DHR Global, a leading US executive search, leadership consulting, and emerging leader search solutions company, operates in more than 50 markets spanning 22 countries. The firm has facilitated top talent hunt for many Fortune 500 companies. In an exclusive interview, Lisa Walker, Managing Partner, Global Industrial Practice & North American Management Committee Member, talks about traits of CEOs and other top talent, what firms look for when they hire and the transformation happening in the field. Prior to entering executive search, Lisa was Chief Marketing Officer of BP’s global aviation business. Her career included consulting (Bain & Company and Kearney) as well as business management, operations, engineering and commercial roles (BP and Honeywell). Prior to DHR, Lisa was a Senior Partner at a global executive search firm where she initiated, built and led the Global Sustainability Practice and the Global Agribusiness Practice.
The Covid pandemic has changed the world. How far that has changed for global companies looking for top talent?
I see a couple of trends. Earlier multinationals and global corporations wanted to hire executives who have to sit and operate at a particular location. Now they say find me a person with these skills, a very strong communicator, and who can sit and operate from anywhere in the globe. Or they can sit in these three major hubs - Asia, Europe or the US. The CEO still needs to sit at the headquarters and need to be closer to where their board of directors are and closer to where their financial markets are.
How companies and CEO are managing and coping with the new trend of employees working from remote locations or homes? What are their challenges and what challenges do you face while hiring?
Emergence of virtual workforce during the pandemic has changed businesses at least for the next decade and some of those changes will not go back to the old ways. The US CEOs have a very hard time getting their people back into the office. Europe is probably leading the way in getting people back to the office, Asia is No.2, and US is No.3. There are benefits from people working remotely, but there are issues like the less experienced workforce not getting the mentoring and the informal learning which they get in the office. This is happening for the last three years and it is hard to get learning remotely or from a Teams or Zoom interaction. I would say CEOs and CHROs are wrestling with how to maintain a corporate culture, how to groom their next generation of leaders, and how to get people back into the office.
Fundamentally, it is the mindset of the people that decides whether to go back to office or not. The most ambitious are fast going back to the office. Many people consider saving in their commuting time and commuting costs. Some companies encourage workforce to come back to office by increasing travel allowance and some level of flexibility in working hours and travel time. But still many employees say I lose this much time and expense in travelling to the office. Therefore, how the CEOs and HR teams think creatively to counter such arguments is important in getting people back to office as earlier.
Has this increased or affected productivity of organisations?
Many in the areas of individual contributors or tactical or repetitive activities have been able to increase productivity. In the case of many individual activities, it has increased, because there is no distraction or have less distractions. But many strategic and developmental activities have decreased and that is a problem. Team creativity, brainstorming and thinking out of box together have decreased, affecting productivity.
How far have requirements and capabilities of CEOs changed with the emergence of disruptive technologies like AI or other such new technologies? What are the requisites for a global CEO and top managers in this new context?
Whether pre-or post-Covid, fundamental to the CEO job is leadership and ability to set the culture, great accountability and engage the workforce to execute the strategies. Fundamentally, that has not changed. Fundamental skill of communication and engagement has become more important, because people are out of touch.
What has changed is technology, transparency of information and the global political landscape. When we talk about technology, jobs are changing because of AI. Many jobs that people are doing today won't exist in ten years and many jobs people are going to do after ten years don't exist today. The CEOs and top managers have to imagine the jobs that are going to be eliminated and the jobs that are going to come up. The CEO’s job is to enforce the workforce to embrace those changes, work with their executives, identify what those jobs are, train and key is to develop the executives to work in that future environment. They have to develop those jobs and adopt those technologies; AI is a perfect example.
Another is developing that future infrastructure. Ten years ago, people were talking about climate change. Now everybody is talking about climate change. Everybody is impacted with climate change. Now EVs and mobility and many other industries have changed, technology is changing to AI and new materials. Next generation of CEOs have to embrace them.
What all jobs are going to get eliminated and what all new jobs will emerge?
Jobs that are going to touch people are going to go up. Communication is important and you no longer can operate locally and nationally as you did before, because the world is too connected. Jobs that embrace data is going to continue to increase. More important is discerning what is data and what is actionable data, especially when you live with AI. It can give all the data in the world, but the key is how you interpret that data and how you understand fundamentals of that data. That is just the tip of the iceberg. AI is going to take lots of basic programming and basic software, which is no longer needed. That will be replaced with actionable data and fundamentally it is people that are going to make decisions, people who engage and people who are productive. For example, industries like healthcare are going to continue to grow. It is a people driven industry, AI may change diagnosis but it is not going to change nature of treatment or diseases. Education is an area where huge change is going to happen like what ChatGPT can do. Service industries will continue to grow and they have to look at whether changes in partnerships or contract manufacturing is required in future. With climate change, new jobs will emerge in sectors like EVs, renewables and energy, water, agro-food etc.
Jobs like that of a lawyer or a chartered accountant, driven and regulated in the past by Governments and regulations, may be influenced in future by geo-political changes like relationships between the US and Asia or China relations. It is interesting to see what the next generation does.
What are the challenges before a CEO in this new context and how they need to change to adapt to the new world order?
From a CEO perspective, from critical thinking, education should be based on critical problem-solving skills. Critical thinking is step one and critical problem solving is step two. Critical thinking is understanding the biases and then we have fact-based tests to measure own biases, and listening to different viewpoints. It is about asking 'why' all the time. In critical problem solving, you know the problem and what outcome are you looking for. What is the trade needed for that outcome - money or natural resources, moving people or related constituents get together to solve that problem. So it is knowing how and who is going to solve that problem, who is going to benefit and who is going to lose or win in the end.
Then, speed and transparency. Speed, because things are changing faster than ever before, ability to engage the workforce and solving the problem fast is critical. When I say speed, it is the speed of technology, speed of governance, changing Governments interactions, understanding how natural disasters or war are impacting you and your suppliers etc. The pandemic impacted the world in 2020 and the whole world was impacted and disrupted the whole supply chain. What the CEOs have to do is balance the short term and long-term goals. Some CEOs and country culture are better at harmonising that balance of short term versus long term. If you look at short term, things may move faster, but long-term results could be an issue. If you are only looking at long term, you will need tremendous resources to stay in the game for a long term. That is an area many CEOs are trying to balance in the emerging world order.
Now many Fortune 500 companies are run by Indian or India-born CEOs. What are the attributes that attract talent hunters like you to hire them?
It is fundamentally about continuous focus on continuous learning by CEOs or say any executives. Next is, a country like India has talent with lots of cultural diversity. Here, people of different economic stature and background co-exist without animosity for long and have problem solving skills, without becoming disrespectful for the person on the other side. They have a win-win goal rooted on--if we work together, we can achieve those goals, and there is a great work ethics in India. CEOs from India are smart, well-educated and continuous learners. They have ability to manage different kinds of people and temperament. They have existed in harmonious systems, they know whether this guy is good or bad, and know how to handle and co-exist with them. That philosophy is excellent as a CEO. He can bring good people, ideas and priorities to get the whole system get better. The third trait of an Indian CEO is hard work. They are continuous learners, learn quickly how a country and that system works.
What are the parameters you look out for and apply when choosing a CEO?
When we choose a CEO, actually we choose a team, the kind of change he can bring in as a team. He may have depth and strength in one or two functional areas, that could be topline which is on the commercial side or bottom-line which is on the operational side. It could be finance or innovation. A good CEO knows he needs to have the smartest person in every functions. If you are in a business where product innovation and first to market matters, that should be the priority. He also needs to have the best finance guy, commercial or HR person on his left and right side and that makes the team. A good CEO needs to have functional expertise, breadth and brain to put together all ideas as a team and translate that to good results. I follow the philosophy of hiring smart people and listening to them.
When we interview to hire a CEO, we ask them what is your 90-day plan and what is your five-year plan or it can be a 20-year plan. It is his ability to judge and dissect critically where the company stands now, and discern what are the company's strengths and weaknesses. Nobody can predict what can happen after two years or even six months. But a continuous learner can predict who has made the changes in the past and what can be done. He also should be ready to learn, 'what I don't know to win'. A good CEO will always ask himself what questions I didn't ask. It is an open ended information. It is not about change the strategy or direction the organisation cannot follow, unless they have a loose strategy or direction.
There are many family run successful enterprises around the world, including in India. How different are they when hiring professionals for the top jobs?
Many family-owned enterprises look at long term, the next or next two or three generations and not necessarily next 2-3 years or quarters to quarters. That is a good practice and they also try to balance it with near term, bottom line and topline in a year or 1-2 quarters. How you define short term and long term is very important and that is the difference what we see in family-owned businesses from other businesses. One main difference is ability to bring in professional management. There will be a time when most family-owned businesses need to bring in professionals to manage the company in one area or other. The technology and world is changing quickly and you need to have the best of the best and a pool of talent. You also need to have the diversity of upbringing your back ground. There will be times when best family run managements need to treat professional management as equal to them at the board room table. Professionals also need to accept that still family owns the business and they are their bank. Maturity of companies is also important. Some companies may have grown faster at certain times or have natural spin offs of some businesses or acquired businesses. That impacts capital structure, which is fundamentally need for capital.