In an ever more competitive and crowded job market, what are the secrets to landing a top level leadership post in corporate Asia?

It’s a question was recently posed to four of the region’s leading headhunters in a forum at NUS Business School.

With decades of experience between them, it’s their job to find executives to fill those posts – something not everyone understands.

“Executive search, contrary to popular misconception… is not human resource consulting,” said Tan Soo Jin, an adviser to Amrop Hever Group, a multinational search firm, and the Executive-in-Residence at NUS Business School.

Instead, Tan descibed himself and his fellow panelists as “human capital consultants”, who work on behalf of companies to find people who are hard to find.

By “human capital,” he means people who can make a significant difference to the companies they join and have skills and qualities that are proprietary to themselves.

‘We call you’

“So in some ways – and this is not meaning to sound arrogant – we call you, try not to call us,” Tan said.

shake280Tan was the most experienced of the four panelists, having been in the executive search industry since 1977. But the others at the event organised by the Centre for Strategic Leadership are hardly newcomers to the game.

Johannes Wardhana joined Egon Zehnder International in Singapore in 1995, and moved to Jakarta in 1998 to set up the office there. Declan O’Sullivan founded Kerry Consulting in 2003 and has more than two decades of experience in executive search. And Michael Ascot, originally from Denmark and now living in Bangkok, has extensive experience in senior executive search, coaching and career transitions.

With their vast international exposure and links to myriad industries, similarities emerged as they discussed what they’re looking for as they ferret out candidates for key corporate positions.

At Egon Zehnder, Wardhana said they look for differentiating behaviours, particularly the ability to think, the ability to lead a business, and the ability to lead people.

The vision thing

O’Sullivan agreed that effective leaders have a direction and a vision. Taking the idea further, he highlighted one key attribute that separates those who get stuck at a lower rung of the ladder from those who have the potential to make it to the very top.

The key differentiator he said is an ability to see the big picture, to synthesise data, to join the dots and, from there, come up with creative solutions – skills he added were fundamental not just in business leadership but in research and other areas as well.

Given the recent crises Tan added that the type of people his company seeks are those who can function effectively amid economic turbulence. Economic cycles over 10-12 years were the norm when he started as a headhunter; now he said it’s down to two to three years.

Mobility is another big issue these days. Ascot, who was speaking by Skype from Bangkok, said corporations were not realistic about the fact that people are not that moveable.

ThinkAloud4“In Asia there is family, there’s a tradition, there’s a heritage, so people are not just moving. But that will change.”

One thing he believes will hasten that change is regional economic integration. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has set a goal for economic integration by 2015.

Ascot said executives from the more developed countries of the 10-member association who are willing to accept an assignment in the less developed countries will benefit from the opportunity.

Indeed, Tan said his firm is often on the lookout for executives with “two-by-two-by-two” experience: two continents or countries, two functions and two industries.

Executives looking to add that second country or continent to their CV would do well to look to Indonesia, Wardhana told the audience. It’s a country primed for growth, he said, and “expatriate-friendly”, especially for those who can bring a talent that Indonesia is lacking.

NUS students occupied many of the seats in the audience, and Tan acknowledged that an executive search consultant might not be helpful to them right now. But it’s not too early to give them something to think about for later in their career.

“Think long term, think of the qualities, think of the things we’re talking about because they have to start somewhere,” Tan said. “If they start straight after university it will all go well for them.”