Uber's global head of executive talent acquisition: How to recruit the C-suite

Following the unwritten rules of C-suite recruitment

Uber's global head of executive talent acquisition: How to recruit the C-suite

As global head of executive talent acquisition at Uber, Roopesh Panchasra can spot future C-suite leaders a mile away.

“I used to run some of the global talent teams at Expedia many years ago,” he told HRD. “My CEO at Expedia was a chap called Dara Khosrowshahi – now the CEO at Uber. What’s more, my CHRO at Expedia was a lady called Nikki Krishnamurthy – who’s now the chief people officer here. So, as you can imagine, when I was approached by Uber for the position that I'm in, I already had a bit of a connection. I just thought, ‘wow, if these two people are leading the company, then they've got to be worth considering’.”

An accidental fall into recruitment

Before his move to Uber, Panchasra was already a big deal in the recruitment world. Having worked at the likes of Workday, SAP, and Expedia, spearheading their high-level talent drives, Panchasra understands what it takes to be a future CEO. But he fell into recruitment quite accidentally.

“I actually trained in economics and was working as an accountant,” he revealed. “My sister, who trained as a lawyer, took up a role in recruitment. She called me and basically said that recruitment would be my dream job. And she was right – I’ve never looked back. I’m one of those really annoying people that actually loves my job – every aspect of it. For me, it's the people. You know whether you're the kind of person that likes interacting with people - that's more of a personality trait than it is a career direction. It does take a certain kind of person – and I know for some it would be their worst nightmare speaking to people every day. But for me - I get paid to do what I love.”

Having worked his way up from recruitment team leader to managing partner at to director VP of executive talent aquisition, Panchasra rose quickly. At Uber, he heads up their global executive search function – something which means every day is very different.

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“It’s very fast paced right now,” he told HRD. “It's nonstop really. I look after all the teams responsible for our leadership hiring. So, any directors, senior directors, VPs and board level searches, my team would execute on, working directly with Uber’s executive leadership team. I don’t really look at one single role that we may need to fill – instead I assess the strategic direction of the company. What’re our business objectives? Where do we need to be as a business in the next three to five years? From there I can determine what skills we need to get there. So, while we recruit for all the most senior positions at Uber globally, we also contribute with the overall people's strategy at Uber.”

Avoiding executive poaching lawsuits

With a candidate pool that is often pretty small, the issue of executive poaching is always on Panchasra’s mind. It seems as if we can’t go a month without hearing tales of Silicon Valley poaching – of tech giants luring top talent away with golden handshakes. While the laws around executive poaching varies from watertight to loose – it’s still a cause for concern for many companies. In 2019, Fox and Netflix were engaged in a poach-off, with a judge ordering Netflix to stop poaching employees from Fox. In the battle, Netflix sought to invalidate Fox employees fixed-term contracts – something which could have had huge repercussions for the employment law space. Even though Netflix appealed, it was a timely reminder of the intricacies of potential poaching.

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“If we’re hiring executives from other organizations, more often than not they’ll have non solicitation agreements within their existing employment contracts,” he told HRD. “Normally that’s for a period of one year, which simply means they cannot solicit or entice or reach out to or hire anyone from their previous companies after they join Uber. That protects the organization and prevents people from taking their entire team with them. There’s a lot of legal issues surrounding executive poaching – but for the most part we follow these ‘unwritten rules’.

These unwritten rules revolve around different partner organizations. Uber has a ton of corporate customers that they work very closely with – ones they really wouldn’t want to upset.

“These are organizations that we’ve worked with for years – for joint prosperity,” added Panchasra. “I think it would have an adverse effect if we then decided to hire the best people out of the companies that we've partnered with. We've got to be careful when it comes to things like that.”

But outside of that, the markets open. As Panchasra told us, it's all about having an attractive proposition - getting through to the right people at the right level at the right time– and really understanding who you are as a company. That’s the real way to get talent through the door. That – and ensuring you’re not flagrantly breaking the law.

What characteristics make great CEO candidates?

When Panchasra’s hunting for these specific C-suite candidates, he’s really looking for some very unique, yet untraditional, attributes. As it turns out, it’s less about first-hand experience and more about values.

“There's been a big shift in recent times – and all for the right reasons,” he continued. “No longer is it just about whether or not a candidate has had similar experience or held a similar role. Traditionally, if you were looking for someone to do ‘job X’, then they needed to be doing or have done that ‘job X’ in another organization. What we're seeing in terms of traits, and what we look for now, goes way beyond what they’ve done and the experiences they have gained. We look at what kind of values they have. Are they a role model with integrity? Do they embrace differences? Do they understand the importance of diversity across their teams? Do they have the ability to be an inspirational leader? If you have large teams, that culture, that inspiration, that feeling you’re a part of something cascades from the CEO down to every single employee.  And if they don't lead by example or inspire everyone to be their best, then having had that experience at a previous company is unimportant.”

Compassionate leadership in the C-suite 

Traits like compassion, empathy, and trust aren’t traditionally ones you’d associate with the C-suite. COVID-19 changed all that. Employees now actually look for companies with leaders that embody these ideals – ones that showcase them every single day. Research from the Workplace Institute highlighted trust as one of the most important leadership traits going into 2022. In fact, 64% of employees say that trust has a direct impact on their sense of belonging at work – with 24% of people having left a company due to a lack of trust from management. In the face of such data, it’s heartening to see that executive recruiting leaders like Panchasra are chiming with employee trends.

This culture of C-suite support is something that really resonates through Uber. Earlier this month, Uber announced that they’d pay any legal fees of their drivers caught up in the controversial Texas abortion laws. The US state recently passed the Texas Heartbeat Act which prohibits abortions in cases in which a heartbeat can be detected from the womb – normally around the sixth week. The ruling also means anyone who’s helped a women have an abortion – including driving her to the clinic – can be sued. Uber CEO Khosrowshahi announced the company would cover 100% of any driver’s legal fees should they be caught up in the laws – a move which drew universal acclaim.

“That was such an important moment for Uber employees,” added Panchasra. “It’s just so reflective of our culture in general – that top-down compassion. When I was at SAP and looking to move to Uber, this is the sort of thing I considered. What’s the purpose of an organization? What are they doing to help their employees? What are they doing to ensure they're a sustainable organization? Since COVID, people realise that a job isn’t just about a paycheck. They want to work for a company they believe in – one that has their back. For me, Uber’s exactly that.”

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