If you are the chief executive officer (CEO) of a company in India, be afraid, very, very afraid. Even as the lens is on the million young Indians joining the ranks of the unemployed each month, there is a fair crisis brewing at the top of the corporate ladder as well. With new projects drying up, the number of potential new jobs for CEOs is also shrinking. Gone are the rah-rah days of the last decade when CEOs had multiple head hunters chasing them on any given day. Today even the best of them are happy to hang on to their current positions.
Nor is this limited only to CEO-level positions. Most C-suite executives are feeling the pinch of shrinking opportunities in an increasingly employer-driven market. One head hunter likens the situation to a game of musical chairs with aspirants making a dash for every vacant position that comes up when an incumbent is eased out. Numbers are hard to come by and obviously few senior managers admit to not finding a job after a layoff. But a look at the number of senior managers setting themselves up as independent consultants or advisors sums up their predicament.
Most executives describe the immediate aftermath of realizing that there are no positions available at their level of experience as “traumatic”. One CEO of a global telecom software firm spent the first six months after he lost his job turning down offers that he thought were not commensurate with his expectations and the next six months renegotiating the same offers, with little success. Another CXO level person left a large networking software company to take up highly-paid jobs with a series of small start-ups till one fine day he realized his work profile was getting progressively administrative and borderline unethical. He quit, moved cities and is now a proficient home gardener.
Anecdotes aside, the hard numbers also tell the story of a demand-constraint in the ranks of top management. The information technology (IT) sector, one of the worst hit, has seen CEO compensation, including salaries, bonuses and stocks, for US-listed firms down by a third to a half of the previous year’s numbers. Evidently, even a 50% cut in salary is preferable to a severance. Last month, IT services firm Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. offered a “voluntary separation incentive” to some of its top-level executives at the level of directors and senior vice-presidents. Earlier, French firm Capgemini SE let go of vice-presidents, senior vice-presidents, directors and senior directors as part of a rationalization exercise following its 2015 acquisition of iGate Corporation.
Sectors like banking, e-commerce, consumer electronics and manufacturing have all seen similar layoffs and increasing consolidation of the kind that will result from mega mergers in telecom and insurance will almost invariably result in further cuts at all levels.
In recent months, the exit of large multinationals like General Motors Co. as well as the spate of closures in the financial services sector have also rendered many senior managers redundant. The relative failure of the government’s ambitious ‘Make in India’ programme has meant that there are no new large-sized projects in the offing which could absorb those who have been laid off. With growth in sectors like packaged consumer goods as well as durables, retail, telecom and real estate slowing, newer top management positions aren’t opening up at regular enough intervals, restricting hiring to replacements.
The insecurity emanating from these disruptions has its ripple effects as CEOs become even more risk-averse against a background of macroeconomic uncertainty and global tensions. Corporate growth had slowed down even before demonetisation took effect and it will be a while before companies look at fresh investments. This means an entire generation of younger middle managers may end up without ever getting to leadership positions.
Paradoxically, the way out of the current morass lies in managing the changing environment. According to the World Economic Forum’s employment trends report, “A particular need is also seen in industries as varied as Energy and Media, Entertainment and Information for a new type of senior manager who will successfully steer companies through the upcoming change and disruption.”