Dream of becoming a CEO? Here‘s what you need

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subtle and silent change is under way in India Inc on the emphasis it
seeks in its CEOs: humble and not haughty, sensitive and not insular,
about solid teams and not about star individuals. This greater emphasis
on soft skills, a manifestation of an economy in crisis and change, is
illustrated by how a global bank, with headcount of about 1,000 in
India, redefined its search for a country head to executive-search firm
Kelly Services a few months ago.

When Kelly presented candidates
with plum degrees who had nurtured big brands, the bank’s board showed
no interest in even meeting them. It, instead, asked Kelly to shortlist
candidates who possessed, along with ability and confidence, soft skills
to develop talent and win customers.

“The client wanted to know
how the candidate has done as a people’s person,” says Kamal Karanth,
managing director of the India unit of Kelly, declining to name the bank
for reasons of confidentiality. Adds Jayesh Pandey, managing director,
talent and organisation, Accenture: “Increasingly, organisations are
looking for CEOs who are humble and have a greater people connect. It is
permeating into the way companies are spending their talent dollars.”

Karanth
says this change has crept in recently. “Three years ago, when a
company would give a mandate for a CEO, some of the obvious traits would
be peoplebig brands, with sales achievements, flamboyant, high energy,
who can crack a million-dollar deal any time,” he adds.

“They
would compromise if a person displayedthese skills but was bullying and
arrogant.” Headhunters say company founders and boards are now placing
less emphasis on such attributes while drawing up a profile matrix. They
instead want leaders who can tackle a slowing economy, a complex
business environment and empower a growing number of Gen Y at the work
place gracefully and effectively. That philosophy, they add, runs
through some of the notable hirings and elevations of 2013: Bharti
Airtel CEO Gopal Vittal, HCL Technologies CEO Anant Gupta, Britannia COO
Varun Berry, Godrej Consumer managing director Vivek Gambhir and
HindustanUnilever MD and CEO Sanjiv Mehta.

In July 2013, when
Mehta was anointed, Harish Manwani, chief operating officer
of HUL parent Unilever, told ET: “He is not only a great leader, but a
very humble man and a man of great compassion. So very competent and yet
a great listener, and I have absolutely no doubt he will fit in HUL.”

For
Navnit Singh, India CMD of search firm Korn/Ferry International, this
realignment of preferences is a sign of maturity in the selection
process.

“Today, nobody is influenced by an individual aura or a
well-known personality,” he says. “Companies want leaders who are not
rock stars, but who can work with a team of mini rock stars.”
Increasingly, those “mini rock stars” are becoming younger; they are
also ambitious and have an egalitarian approach to workplaces.

“Mostly
in new economy companies,those in IT and ITeS that are managing more
Gen Y, you need to have CEOs who are more grounded,” says Karanth of
Kelly Services. “Young people want to be heard and want to know that the
CEO is listening,” adds professor Linda Hill, Wallace Brett Donham
professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and
chair of the school’s Leadership Initiative.

The focus is
shiftingan individual to a team,quick growth to building an institution.
“Increasingly, boards are also liking people who focus on company
achievements and not personal achievements,” says Anil Sachdev of School
of Inspired Leadership, a private business in Gurgaon.

“So, I
don’t see too many CEOs today interested in appearing on public forums.
They would rather spend time with their internal team members.” Sachdev
is also a member of the HR committee of the Confederation of Indian
Industry (CII). According to Hill, the imperative to spend time with
employees is greater in the current shaky business environment,
especially if hard steps are to be taken. “…( in such instances ) it’s
important for them to have the humility to understand that the person
in front of them also has responsibilities and obligations,” says Hill,
who studied the behaviour of several global leaders during the 2008
downturn, including the then HCL Technologies CEO Vineet Nayar.

Hill
points out that, in the social milieu, many employees are not only
supporting themselves, but also their extended families. “Every effort
should be made to help laid off employees maintain their dignity; their
treatment will matter not only to them, but also to the survivors in
assessing the CEO’sacter,” she says. “CEOs need to be sensitive to how
people are feeling; they need to lead with transparency, accountability
and humility.” Rajeev Peshawaria has been the chief learning officer of
Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley, and has held senior positions at American
Express and Goldman Sachs.

While researching for his book ‘Too
Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders’, he found that one reason why Howard
Schultz of Starbucks, Jack Ma of Alibaba and Jeff Bezos of Amazonbuilt
enduring businesses was that they understood the power of “we”. “In the
long run, business leaders who have the unique quality of ‘humble
confidence’ are the ones that succeed,” he says. “Collaboration is more
key today than ever before, and involving Gen Y is an absolute must in
order to create a better future.” Kishore Biyani, promoter of Future
Group, says Indian CEOs are adapting.

“They are more receptive
now to new ideas and change,” he says. “They were far too stiff earlier
and possibly also reflected the attitude of their own leaders.” Vivek
Gambhir, who tookge as MD of Godrej Consumer in June, says he spends
more time visiting the company’s various offices and factories; he does
not just meet the management, but also reaches out to the officer-level
cadre.

Twice or thrice a week, he posts his observations on
business and updates on the company’s micro-blog Yammer. “From a
personality perspective, flashy and high display energy is being
replaced by an ability to connect on the ground,” says Karanth.
Rootedness in a CEO is something that Ramesh Chauhan, chairman of
Bisleri International, has been searching for, though elusively.

“Two
years back, I sacked a person hired at that level for his inability to
get a sense of what is happening on the ground,” he says.

“Most
MBA-culture CEOs come in with pre-conceived notions and impose their
thoughts on others. They just do not listen.” And increasingly, neither
do companiesthat.