As Indian IT companies try to morph from being mere low-cost service providers to business partners, they are feeling the need for more and better leaders across all levels. Infosys, Wipro, HCL and others are drawing up a new checklist of traits they want their next generation of leaders to have.
"One needs to have more courage now," says Matt Barney, Vice-President and Director, Infosys Leadership Institute, referring to employees in leadership roles. "It takes courage to predict what may happen with clients and businesses on a cognitive and computational front." Barney is also on the lookout for those who can learn and are innovative enough to interpret complex problems and come up with practical solutions that clients can apply.
For Barney, such traits are specific to IT because of the faster pace of change. "Till few years back, there was no cloud and before that no Java...one needs to be disruptive here," he adds.
Wipro is putting junior and middle management employees through psychometric tests to spot leaders with resilience and detachment. Those chosen are then measured on how they have bounced back from failure. Ability to cope with setbacks is emerging as crucial trait in a volatile economic environment.
Last year, an MNC IT firm appointed a 39-year-old as head of its business unit in India. Though he was of Indian origin, he had never worked here. He struggled initially. Later, he and consulting firm E&Y changed business tactics. The duo altered business model, made performance management razor sharp and had weekly sales performance reviews instead of bi-annually. He stabilised the Indian business in 18 months.
"While the last downturn was a lesson for senior leaders, this dip in business cycle is for the younger lot to learn from," said Milan Sheth, technical senior trade and partner at E&Y.
Business model changes forced by the global economic slowdown are forcing changes too. IT companies are moving to a non-linear model where they are trying to delink revenue growth from the need to hire more hands.
In the last five years, the average revenue earned per employee in the sector has increased by 19-20% for companies like Infosys and TCS.
"Earlier, more people on payrolls meant more revenue. But now, clients want more services from a smaller manpower," said Prashant Bhatnagar, Director-Hiring and Staffing for SapientNitro, marketing-technology division of technology firm Sapient. "This means hunting for those who are adaptable to disruption and change, can take risks and shorten their tenure of failure quickly," he added. Bhatnagar estimates that around 12% of 2.8 million industry workforce could be thrust in roles that could demand some form of leadership. Sapient employs 7,000 in India, has tweaked its talent selection procedure to seek out candidates who are comfortable with unknown settings.
IT services firm HCL wants employees who are capable of engaging with clients across different geographies, social and economic backgrounds. "We need employees who are good at problem solving, understand different industries and not just IT. Someone who disrupts our status quo and questions our ideas", says Naveen Narayanan, Global Head - Talent Acquisition, HCL Technologies. Narayanan gives the example of a junior employee who came up with the idea of an in-house social media portal. Though the senior management was sceptical about the idea, the employee persisted and managed to convince the top brass on need for it. Today more than 3/4th of the employees are on it.
Aegis has picked a crack team of 500 employees with an average age of 25-35 years from its 57,000 strong workforce to help it beat competitors on price and margins. Aegis will put this lot into live projects and assignments that deal mainly with cost optimisation and negotiation with clients along with mentoring sessions. "There was not so much focus on costs earlier and now we need employees who are good at people management in these tough times," said SM Gupta, HR Head for the company.
This sector hires around 2 lakh engineers in a year and according to a Randstad study is expected to add 227,328 jobs till the end of 2012. "Till now, concentration was more towards engineering which has left space for coaching in leadership development," says Infy's Barney.
Mid-rung IT firms that employ only a few thousands have it tough as well. They do not have the luxury of keeping people on the bench to train them. Training needs to happen even as they are executing contracts. "We need those who are good at managing paradoxes-change in business cycles that are more frequent now," said C Mahalingam, HR Head of Symphony.
While earlier these companies could afford employees who could take risks rarely after much deliberation, today they need managers who can place bets often and get them right at first shot. A lot, who can ruthlessly stop businesses that do not pay, include training only where it is needed and cut investments that take time to mature, Mahalingam added.
The company, therefore, has changed its mentoring route that is focused on "management of paradoxes." During leadership training, focus is now on finding answers to problems that have more than one solution rather than an 'either /or'.