Chief executive Rajeev Vasudeva, at Egon Zehnder’s office in Central, expects the executive recruitment giant’s Asia operation to double over the next 10 years. Photo: May Tse

Changing environment needs new breed of business leaders

Technological advances and tighter regulations mean corporate leaders now require a broader skill set, says Rajeev Vasudeva of Egon Zehnder

Tougher regulatory requirements, fast changing technology and volatile investment markets worldwide demand new types of leadership in companies, which pose challenges and opportunities for global headhunters.

Rajeev Vasudeva, 54, newly appointed chief executive of Egon Zehnder, one of the largest international executive search firms, said the new breed of business leaders needed not only knowledge but the skills to identify risk and business trends quickly to handle the new regulatory and technological challenges and scrutiny from social media.

Vasudeva, who was born in Delhi and grew up there, studied economics for his first degree before qualifying as a  chartered accountant and lawyer.
After seven months working in his father’s legal firm in India, Vasudeva realised that was not the career for him, so he went to the United States to study business administration.

After gaining an MBA, he worked in a management consulting firm in the US for a few years before returning to India to set up his own management consulting firm in 1986 to serve international companies that wanted to expand there. 

We also need to help existing business leaders to reinvent themselves

In 1995, his company merged with Egon Zehnder, where he became a partner. In January this year, Vasudeva was appointed chief executive of the headhunting firm, which has 68 offices across 41 markets worldwide.

During a visit to Hong Kong this week, he talked to the South China Morning Post about the recruitment of leaders.


What are the major challenges and opportunities in the executive search market?

The overall trend is positive, as many companies are searching for new types of leadership. After the global financial crisis, there are more government regulations in many markets, and technology is changing fast. The growth of social media has led to more different social groups scrutinising companies.

The challenge is for us to identify the potential talents who have the ability and competence to deal with this new business environment. Besides, we also need to help existing business leaders to reinvent themselves to meet the new regulatory and technology environment.


What is the new skill set in demand for the new types of business leaders?

Before, the CEO and other senior executives needed to know a lot of hard skills – functional knowledge about the industry and the company. The CEO was usually the one who was the most knowledgeable in the company.

Nowadays, however, what is more important is to have a soft skills set. The CEO and the other senior executives may not know more about some new technology than their juniors or younger staff. However, they need to know how to engage and inspire the team to work together.

They also need to learn the new risks or new trends in the markets. In recent years, the business world has become more global, governments have introduced more new regulations, while the investment markets and currencies have gone up and down more frequently.

Business leaders need to guide the organisation through these regulations and business environments.


What is your outlook on Asia?

Asia is an important market to us, as China and India have a lot of local companies that want to expand into  international markets. They would like us to help them develop their business models to match international practice. They would also like us to identify talents who know the international market and at the same time understand the local culture and language.

Succession planning at family businesses also offers big opportunities, as many Asian and Chinese companies are at the stage of passing the business from the founder to the next generation.

As such, we believe our Asia operation will double in the next 10 years.


Your appointment marks the splitting of the top job in your company into a chairman and CEO. What are the reasons behind the split, and do you advise other companies to do the same?

For our company, the split is part of succession planning, in which the CEO is to prepare to take the chairman’s role in future. In terms of division of labour, the chairman deals more with shareholder issues, while the CEO handles operational issues.

Globally, the US usually has the same person as the CEO and the chairman. Markets such as Britain, Australia and Hong Kong often have different persons taking up the roles of CEO and chairman. We believe in the value of splitting the role, because today the job of CEO is becoming very complex and demanding in light of tougher regulation and business becoming more international.

There are more social media groups voicing  concerns of different stakeholders or shareholders to add scrutiny to the company.

It is lonely if there is only one person sitting on top of the corporate ladder to handle all this. It would be better if there was someone to share the burden with the CEO, as two opinions are better than just one. This also adds more checks and balances.


What is the key to success in running an executive search firm?

The key is the people. We are looking for talented and experienced consultants to offer advice to senior executives and the chief executives of our clients.

We have to make sure our team of people are all putting our clients’ interest first and they are going to stay with us for the long term. Many of our consultants have been with us for 20 or 30 years, which is how we can establish the confidence of our customers.

As a leader, I need to make sure my team is doing what we are passionate about. I allow the local partners to have the freedom to decide how to serve the customers according to the local culture.


Many companies want to achieve diversity in terms of gender and nationality. Do you support such a movement?

I am an Indian and got appointed to be the global CEO; this has been the prime example to show our company supports diversity.

As an international firm, we have a diversity policy to make sure people with different languages and nationalities have the chance to develop their careers.

When we identify senior executives or directors for our customers, we also apply the same principles.


What do you do to relax?

At the moment I have no time to relax. Even when I am on the plane, I usually will need to write my next presentation.

My wife Alpana helps me to relax. She is a journalist. When I go out with her to meet with her friends, that leads me to discuss social and political topics that are different from my work.

I also like to go to the theatre whenever I am in India or London.  I also enjoy eating Chinese food with my wife and our two children.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Need for new breed of CEO lifts bar for recruiting boss