Recruiting executives for India? Hire for nature, then nurture.

Hurry up and cultivate. We don’t have all day.

My friend Ravi knows a thing or two about running a business from India. He has led the Indian subsidiaries of two global multinationals, both well over a $1 billion in revenues, led a sizable Indian joint venture, and serves on the board of a multi-billion-dollar India-based global company. Ravi describes ‘character’ as the price of entry, the most critical attribute for all leaders anywhere, anytime. Ravi then adds that in India agility—the ability to “figure things out on the fly”—is another of the most critical keys to success.

What else do Indian leaders need? Ravi says that as long as they are agile, they just need to add seasoning—at breakneck speed. I’ll summarize these critical components to Indian leadership here.

Character. This is the leader’s rudder, their compass. Character drives energy and passion, the desire to make great things happen. It runs deeper than culture, nationality and ethnicity, and yet exists in plain sight for others to see. No country owns “character.” In the context of leadership, there is not an Indian character any more than there is an American or Chinese character.

Agility. Successful Indian companies have an irrepressible quality, essential today, that even many global multinational CEOs lack: learning agility, or the resilience to figure out what to do on the fly.  Working in such a volatile and highly ambiguous environment, successful Indian leaders use street smarts, intuition, people skills, and agility to figure things out fast. They experiment with new solutions at each step along the way. This quality seems to stem naturally from their struggles to break through against almost impossible odds. Consciously or not, the best companies in India use agility as a filter for hiring, coaching, and promoting. Agility is not to be taken for granted: look at the recent experience of such iconic companies as Sony, Kodak, Panasonic, and, more recently, P&G—companies that had it, and are struggling to regain it. Agility is spread evenly, if thinly, around the world. Yet given the context of India’s rapid growth, top leaders in India can’t survive without it.

Nurture. Yet many of these great Indian companies lack another quality, also essential today, that most of the top Western multinationals have in abundance: seasoned leadership. These are the qualities of leadership that take time to develop, to nurture: principles, points of view, insights and behaviors established over the years and passed on. Mature leaders high in learning agility use their self-awareness and energy in combination with well-developed leadership qualities that have been nurtured on the job. This is the focus of all leadership development efforts: accelerating maturity.

Are Indian leaders different? Probably not, but their experience and history is. Their agile nature comes from the context of their challenges. Their success, ultimately, will depend on retaining their agility while accelerating their ability to build and grow talent at each stage along the path. Hire for nature, then nurture. And speed it up.

The end of the expat assignment: Westerners ‘go local’ in Asia rather than return to headquarters

Take the plunge

Take the plunge

We all know that multinationals have cut back on expatriate assignments. So what are the expats doing? Also going local.

Expats and their employers—each for different reasons—are converging on a similar outcome: an end to the expat commitment. We’re witnessing the rise of the un-expat.

Bonnie, an American citizen, has shuttled between the U.S., Singapore, and Australia for most of her work life, always as an assignee from headquarters. Now a regional executive in Asia with a top-tier U.S.-based company, she was almost speechless when I asked her if she has any plans to return to headquarters. “Why would I do that? The opportunities are in Asia.” Another American, a top regional executive with a U.S. multinational who has been in Singapore less than a year, is just now coming to terms with the realization that he is happier in Asia than in headquarters. “It’s emotionally tough to consider the possibility of leaving after spending my entire life with this company. But I’ve got to look to where the opportunities are, here or on the outside. And after being exposed to the opportunities in Asia, this is where the action is.” Like Bonnie, he is open to giving up the lucrative expat deal for a local-hire package with a great organization.

There are many reasons multinationals continue to send their high-potential executives to Asia as expats, even as the emphasis has shifted to hiring local talent. Once these executives arrive in Asia, from what I see, all bets are off. For many expats, the traditional three-to-five-year expatriate assignment is a thing of the past. Over time, some willingly bail out of their expat status, recognizing these benefits as symbols of a colonial mindset or as visible and costly burdens for their employers. Others, like those I mentioned, look to stay on with their new expertise as “local” hires. At any rate, good people want to manage their careers on their own terms, while good companies are taking steps to hire and develop local talent.

For a multinational corporation trying to manage the shift, though, it’s not so easy. Building a pipeline of mature, agile, and ready local leaders is both strategic and cost-effective. But apprenticing local talent takes time. So even as they reduce their expat employees, most companies still need a blend of expatriate mentors and high-potential local talent. That’s why, the top, at the most strategic and regional levels, fully-loaded expatriate packages are still the norm. Getting this balance right, and keeping it, is tough. Especially now that the talent—whether local nationals, localized expats or strategic assignees—hold all the cards.

Indeed, few self-respecting executives would describe themselves as expats today. All talent, local or non-local, recognize the need to blend into the local melting pot to make a meaningful contribution. There’s also more eagerness to gain experience over immediate reward—a bold shift in mindset borne partly out of expats’ survival instincts and partly out of a desire to shape their own careers.

These un-expats understand that with success and the right attitude, career opportunities exist internally and externally, locally and overseas, all the time, regardless of a current employer’s repatriation plan, especially in fast-evolving Asia. Their future is determined by the cut and thrust of the market for talent, not by some executive sponsor in headquarters. Recruiters call every day. These executives are in it for the journey, not just the job; they own their careers and take things as they come. Being “an expat” is a thing of the past. They’re now local.

A multinational will win the loyalty of an assignee not with a binding expat deal, but by ensuring that the he or she receives immediate and tangible career benefits here and now (and that these benefits outweigh sexy opportunities on the outside). At the same time, let the expats “go local.” Don’t fear losing them and don’t talk in vague notions about three to five years.

All career paths don’t lead back to headquarters, after all. They lead to where the customers are.

Drilling down in interviews: Why do hiring managers talk instead of listen?

Research says that 64% of new executives hired from the outside fail in their new jobs, so how do we improve our selection process? Most successful leaders are taken aback when a hiring manager or recruiter tries to understand what makes them tick, and I mean try to really understand, because so few people in the corporate world try, even during a critical job interview. They’re too busy selling (as are most candidates). That’s why one of the best ways to recruit the best candidates, the hard-to-get candidates, is to drill down, understand how they got to where they are, and get to the bottom of their motivations. When you know they’re right for the job, great candidates will know it also.

Take China and Japan, two countries with critical talent needs. In Japan the danger is that interviewers, whether the hiring manager, executive search consultant or HR executive, tend to treat senior executives with the respect of an elder or become overly impressed with the executive’s track record of name brand employers which may or may not be relevant for the job. In the case of China, where everything is urgent, the short supply of talent and can lead to making the wrong trade-off decisions. Meanwhile, without better direction, the candidates themselves tend to let their status do the talking. So what should we be looking for? How do we know when the candidate has what it takes?

Successful leaders don’t just materialize out of thin air or hatch out of some top-ten business school. They somehow master their environment and emerge with a strong sense of who they are, while others come and go. So, during an interview, the executive will be taking stock of the interviewer while the interviewer does the probing. How much is shared depends on trust and the quality of the interviewer.

We would hope to hear some truths about the executive’s successes and failures, one or two watershed moments that defined his or her career. We’ll should looking for the how and why of his or her actions. This is described as ‘behavioral-based’ or ‘competency-based’ interviewing and there are books on the subject. But it’s not so easy and takes both practice and desire. Try to hear the executive’s description of the emotions around the experience: pain, humiliation, exhilaration, regret, satisfaction. You may hear about decisions or achievements, but try to learn about what matters most: how the individual mustered the wherewithal to make things work out against the odds, accept the hard lessons, and apply the learning.

You might hear about luck or good timing. But our job is to dig deeper and understand the true makings of a person’s success. Then, link these competencies to the critical needs of the job at hand. Is it that difficult to drill for the fuel that drives successful leaders? We’ve got to get better at it. Knowing that the person opposite you is taking stock, be curious, be real, and reach out.

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