Leader Speaks

Dec 12, 2023 26 min read

Be curious enough to move up the value chain!

With nearly three decades of market experience serving clients in the talent management space, Mr. Navnit Singh has built a successful practice advising companies on CEO appointments and C-level team composition across multiple functional disciplines of both established and emerging technology companies in the software, hardware, Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) and professional services sectors. He is the Chairman and Regional Managing Director of India for Korn/Ferry International. Based in the Firm's New Delhi office, he also leads India's Technology and Professional Services Market, besides leading the HR COE for India.

In conversation with Apurva Nagmote and Naveli Singh

Q. Could you a share a bit about your professional journey and some pivotal moments that led you to becoming the Chairman & MD of India for one of the most renowned search firms in the world?

After completing MBA in 1983, I joined Eicher and worked for them at multiple locations like Alwar and Faridabad. I believe these early years of my career were a turning point for me and a lot of other HR professionals working for Eicher at that time. This is because from an HR standpoint, we were way ahead of our times in terms of people development initiatives, succession planning, people engagement and work ethics. My next professional engagement was with Ranbaxy where I stayed for about 6 years.

I went on to work with Olivetti, Modi Xerox, and several other firms. My last job was with HSBC investment banking where I was employee number two. I moved to New York for close to 2.5 years as the senior VP for North America. Eventually I decided to come back and start a venture of my own. I worked for myself for around 9-10 months during which I worked for very small companies.

That was the time when Hedrick and Struggles came to India and offered me a Partner position. Given my background in Investment banking, they offered me a role in finance at Mumbai, but I refused. Alternately, I was offered a role in technology and Services practice at Gurgaon.

You know, it continues to be a joke at home till date. My kids wonder how I am working in tech, when I don’t even know how to boot my computer!

I spent the next 11 years at Hedrick & Struggles, my last role being Head of Technology practice for Asia Pacific and subsequently Korn Ferry came a calling. A lot of their Regional MDs at that time were my ex-colleagues who persuaded me to join the firm. When I joined Korn Ferry, it was very small with just 9 partners and revenue to the tune of around 10 million, with Rupee at 51. Today we are close to 42 partners, 600 people and revenues more than 45 million with Rupee at 83. I believe we have done well for ourselves.

Q. How has your experience been working at leadership positions at some of the finest organizations? What keeps you going?

What I have learnt from my years of experience across different industries, sectors and geographies is that leadership is all about leading from the front, being transparent, open, and black & white in one’s capability and ability to build relationships. One cannot pretend to build relationships with colleagues and subordinates while being distrustful.

Working with different people, multiple clients, multiple partners is what generally keeps me going. I derive my adrenaline flow from different experiences and learnings that emerge from these interactions. I am fond of travelling too. If I don’t travel for a week, I become restless.

Q. Since you have spent a considerable time of your career in executive search firms, how do the hiring strategies vary across organizations?

There is not a single formula for hiring that works for all organizations. If you look at sectors, say technology sector, it subdivides itself into services, products, Cloud, SAAS, so on and so forth. In the services sub sector for instance, organizations hire thousands of people every year, especially freshers. Organizations like TCS, Capgemini, Infosys, IBM, WIPRO etc. have a tiered approach towards entry level positions. They start recruiting from IITs and RECs first and then go to the tier 2 and 3 colleges. And for each tier of colleges, the campus recruitment strategy, compensation, and training programs differ largely. No matter which branch of engineering a candidate comes from, they go through extensive training for a fixed duration and come out as Computer Engineers. In some of the colleges, the likes of IBM and Microsoft start tracking brighter engineers from 1st year of college. By the time they complete their final year, most of them end up getting offers, similar to what happens with MBA graduates.

On the other hand, the hiring strategy for entry level is different for industrial hiring, with the whole Graduate Trainee program, where the numbers are limited. If you look at Life Sciences or Pharma, it recruits for categories like R&D or shop floor. But because of safety and quality reasons, the training period here is longer and more rigorous.

Now if you move up and hire for lower management with 4-5 years of experience or middle management with 10-15 years of experience, the numbers become limited and the process changes to a multi-level interaction or evaluation. At every level there is siphoning off happening till the candidate reaches the hiring manager level and eventually gets selected.

The moment you move to senior management, which could be CEO, C-1 and C-2 levels, the hiring process becomes far more intense and far more sophisticated because each hiring mistake becomes very expensive. So, the whole approach and strategy of talent acquisition varies from sector to sector, level to level and everyone is trying to make it as much sophisticated as they can.

Q. What role do Resumes play in the hiring process?  Are they a reliable tool for the hiring process?

Resumes are generally the starting point of the recruitment cycle. I don’t think any organization including yours would have the infrastructure to find people on a job portal and invite them for a chat. Thus, resume screening by the internal recruitment team becomes the only broad shortlisting effort. This is because most of the recruiters on the other side of the table, irrespective of the numbers they are hiring, are only able to cross check 5-6 parameters of candidate selection.

The resumes of candidates selected at the 1st level are then validated through telephonic screening. This need arises because a lot of people under 5-10 years of experience do not even know how to make a resume- what or what not to highlight, whether to make a standard resume or make tailor made resumes for different jobs. The next level of screening is generally a video call, where one understands the person better and further checks the authenticity of the credentials listed in the resume. The final course of action is the face-to-face interview post which a conscious decision on hiring is taken. So, in this whole ecosystem of hiring, Resumes remain as the anchor of the process. The dependence on this piece of document remains high.

But there are certain precautions that need to be observed as there are several biases involved with resume screening process. Say if your company has a drilling engineer’s requirement. There may be several applicants who will be right for the job but may not have a mining degree or may not have worked in a drilling/mining organization. Several candidates may not be able to talk about their experiences on the job because they have not been trained to make right kind of resume. So, the onus lies with the recruiter to see through the resumes and figure out the right kind of skills and potential that the role requires.  Sometimes recruiters treat resume screening as an activity limited to ticking some checkboxes, not realizing that in the process they may eliminate the right candidate.  I think screening resumes is an art and needs to be incorporated in hiring teams.

This is a place where I believe tools can also come into play, psychometrics can come into play, analysis of these assessments can come into play. It helps you make better decisions in terms of the choices.

Q. Are there alternate models of hiring processes that can be a better predictor of job performance than educational background or work experience? Is there a one that Korn Ferry follows?

Korn Ferry with an experience of assessing millions of candidates over decades, has created unique candidate profiles for pretty much most jobs in the world. So hypothetically, if we wish to hire a supply chain manager for a company ‘X’, we sit down with the client and discuss about the 7 most important job attributes critical to this position, then the next seven and the least seven. These attributes are chosen from a pool of 67 such traits, competencies, skills, and behaviors that we, at Korn Ferry, have culled down basis our experiences on multiple assessments. Once these are decided, it gets fed into a system which projects the unique candidate success profile for a supply chain manager at company ‘X’.

Following this, the candidates are assessed basis the unique candidate success profile through a 45-minute assessment outcome.  The assessment compares the candidate’s skills, traits, and behaviors against the expectations laid down in the candidate unique profile. This is not a pass or fail test. It just shows where the candidate stacks up on the parameters against the unique profile that the organization is looking for. So, if you are looking for competencies around supply chain, logistics, commercial skills such as negotiation, the assessment shows the individual’s competencies above or below the expected level while highlighting the gaps.

Next, the evaluation suggests questions that the interviewer should ask the candidate for having those gaps ratified. Our research shows that the probability of a candidate succeeding in a job is 80 % higher if they have gone through the assessment.

Q. A lot of companies are diversifying into the Green Energy space. What should be their strategy to attract and retain the right kind of talent?

There is a huge talent shortage in the renewable or green energy area and every large corporation is trying to enter this space. Companies like Reliance, JSW, Adani and several automotive companies are a few examples. Companies who are already in EVs for instance are doing backward integration into production of batteries, cells, semiconductors etc. Given that there is a talent shortage, and everyone wants to grow rapidly, a lot of companies today are taking chances with people who are at the periphery. So, a wind guy is moving to solar, a solar guy is moving to green and within green, companies are diversifying into multiple other areas. What organizations are essentially looking at is learnability. If you ask for a person who can work in the area of hydrogen today, you can count them on your fingertips. However, if you look at the number of people working in the area of traditional batteries, you can find thousands of candidates. But are they willing to learn, are they willing to move up and are they willing to invest time on themselves and whether companies are also willing to invest on them?

In the next 3-5 years, we would need lakhs of people in the green energy initiatives and therefore the recruiters need to understand the kind of investments that would be needed to train such a large pool of people to come up.

Thus, the market leaders today are investing not only on Capex but also on the people who they are cherry picking from the market and making sure that they become trainers to the trainers. A number of them are also hiring for projects from countries like Taiwan, Korea, China, asking them to train the trainer and then move them back.

The changing market dynamics reminds me of Y2K episode when the whole world thought that the date change is going to change the world forever. Companies & banks spent crores & crores of rupees on training, managing systems believing that the world is going to stop on 1st January 2000. Thankfully nothing happened. But what it did was, that it threw up an altogether new industry and that is where companies like Tech M, Infosys, Wipro, HCL became what they are today.

We are now sitting at the same cusp in industry and manufacturing as far as the green energy goes. So, organizations who are going to hire right, invest right and train right today will be the ones who will ride the wave in the next 3-5 years. The hiring managers need to adapt themselves to the fact that even if the candidate is 30-40 % ready for the job, they need to invest the balance time to ensure that the candidate reaches the balance 70—80%  mark in some time frame.

Our clients have also utilized such assessments post hiring from a development perspective. For example, we have been analyzing close to 1500 GET for one of our clients. When they join the firm post hiring, we assess them and develop them over a period of 3 to 6 months. Their progress is monitored with the objective that there will be attrition of 25-30% year on year, but if in a timeframe of 10-15 years, the client can retain 40 to 50 of them, then they have a great pool of future ready managers.

Q. What are some of the skills that people should be developing as they’re trying to succeed in the new world of work? Are there any common skill sets that organizations should focus on irrespective of their industry?

I have a firm believe that no body is born to do a specific job. All of us, in our professional journeys, have developed ourselves, learnt the hard way or soft way the skills that we have today.

Companies need to give opportunities to its employees to create an environment of learning and growth. Even after hiring, people need time to slip into their jobs. This is true even at the senior most level. For instance, I once hired a deputy CEO for a very large conglomerate. It was a business that he did not belong to, but the organization took a chance. The existing CEO was to transition to another business in a time span of two years, giving enough time to the newly hired deputy CEO to learn the business. But a week before the deputy CEO was to join, the existing CEO resigned!

5 days away from joining, the new hire came to me saying that he was flustered and had no idea what to do next as he didn’t know the company or the sector. I told him that this was great opportunity for him to fast track his learning. The firm was not going to replace the CEO with another external hire, they would only transfer somebody internally given that the individual will at least know the group, even if he doesn’t know the sector. So now was the time for the new hire to step up as an individual and that the company would give all the support to ensure his success into the profile.

And this to my mind applies to the bottom of the pit. The desire to move up the ladder comes from one’s own learnability. I keep telling my team, given the business that we are in, that 80 % of the information that you need about the competition is sitting in the newspapers. Sometimes I force them to spend the first 10-15 minutes of their time in the office reading newspapers. Individuals need put in efforts to upgrade their knowledge, upskill themselves, instead of always relying on the company to do something for them.

Most people with around 15 years of experience need to have 60-80% of technology and technical capabilities or learnability and the balance is around managerial skill. Its only when you go to the senior management side that it would reverse. A solar guy needs to understand energy at large, wind guy should understand the energy methods at large. People need to learn and experiment at every step of their career to keep moving up.

Q. What message would you like to give to our readers, who are at various stages of their careers and would like to become future ready and relevant.

I believe that irrespective of the age, experience, or career stage, you have to be curious enough to continue to move up the value chain otherwise you would become irrelevant faster than you think.

Today everyone is scared of the impact of ChatGPT and AI on our careers. While the impact might happen 5 years from now, but one has to start preparing for the change today. As youngsters, you need to start thinking about the changes that need to be brought to your life in an environment where careers are important, jobs are important, everyone is not going to become an entrepreneur or have a startup. So, you must decide as to how much time are you going to spend on yourself and try to build yourself out for the future whichever line you are in. I think people have got into such a comfort zone that I am actually scared for the next generation. A lot of kids whose parents have done are leading lives of entitlement.

We need to understand very clearly, that you have to fight your way forward, competition is going to become even more intense, and jobs would become more siloed. You have to become experts in your own ride and add value to whatever you are doing. That is what is going to be driving your future.


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