The turnover at the top and senior management levels in organizations is low but when there is a vacancy, filling it can be a challenge.

A report by consulting firm Ernst & Young (EY), released in May, showed that around 14% of top management vacancies are not filled up for more than six months, while 75% take longer than two months to fill. The “Talent Trends In India, 2015" report suggests that the time taken to fill positions could be an indication of skill availability.

“We have been hiring from India for over 15 years and have observed that senior individual contributor talent is hard to find in the industry," says Rohit Thakur, head of human resources (HR) at software firm Microsoft India. “This is also driven by the continuous evolution of technology and its dynamic and fast-changing nature that makes the skills and competencies of today outdated for tomorrow," he adds.

Changing business dynamics, too, present challenges in terms of hiring at senior levels.

On the upside, the fact that the turnover is low at the senior levels signals that organizations are better at retaining top managers than those at junior and middle levels. And if there’s a vacancy, it may be better to wait for the right fit.

Pallavi Jha, chairperson and managing director, Dale Carnegie Training India, a leadership consultancy, says two-three months is not a long time to find someone who might drive the company’s success for years to come. “The downside risks of hasty hiring are in terms of company reputation and strategic road map that a wrong candidate could seriously hamper," says Jha.

We asked HR heads why hiring for top management positions is difficult, and how companies should handle the leadership gap when an incumbent is on the way out or a senior management position is vacant.

Experience and expertise

It is a no-brainer that a person hired for a senior management position needs the right expertise and experience, and scanning candidates for both might take time. Yuvaraj Srivastava, senior vice-president, HR, at online travel portal MakeMyTrip, says companies look for a fixed set of qualities such as leadership and an understanding of the industry; qualities like adapting to the culture or learning more about the company can be picked up on the job. Srivastava adds a word of caution, though: “It is a given that that person should be well-versed with the nuances of the company as well as aware about the trends in the market."

Diversity challenge

“In India, there is a paucity of leaders, primarily because we do not attract, nurture and grow diversity. A mere glance at Silicon Valley is good enough to prove that societies that live, grow and prosper by adopting diversity can help transform the world," says Gerald Menezes, regional senior director, HR, at Juniper Networks, a global network solutions company.

For Srivastava, however, diversity is more relevant when hiring at the middle or junior levels; but if a company is looking to hire the chief executive officer, his/her qualities and expertise are what count. At this level, most companies will consider only experience and skills.

Build leadership bench strength

Every day that a senior management position lies vacant can make a difference to the company’s performance. So is it better to wait for the right person or should firms hire the best available person and provide him/her with adequate training and support to learn on the job?

Srivastava says: “Any leader who is hired needs the investment or commitment from the organization to allow him/her the space to learn on the job. It’s about getting the best leader one can get, and then backing him/her to succeed."

Thakur says that given the time it takes to find replacements, companies should build a large enough leadership pool from which people can step in to fill any gaps. “This should be done consciously for every role across the organization. Also, that bench of leaders should be motivated and encouraged to learn and acquire the skills of the senior management that enables them to build their long-term career path," says Thakur.

Readiness

A pool of leaders who can take a call while the company is looking for top-level replacements may be a necessity, but should organizations always look at filling top-level positions from among their own people?

“If it is a question of an executive-level role, looking within the company is the best first step as this is a sure-fire way to increase employee engagement and cultural alignment," says Menezes. “The time taken for the candidate to assimilate with the team’s working style is also reduced."

But Menezes believes the decision should be driven completely by a single parameter: “Get the best to own the responsibility!" For that, companies need to chart the most and least significant of duties, so the incoming executive will have clarity around what is expected before he/she actually takes charge.

Negotiating those tricky last few months

Notice periods are tricky. In any organization, senior executives are privy to confidential information. If any of them is leaving to join the competition, it becomes a challenge for the company to handle the roles and responsibilities of that executive till a replacement is found. “There has to be a fine balance of making that person feel relevant and also getting him/her to slowly hand over responsibilities to the second-in-command," says Srivastava.

Jha says: “Both the organization and the person leaving should have an honest conversation, and create a well-defined framework of handover or transition. If the leader is an industry veteran, then there is no harm in using his services to identify a replacement."

Jha adds that the most important aspect of any transition should be to sustain the level of engagement within the organization. There has to be a renewed effort to keep the team engaged and updated on the progress.

Appreciate those who step in to hold fort

Usually, relationships fail in the absence of honest and transparent engagement, and it is no different for a company. What happens to the executive who has been handling these functions when the replacement person finally joins? How does the company ensure he/she feels rewarded and appreciated for holding fort? “These executives who handle leadership functions, in addition to the regular responsibilities, should be nurtured for bigger roles and encouraged with appreciation and tangible rewards (monetary and non-monetary), along with high visibility within the company," says Thakur.

According to Menezes, if the organization has requested a person to don two hats till a replacement is found, this should be mentioned to the person upfront.

“A part-time role holder should be appreciated during his/her feedback and this can also be used as an opportunity to assess his/her ability to grow and manage diverse teams and take up larger responsibilities," says Menezes.

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