Prasad Medury is the managing director of Odgers Berndtson India. Based in New-Delhi, he heads the global executive search firm’s India operations, focusing on the industrial, infrastructure, consumer and retail, technology, life sciences/healthcare, and education sectors.
Medury has over 15 years of search expertise in board, general management, and functional leadership positions covering industrial, infrastructure, technology, and education practices across South Asia and Greater China regions. He was earlier a senior partner for the Indian operations of a leading global network in executive searches.
Working in the space of board and CXO executive search, leadership assessments, and diversity and inclusion advisory, Odgers Berndtson recently opened a new office in Bengaluru, expanding its presence in the region.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Medury shares his insights on the key traits sought after by Fortune 500 companies when they want to hire the next CEO, factors to keep in mind when a leader plans to make his next move and how Corporate India is investing in ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ to attract the best minds.
Here are some edited excerpts
What are the key skills sought by Fortune 500 companies when hiring their next CEO in the post-pandemic world?
In the past 18-24 months, we observed that a lot of companies are looking for certain specialised functional skills for example, in ESG, sustainability, and diversity and inclusion.
Interestingly, there is an increased focus on functions like corporate communications and digital communication skills. It's not just about digital skills but much more in terms of how to use digital communication in dealing with investors, analysts, and financial markets.
Gender diversity is also very high on the agenda for most multinationals. They have metrics that they measure themselves against and set medium-term and long-term goals for themselves. Some of them have even linked that up to the CEO's compensation. It's become a board issue and they are cognisant of diversity metrics and the targets.
Some of the other companies are looking at regional diversity as well. They are looking to hire senior executives from the northeast, for example, working in Bangalore or vice versa. There is a little bit of focus on disability as a diversity too, though the talent pool at the very senior level is still very limited.
One clear competency that CEOs must have to be successful in the pandemic and beyond is the ability to communicate effectively and give the right messages. The second is the ability to be resilient. The pandemic has taken a lot out of people, so you inherently need to be determined and be willing to face adversity. I call it courage and resilience.
The third is the ability to be flexible. How agile are you as a leader, can you make changes on the fly, and then can you carry your team with you because during the height of the pandemic, the five-year planning process had gone out of the window, and companies were operating on the next five months or even five weeks’ time frame.
Another important aspect is empathy.
Most organisations have seen employees and their families go through really turbulent times, job losses, pay cuts, and loss of lives. A leader who understands your problems, discusses things, hears suggestions, and is willing to grow together and deals with employees with more empathy is definitely a far more effective leader than the old-fashioned hard leader who wants to be followed.
However, while in some organisations, the empathetic leader has been very successful in other organisations, the autocratic leader has been successful too and they still continue, but they've been less successful.
Interestingly, now clients ask us to do pure gender diversity searches. It is no longer a question of considering women candidates only but getting the best woman for the job. We have pure diversity searches in technical and operational functions unlike earlier times when we would just have them in finance and human resources where traditionally there have been more women. Clients are now asking us for women candidates for say a plant head, site director or even the head of supply chain.
The answer is most of us have learned the hard way that we can. When we started, we were also a little skeptical but in retrospect we all agree that there are quite a few women leaders, and we have to make the right efforts to find them.
How do you battle unconscious bias in leadership hiring?
Conscious bias is hard to deal with because those are attitudes that come from home. However, unconscious bias can be dealt with. People believe they are fair and transparent, but there is an inherent bias in them that they don't realise. The cultural aspect to organisations can be dealt with through training, mentorship, and other ways.
Even search consultants carry unconscious bias. To deal with it, there is a need to appoint more women in our own organisations. The good news is most search firms have a very good diversity ratio. At Odgers Berndtson, the gender diversity ratio is 70%. However, what we need is to get more women partners on board which can then help develop a more balanced high-performance team.
Part of the way of dealing with the whole bias issue, whether it be conscious or unconscious, is to appoint CXOs, who are women. They may go through a certain amount of turbulence. There have to be one or two champions in the organisation who are willing to not just handhold them but handle the staff also, because adjusting the attitudes of the staff is equally important. If the direct reports are adamant, they won't let the leader succeed. The champion or the mentor not only has to deal with integrating the new leader within the organisation, but also sensitise their direct reports and make sure they give the new leader a chance to succeed.
What do leaders look for in their next job opportunity in the post-pandemic world?
During the pandemic, we've had leaders who walked away from the corporate sector having taken sabbaticals, or joined NGOs/ not-for-profit organisations among others for a better work life balance. However, leaders who want to continue in the corporate sector look at four important aspects when deciding on taking up a new role.
First, the role needs to be challenging because if the leader is in a good setup, a good ecosystem and a challenging role, why would he/she look at a change. The change has to entail equal or more challenge.
Second, the brand is very important. A leader looks at an organisational brand and the brand of the leadership/ the reporting manager. In case of an Indian promoter group, they look at the promoter and see whether or not the promoter has evolved. For example, Anand Mahindra will get far more following because of the way he is positioned. The Aditya Birla group, or some of our large Indian conglomerate clients, get good talent because they are perceived to be progressive and address all pain points such as diversity and ESG among others. Multinationals, though not all, are considered to be progressive. A leader who's prepared to change would normally target the better governed Indian promoter-led organisations with evolved progressive promoters or the multinational companies which typically have a tradition of being inclusive and consensus driven.
Third, a feel of the culture of the organisation is equally important. What is an organisation’s value system, what does it stand for? It's not just about integrity (which is a large term), but the fact that do they encourage best practices? Is there a ‘my way or highway syndrome’ in the organisation or does the leadership team have a listening culture?
Interestingly at the leadership /CXO level, compensation is usually fourth or fifth in the list of criteria for a job hunt. Most CXOs don't expect to increase the compensation by 30-50% but more modest numbers because of the scale of the compensation.
Why is mentoring leaders more important now than ever?
Mentorship and coaching have been there, but it has accelerated quite significantly in the last two years. The pandemic has taught us that there are so many things we don't know; it is better to accept this.
Probably for a CEO, the best mentor will be at a board level. They could also appoint an external mentor like many companies are currently doing. There could be an internal mentor who sits on the board and an external coach who is appointed by the board to help, as not all internal mentors have the necessary skills. An external coach will be essential to work on areas like resilience, while internal mentors can help the leadership team work on the whole aspect of people empathy and change management, which they understand as part of the organisation's culture.