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Total football

You can’t always judge a survey by its conclusions. A recent poll by headhonchos.com, which describes itself as “India’s premier job search portal exclusively for senior professionals and top management jobs”, says hiring intentions at top levels are down (see chart). People are being very cautious as the economy is simply not taking off.

Another recent survey is by BluFin, a financial information and content company. Its October 2012 index shows a marginal increase in consumer confidence, but there is little to cheer on the jobs front. “Though spending and inflation sentiments are showing signs of improvement, the BluFin Employment Sentiment Index continues to weaken,” says the company. “It fell by 0.7 points in October to 42.2, reaching its lowest score ever.” Adds BluFin CEO Rashid Bilimoria: “This is a troubling sign indicating that urban Indians are increasingly more concerned about their employment situation going forward.”

At fashion and fabrics maker Raymond Ltd, they aren’t getting in much talent at the top from outside. But this doesn’t mean they are downsizing or keeping progress on hold. Rather, the company has decided to promote skills from within. Over the past few years, it has established a leadership pipeline. What is interesting in this multi-product group is that people are allowed to jump from segment to segment. “There is a great deal of enthusiasm as upward mobility is not curtailed,” says a senior HR manager in the company.

This “total football” approach to management — named after the Dutch strategy in the 1974 FIFA World Cup in which attackers and defenders could switch positions instantly — may be new at Raymond. But several Indian companies — Marico, for instance — have practised it for years. For many, it has worked.

“Many companies resort to this when the business horizon is a bit bleak,” says Mumbai-based HR consultant D. Singh. “Suppose you want to launch a new product. You can either wait for a time when you can afford the investment and the price of failure; in consumer products, nine out of 10 launches flop. Or you can take the plunge immediately.”

You can’t compromise on the launch cost; that’s like giving up even before you have started the fight. What you can, however, do is save on people costs. The solution is to assemble a team from within and let them get cracking.

What makes total football so interesting is that it assumes that skills are transferrable. Total football implies that a financial controller today can become a marketing head tomorrow.

Does it work in high-tech areas? Yes, it is possible. What does a CTO need? He has to be able to get from point A to B using the best technology available; the chief technology officer never develops the technology himself. Hire some programmers and you are all set.

Where it does not work is in jobs that involve manual labour, which can very crudely be defined as working with your hands. It is not that easy to fill in for a plumber or a brain surgeon, if you have no experience. (It may sound sacrilegious, but there is very little difference between a brain surgeon and a plumber excepting in the money they earn.)

Total football at very senior levels has always been a feature of Indian family-run businesses. The patriarch rarely has an extended circle of trust. So a lieutenant charged with finance one day can be moved to HR if that becomes important. It happens in professionally-managed companies like Infosys too.

So don’t let surveys of employment intentions depress you too much. It’s probably the recruiting agencies — which commission these studies —who feel the pinch; they lose their handsome commissions. As for corporate India, it’s busy playing games.

HALF-HEARTED PLANS

Only 51% of employers will increase headcount.

Among the 51% optimist employers, 39% are planning to increase headcount by 11-20% before 31 March 2013, while 4% expect headcount to increase by over 20%.

Nearly 23% of employers plan to keep employee strength at current levels till the end of the fiscal year.

26% of surveyed employers expect to reduce headcount before March 2013.

A substantial 36% of employers have reduced hiring projections at senior management levels and 33% of employers have lowered projections at mid-management levels as compared to March 2012.

Source: HeadHonchos Management Hiring Perspective Report 2012