Hiring Disrupters in the Age of Disruption Part 1: Re-imagining Executive Search

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock in recent times, you must be well aware of the waves of disruption sweeping through the world. Uber is upending the taxi industry and to think they are just a software tool and don’t even own any cars! Airbnb is practically the biggest hotel company in the world although they don’t own any properties. Google, Tesla, Netflix, Apple, Amazon. The list is endless – there’s never a dearth of newer business models and new technologies, or companies finding new ways to exploit existing technologies. Disruptive players are coming out of nowhere and toppling empires.  Remember Kodak? In 1998, they had over 170,000 employees and sold 85% of photo paper worldwide. But in just a few years, their business model practically disappeared, and they were soon relegated to the has-been list. If history is anything to go by, the thing with disruptors is that they don’t gradually appear. They practically annihilate those that stand in their way, and transform industries in a breath-taking manner!

And as the world around us changes, companies need to get all in to find ways to reinvent themselves before they get steamrolled by these upstart newcomers. It requires bold and new thinking. It requires them to rethink their entire business. The same holds for individuals as well. After all, this brave new world requires brave new leaders to evolve and adapt as well.


Source: Deloitte’s 2015 Global Human Capital Trends – building leadership remains paramount and the top trend indeed though the readiness factor remains low.

Which brings us to the crux of this matter – in a truly global economy, how then does one find the right leader? Or to be more specific – a change leader, a transformation leader.  One who does not just identify and successfully ride these huge and never-ending waves of changes, but one who can also persuade us that those waves are coming. 

Decades ago, formal training and development programs exemplified by the old giants like IBM and GE were what produced leaders who ran their businesses successfully. Hundreds of graduates were hired and rotated across divisions and departments, and then a few allowed to ascend the corporate ladder. And in other firms, hiring was typically done with the help of industry specialists to pair a particular position opening with a suitable match – based on credentials, specialization, training and years of experience.

Gone are those days. While these erstwhile approaches follow a more predictable and linear course of change, they are no longer applicable in today’s VUCA world.


Source:  Global Leadership Forecast 2014 | 2015, DDI

With tremendous advances in technology and communications, the world is shrinking and geography is no longer a barrier. Time, especially, is of essence to ensure that you get the candidate you want because in this kind of market, talent comes and goes in the blink of an eye! There has been a significant shift of power away from the employer and towards the candidate as well. And they know it too – there is a pervasive “why should I work for you?” attitude that companies have to cater to. There is also no denying that innovation, new management theories, and increased focus on customers across new markets are driving new critical leadership requirements.

For these very reasons, it is imperative that we re-imagine our entire approach to executive search. It challenges the bedrock of existing people practices, of how we evaluate and manage talent. Conventional hiring approaches just do not cut it in today’s dynamic world. Considering the fact that the dominant view is very rigid, focusing on specific geographies, functions and industries – it just translates to a lot money and time spent…on an extremely small pool of talent.  It’s like attempting to fit round pegs in square holes, so to speak, just because we are being restrained by certain factors (that should not actually matter!).

The time has come to look beyond these silos and narrow mandates. What we really need today are not traditional recruiters, but rather strategic consultants who work alongside with us at every step of the way. The kind who isn’t afraid to ask hard questions about what suits your organization and what may not. Someone who comprehends your competitive landscape and potential impacts on your bottom line. Someone who understands your business’s game plan and the kind of talent you need to stay ahead.  Someone who is capable of looking beyond silos and identifying leaders across domains, geographies, demographics and expertise.

After all, at the end of the day, it does not matter which part of the world or industry your leader comes from. Or for that matter his age! It all boils down to experience, innovation and most importantly, the ability to think outside the box. After all, a true change leader is one who transcends borders, and pays no heed to industry or function “labels”. These leaders aim to apply their learnings to understand the various aspects of a new business/market. They have a compelling vision, and they are not afraid to push their limits to reach their goals! Yes, that’s just what a company on the cusp of a disruptive revolution, or one undergoing a transformational change, needs to drive them to the next level.

Against this background, as the use of traditional methods of recruiting decline, strategic consultants are consciously adopting new age approaches that are highly interactive, extremely personalized and offer a great candidate ‘experience’.  These proactive approaches include big data analytics, social media, direct sourcing and referrals, and uniquely designed tactics that lure out potential leaders that may not even be in the market for a job! Because as we have seen time and time again, you just never know when the “next big thing” will come along or where your next leader will come from…and they come from all walks of life, backgrounds and experiences!

Look at how Jeff Bezos came out of nowhere. Amazon started out simply selling books online in 1995 with the advent of the Internet … but they haven’t stopped expanding since then! The thing with Bezos is that he kept evolving as a leader. He kept reinventing himself and his business to keep pace with changing times. He called the shots predictably and consistently…of course, some failed, but some were acts of pure brilliance. Today EVERYONE uses Amazon.com to buy just about anything. And the best part is Amazon sells its own products rivaling huge retailers like Walmart, offers a host of web services on par with IBM, and even pits against Apple as a device maker with the Kindle, Fire tablets and Echo.  And Amazon is worth over $175 billion today!

Bezos is just one on a long list of transformational leaders. Think Jack Ma. Sundar Pichai. Sheryl Sandberg. Tim Cook. Reed Hastings. And these are the kind of leaders that we need to keep an eye out for, for they are the ones who invent tomorrows rather than worrying about what happened yesterday.

It may be an age of disruption, but it is an environment that is ripe with opportunity for transformational leadership. After all, serious change demands serious people.

This is the first blog post in our series – Hiring Disruptors in the Age of Disruption. The next blog post will explore what transformational leadership is about…and what it takes to become one. Our last post will focus on the unique hiring approaches required in today’s fast-paced environment drawing on our personal experiences. Stay tuned! 

Read the second blog post in our series – Hiring Disruptors in the Age of Disruption >>


  1. Nisheet Gupta (@social_bug)
    June 14, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

    Great thoughts and article. Its important to look at the variability of the roles and responsibilities people have served. The more I look at the resumes, the more I realise that people get very good at doing the same things but in this tranformational business environment, we need people that can work with changed circumstances. How many industries have you dared to work in? Have you worked with PE? Have you listed a company? Have you worked on turnaround? Have to exited a business from Public to private? Any start-up experience. and so on…

  2. Yogi Mistry
    June 15, 2016 @ 12:21 am

    Very intriguing! Great article…

  3. Rahul Deshpande
    June 16, 2016 @ 10:56 am

    Interesting and well analysed article.

  4. Navin
    June 16, 2016 @ 4:02 pm

    I have suffered for being a change leader (as head of department) in an organisation with less than 150 employees. The examples quoted above are of startups, free from any past & present burden or baggage.
    I really doubt disruptive leaders can succeed in established organisations. The whole organisation,below or above, evolves to a comfort zone. All others will unite to protect that comfort zone.

  5. Bithin Talukdar
    June 17, 2016 @ 3:34 pm

    Great article. Valid points. I see the world from two lenses, the traditional “Porter” strategy where structural aspects require the stable incremental efficient management principles. An area very well addressed by existing recruitment solutions. The other is the “blue ocean” strategy world of transformation, discrete radical management principles. This is the area where recruitment fails as its about innovation, about change, which lies in understanding intimately the client and the candidate before matching them. This is not a question of either / Or! Its about how to balance the two.

  6. Suresh Narasimhan
    December 16, 2016 @ 3:19 pm

    In todays VUCA world, as you rightly suggest, experience, innovativeness and the ability to think outside the box are a good blend of characteristics in the disruptive leader. I would add to this an attitude to embracing uncertainty. Looking forward to reading the next two in the series.

  7. Subrata Ray
    December 20, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    Anu, Great insight. Here I would like to add something beyond Hiring during Disruptive age is ‘Reskilling digitally the existing Talent’. Often do we see that young minds are hired with a view that they will tide over the Disruptive challenges. Yes they will but that isn’t all about. They do not have the capacity for resilience which perhaps the old hands do have and they are valuable for the Organisation but it is in the interest of the Management to reskilll the existing Talents , say a crash course in Data mining etc.

  8. Divya Raj
    December 20, 2016 @ 11:19 am

    Interesting article but left a few questions unanswered for me. The requirement of ‘Thinking outside the box’, being ‘innovators with a vision’, ‘reinventing itself’ et al are not new requirements. Such traits has been sought after in leaders of every era be it business or political. The real question which the article originally set out to address was how to identify people with such traits remains? Hindsight provides us a very powerful but ineffective tool. It was in 1995 that one should have praised Mr. JeffBozz for his leadership and innovation or Mr. F C Kohli in early 90s (for pioneering IT revolution in India), not 10 years hence when the model is proven and we are standing at cusp of next vision. That piece remains unaddressed. Hopefully in part 2 we would be able to see some light shed on it.

  9. John Inman
    December 20, 2016 @ 11:13 pm

    A VUCA leader is not one who thinks they have the answers. A VUCA leader is hyper connected, up, down, and across the organization and outside of the organization. It is all about fostering a culture of innovation and that happens when team members are respected and engaged. A VUCA leader needs to master both management of work and leadership of social systems. Not just one or the other. They engage, they listen, they ask questions, and they synthesize disparate inputs into strategic solutions. This is not a passive process nor is it based on ego or personality style. The bottom line is that leaders who thrive in a VUCA world are masters of conversation. It is all about the content, context, tone, quantity, and with whom they have respectful conversations. And they can do this in any setting. They are change agents and they are transformational and they are effective.

  10. Prasad
    January 4, 2017 @ 12:14 am

    Excellent points!

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