Is a lack of talent holding back succession plans for India’s PR industry?

This October saw two major brands in India perform badly in the harsh light of 24x7 publicity due to their succession plans or lack of it. Tata Sons, some would say unceremoniously and suddenly sacked their handpicked chairman, Cyrus Mistry. The Samajwadi Party grappled with its own challenges as family infighting between the CM Akhilesh Yadav and his father-strongman Mulayam Singh Yadav and a set of uncles openly played out in front of the media.

Traditionally, succession planning has never been a very strong point for many Indian firms, is the situation the same for the Indian PR business?

Succession planning amongst Indian PR firms

According to Avian Media co-founder and CEO, Nitin Mantri, "Some PR firms in India have succession plan, some don’t. It’s probably not common for independent firms to have a succession plan. From our perspective we have have been developing the next line of leadership for the last 5 to 6 years. We have not only a second line of leadership, but are also developing a third line of leadership."

Subhash Pais, founder and business head, i9 Communications says that this attitude towards future planning is now changing, "The PR industry has undergone a sea change in the last few years and the cull that we have seen at the bottom and the consolidation at the top by global agencies coming in has resulted in a change of attitude on the part of the leadership teams at the independent PR firms in India. A lot of independent firms today do think seriously about how they want to approach the future, what they would want to position themselves as and how they would approach disruption and change in the industry. I see the industry and its independent firms far more savvy and capable today than say maybe 7-8 years ago."

i9 Communications has a 26 week monitorship programme to help the ‘next in line’ transition to a leadership position. 

Snapshot - The PRactice 

One firm that has recently seen a complete transition from the owner-entrepreneur, Nandita Lakshmanan to current CEO, Vivek Rana; is ‘The PRactice.

Sudipta Gupta, vice president-human resources at The PRactice says, “The succession planning at The PRactice, began two years before the actual change of guard. An external consultant, specialised in successions, was engaged to draw out role sheets and transition road maps.”

Adds Gupta, “ A clear plan that ensured Vivek to shadowed Nandita in all aspects of the CEO’s role began. He also began playing a very active role in all organisation decisions, people decisions and client engagement. This led to a very smooth and what seemed to everyone a natural succession. “

Challenges in planning future leadership 

One of the biggest challenges while planning for the next line of leaders is a lack of talent. Pais says, “There is a dearth of talent within the industry (I can already see shoes being thrown at me) at that level. The global agencies however are overcoming this from a global talent pool and by attracting people from other industries. Some Indian agencies are doing the same while continuing to invest in mentoring homegrown talent into reaching that particular level. I feel a mix of both are ideal.”

Nitin Mantri advices that some of the younger PR firms should look at their succession plan early on. Mantri feels it’s very important that, “ Leadership teams should not be afraid of hiring people who are more competent than them.”

One lesson from the Tata Sons and Samajwadi party situation is that personalities, naturally, play a huge role in transition.

Gupta feels this is why, “Understanding and managing the ‘Founder’s Mind,' is what I would cite as the key challenge in most successions. It is very important for the successor to remain cognisant of this at all times. Managing upwards efficiently will help align intensely with the founder’s vision, while allowing for the successor to also implement his or her own views. Succession planning must continue for the at least a period of three years after the actual transition, supporting both parties understand and navigate their new roles. “

Archana Jain, managing director and CEO of PR Pundit, feels that , “To my mind the challenges of succession planning are universal. These are more so in promoter driven organisations, as the promoter finds it difficult to accept changes in ideologies. But without a clear succession strategy, not only is the organisation rudder-less but even the customers and employees are less confident about the future.” PR Pundit, has an extensive leadership programme via a leadership council and a protege mentoring programme. 

Yet, PR pros admit that people planning is not a priority in the industry.

Putting it bluntly Pais says, “Most firms even in the PR industry don't seem to have a vision and a philosophy when it comes to its people and I feel that pulls them back from not just growing as an organisation but also puts paid to any effort made towards gearing up for the future, Vision statements are useless if they do not involve or include the one dynamic that has a huge bearing on the firm. “

Udit Pathak, director and co-founder of Media Mantra, a young PR firm catering to the start-up sector says that, “Lack of adequate mentoring and training is one of the most prominent challenges in India. Currently, companies of all shapes and sizes exercise strategic plans to hire best-in-class talent but they often fail to deliver regular mentoring and training to the workforce. This is where many fail in regard to succession planning.” 

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