01 Sep 2017 20:00 IST

Zeroing in on the perfect CXO

Stellar Search founder Shailja Dutt on the research-intensive process of hiring top management

When companies want to replenish their white-collar workforce all they have to do is run to the nearest B-school and recruit a fresh harvest of talent. But it’s much harder to find people for top-level positions.

This is where executive search firms come in — they invest all their time and resources into finding the best CXO for companies. While this is recruitment of sorts, there’s a world of difference between hiring large numbers of B-schoolers and discreetly selecting top management.

In an interview with BusinessLine on Campus, Shailja Dutt, Founder and Chairperson, Stellar Search — a leading global executive search firm in India. Started in 1998, it now has over 30 employees, many of whom are recruited fresh out of B-school.

Shailja spoke about the ‘search sector’, how it’s different from recruitment and why it’s the best place for B-schoolers to start their career. Excerpts from the interview:

When talking to potential hires at B-schools, how would you differentiate between executive search and recruitment?We frequently visit B-schools to recruit for our organisation and many students think executive search is synonymous with recruitment. They assume that what we do is mind-numbing work. That’s far from the case — executive search is very exciting because, from day one, our people get to deal with leaders. That kind of exposure is invaluable, especially at such an early stage in one’s career. It also helps them understand industry functions better because of the research they have to do. And everything that is taught in B-schools as theory in applied in practice at work: people have to read annual reports and balance sheets, and cull through relevant data to find patterns and more.

You mention that you hire right out of college. How do you hand over the job of finding CXOs for well-known companies to freshers?

Like all companies, we have a strong induction programme. Every year, we interview hundreds of students but hire only one or two. If a person wants to work in this sector they have to have a rare combination of strong academic skills and social skills. Of the few we hire, one person usually turns out to be phenomenal within a year, while the others take a few years to deal with senior candidates independently.

Coming to the search process, how do you find potential CXO candidates?

It’s a people and research intensive process as our candidates are passive ones — they don’t have their CVs on databases and aren’t looking for jobs. The primary research is done through networking — since we’ve worked in these industries for many years, we are well-connected. We follow a method to find them and when we do, there’s a way to reach out. The entire process is intense and interactive; we need to spend a lot of time with the candidates.

And how do you zero in on the perfect fit for a company?

When we’re hiring leaders we need to understand the business of the client. It’s not as easy as matching a CV to a position. We need to understand what’s happening in the company, with the client, in the competitive landscape, the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates, and more. Even before we search for candidates, we have to do extensive research to understand the field. Only then do we approach the person concerned with an offer.

What tools do you use to discover this information?

We use different kinds of software to help manage search programmes. They give us a holistic view of people by aggregating information from social media websites, blogs, news articles and other publicly available information. Even if there’s no social media presence, we gather information from public records and by networking. And most times, when we’re researching one person, we also gather information about 10 others. All this information is stored in one place to help us with further searches. Our biggest investments go into technology.

What about funding?

We’re actually very cash-rich. Our funding is organic. While I made the initial funding of ₹50,000 in 1998, we’re now a medium-size firm that has been profitable every year. It’s all about how you manage the company and keeping costs under control.

Every company needs CXOs and there are a lot of companies. Do you work with a specific set of clients?

Most search firms work vertically with certain segments. Stellar Search is strong in areas such as healthcare, oil and gas, and consumer related fields like FMCG. We understand these fields on micro and macro levels. We also boast of robust growth in medium enterprise practices that are looking to hire professionals for the first time.

Stellar Search has a strong presence in Africa... How is that market different from developed ones?

Yes, we do a lot of work in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Africa. All these markets are still growing, especially the east African ones, where there is absolutely no local talent for leadership roles. This is why lots of companies there lean on global search firms to find people who are willing to relocate to Africa and work there.

Is it easy to get people to move to such economies?

Yes, absolutely. Kenya has a lot of Britishers, and South Africa, because of its good standard of living and Western/cosmopolitan society, has many Europeans working there. These days, many people from West Asia, including those of Indian origin, are willing to relocate to African countries.