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Opinion | How covid-19 has rewritten CEO job specifications

Our post-covid CEO needs to be a disruptive transformer for sure, but also tech-savvy, fully engaged, ready to rally teams, and equipped with a crystal ball to answer existential questions

Chief executive officer (CEO) search projects were simpler a decade ago. Client organizations sought “strategic" CEOs. A demanding board I recall once asked us for a perfect balance of strategic mindset and executional rigour, setting off ripples of panic within our research teams working on this corner-office recruitment.

Much has changed since, as CEO hiring has pivoted from an art to a science, but covid-19 has complicated our lives enormously. Conversations since March seek CEOs who can deal with a massively disrupted world. Our post-covid CEO needs to be a disruptive transformer for sure—that’s a hygiene factor now. The CEO must also exercise great caution, sifting through a dozen seemingly plausible business scenarios, suitably armed with “Let me tell you about 2008" wisdom. Placing bets, the CEO is expected to don a battle face and rally the team, all with newfound poise and certainty. This is a CEO job specification. Plus, our leader must know when to boogie and when to introspect. The CEO will be asked questions that are deeply existential, worthy of a top-quality crystal ball. All this, within a tight horizon.

Purposeful and charismatic, the CEO must helm Zoom chats, straddling teams, geographies and markets. And yet, the CEO must stay engaged, lest it be seen as false and farcical. The galvanizer must also connect.

The answers CEOs seek from recruiters have also evolved. Questions range from the strategically sublime (“How will technology as a horizontal change the operating model?") to the logistically prosaic (“That commute model I signed up for suddenly doesn’t seem so viable, does it?").

Life in the leadership recruitment business has changed considerably. Irreversibly, it feels. Sample these trends.

One, we learnt last week that multiple multi-crore hires can be closed—from first interview to job offer—without a single in-person meeting between the potential employer and employee. Is this a massive risk, or just the new normal? A bit of both, actually. Technology-based interviewing, deep and wide market references and diligence—on both sides—now alleviate the risk that such an online marriage entails.

Two, new psychometric means to establish “role fit" will get deployed more and more in search of CEOs. Tools that assess candidates at multiple levels—experience and competence, but increasingly personality and cultural fit as well—are getting validated. That esoteric “aloofness" CEO derailer that psychologists warned us about is emerging as the tie-breaker between two perfect fit-to-spec candidates. Does this mark the end of the “need to look her in the eye" interview format? Perhaps not, but the online-dating equivalent of the CEO recruitment world just took a giant step forward.

Three, we’ll have not-so-global talent pools. Recently, we estimated that about every seventh major CEO appointment in India involved either talent returning from overseas or with meaningful foreign work experience. This trend now bears the scars of covid-19. Top talent has turned highly cautious about moving countries (in either direction). Business uncertainty, coupled with personal or family anxiety, is showing up in an instinct to “nest" in one place. All this is without even starting to factor in any geopolitical considerations. Spun positively, this implies that top local CEO talent keen to bet on the India story, with its opportunity for value and personal wealth generation, is more easily available to us.

Four, covid-19 has probably drawn a distinct line in the sand between tech-adapted CEOs and the rest. If top talent in these times can be roughly segmented into the less focused, fear-driven leaders who seem overwhelmed by circumstances, versus those calmly focused on the transformations ahead, there are no prizes for predicting which pool the next CEO will come from. Industry verticals have blurred beyond recognition in India. Leaders in sectors like healthcare and financial services are emerging as “tech transformers", gearing their business for upswings during and after the current crisis.

Five, we’re talking a lot more to company boards. Once just polite overseers of CEO appointments and functioning, directors today are more active than ever. They convene frequently, well above and beyond the quarterly-meeting cadence, and their experience is collectively and individually—the latter increasingly—being drawn upon by companies to guide CEO and other talent-related decisions.

Nuanced interviews and the sharing of feedback in structured formats mark a decidedly higher level of involvement by corporate boards—both qualitatively and in terms of the sheer hours they put in.

All said, the toolkit to bridge special talent with organizations is evolving dramatically. Today, more than ever, CEOs seek answers from us to questions of sustainability and the “higher purpose" of their prospective employers. How well candidates and employers are matched is not always obvious in these turbulent times. As Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan wisely quipped, “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me!"

Sachin Rajan is managing director and country manager, Russell Reynolds Associates, a global executive search firm

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