Sonal Agrawal, managing partner, Accord Group India/AltoPartners, joined the board of the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC) last week as a director from the Asia Pacific region. The AESC, with 1,300 offices in 74 countries, is an association for consultants in executive search and leadership advisory. With 25 years of consulting experience, Agrawal works mainly with conglomerates and private equity firms, and leads the professional and financial services and board practices for Accord. She tells us how her understanding of the Asian markets will help in the global context and what should be done to include more women in C-suites. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
Many Asian leaders are now at the forefront of multinationals. How will your local knowledge/in depth understanding of the Asian context help in the global scenario?
Business is of course global, but there are specific nuances from market to market, and even within Asia Pacific, one market to another can be quite unique. With the increasing importance of Asian markets, an appreciation for the nuances of these markets and talent pools is essential for business’ to succeed in Asia. Firms such as Accord provide that local context while adhering to global best practices under the AESC umbrella
Having said that, there are common forces that affect all organizations today across geographies, from the lightning-fast pace of change and disruption by technology, to generational shift and widespread regulation. In general, diversity, be it by gender, ethnicity, experiences, in the leadership deck can only provide a better understanding .
Is it important for C-suite leaders to move across competing competencies? Can they be both pragmatic and disruptive? Be both adaptive and cautious of risks?
Yes, yes and yes. At the simplest level, this was always true—for example, the seemingly conflicting skills required in building consensus, and also taking a call and driving through a decision. In being macro and micro. Short and long-term. At Accord, we juggle and balance the art and science of search, that yin-yang between scientific tools and techniques overlaid with the highly customized, personalized art form that our advice involves.
Equally, as companies become more global, the lines between geographies and even industries are blurred. With this increasing interconnectedness, comes an unprecedented level of complexity, variability and velocity. Leaders absolutely need to be able to navigate and pivot, adapt and adopt the changing narrative.
What can be done to increase women leadership across C-suites globally?
Companies need to ensure that the business proposition for better gender balance is clearly enunciated and accepted. The narrative then must be about creating a level playing field, a more supportive, conducive culture and equal opportunity, rather than about protecting or subsidizing female candidature, though in the short term, some subsidies may well be required.
Keeping the pipeline strong is key. Companies lose valuable female employees they have invested in, as women struggle with family, home management, parenting and career. Robust re-boarding or ramp-on programmes, flexibility, coaching, and mentoring are a must to help with better balance with off-work commitments. Once women get past this mid-career hump, they are likely to stay.
Women themselves need to take charge of their narrative, evaluate trade-offs and bring their A game to the table. Both men and women have to play hard to win. So, lean in. Speak up. State ambition. Network. Market yourself. Take the risks and the challenging roles. Enlist a coach. Find a mentor. Sort out that elevator pitch.
What can Gen-Xers and millennials in your profession—executive search and leadership consulting—do to best prepare Gen X and millennial talent for the C-Suite?
Millenials focus on experiences, and companies look for experience—not the same thing. The role of search firms is to act as that bridge, to help professionals make better career decisions and pull together their varied experiences into a meaningful narrative suitable for C-suite roles, which in themselves are evolving.
The core leadership agenda does not hugely vary across markets. However, there are nuances by markets, industry, the stage of evolution of the business and the overall policy framework that the business operates in. Each business has unique leadership agendas that are developed by the stakeholders in consultation with executive search firms/leadership consulting firms as well as other partners.
Global expansion, Artificial Intelligence, sexual harassment, equal pay for equal work: among these multiple challenges, how does a consultancy realign its training?
Our core skills remain fairly constant—we provide advice on people, who to look for, how to find them, how to assess them and how to make them more effective. Much of the training within search has centred around the tools that we use—the significant adoption of new technology for research and assessment, for example. Certain regional developments, such as the new EU data privacy laws, do require specific guidance on how candidate and client data can be stored or used.
Increasingly consultants have to search globally and learn the nuances of how to interface with clients and companies. Diversity and inclusion awareness and training is de rigueur at most multinationals, across industries.
With new challenges facing top leaders, how does the work of an industry body like AESC become more relevant?
Attracting, motivating and managing key talent is on top of the list for most leaders. The executive search and leadership consulting world partners with companies to identify, assess and on-board leaders. As the apex membership body for such professionals, the AESC sets the professional and ethical standards.
With collective intelligence spanning geographies and industries, the AESC and its global membership helps organizations and business leaders think and plan ahead. If an early disruption is happening in one industry, for example, we are able to take that insight and think long-term what the eventual impact will be elsewhere and how to plan for it, ensuring the right talent and resources.