. Honesty is the best policy
To make your search as effective as possible, consider recruiters who cover your function and specialise in your industry, says Handa. The largest multiple-office search firms tend to cover all functions and industries, but will often have practice areas for particular areas of expertise.

Says Deepak Gupta, MD, Korn/Ferry, India: “For an individual to make the best use of the search process, they ought to be clear why they are looking to switch jobs. Is it a case of ennui or do they desire a step change in responsibility? Or do they feel a need to change industries?” While executive search firms say that the core of their work is the scientific processes they have in place, clearly spelling out your own requirement could turn out to be the clincher for you.

The top shelf

Hiring at the level of functional heads and CXOs impacts the future of the recruiting company and hence, the intensity of the decision is very high. The first rule: If a search firm is contacting you, it is worthwhile to talk to them. “Share information irrespective of whether you want to look out for a job or not. You must understand confidentiality is a core value with us,” says Kumar.

“Don’t insist on interacting with partners and be transparent with the research team,” he adds. Padmanabhan points out: “To build a career, though, continue to have an ongoing dialogue with the search firm, once you have zeroed in on one.” Search firms build the career, walk you through the path and take you to the next step and work in advisory positions as well.

“For every person you call, there are two people calling you. There are people (Indian diaspora) who call you from abroad. It’s word of mouth, referral or dealing with us in another market that makes people seek us and thus the process is carried forward,” she points out.

The new reality

For their part, the search firms have also evolved keeping in view the changing paradigm of the talent pool shortage. They network a lot more in industry and work towards referrals and references. Reason: The Indian market is under the spotlight on the global stage due to increasingly liberal economic policies, sustained political stability and most importantly, the best demographics in the world.

And if you are wondering how long it takes to find the right match, it can take anything from 60 days to six months. The process does not happen in one capsule; a plan is worked out about what can be done over a period of time. Says Kumar: “I rarely see searches closing in less than 60 days and going beyond six months.”And while you are at it, it pays to be hands on. Most people believe that search firms will lead the process. They forget to ask the right questions and don’t even know them. “It is very important for an individual to know what questions to ask. You can get hard facts and information but what you are not going to get is insight into softer issues—the value system or the cultural issues,” says Kumar. The most pertinent question will be: “What kind of people are successful in ‘that’ organisation. For example, if we are talking about the culture in an organisation, the candidate may wish to know and understand this from people within the company,” he says.

Given the demand in the market for top level talent, soft values are assuming greater importance. The factors that make a candidate attractive is his ability to drive results, his people sensitivity and understanding of the larger market dynamic. For every opportunity to work, there are three decision-makers— the company, the search firm and the candidate himself.

Ultimately, everyone wants a ‘fit’. So, the first step is to be clear about your goals. Now, go ahead make that call. Headhunters are waiting.

Additional reporting by Ritwik Mukherjee

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