Welcome to the latest post in Robert Half’s Thought Leader Q&A series, which features insights from the experts who have made our company a great place to work and a premier provider of talent solutions.
In this post, we feature Ash Athawale, a senior managing director at Robert Half, who brings a truly global perspective to our company’s executive search practice. Ash’s higher education pursuits include an engineering degree from Pune University in India, and an MBA from the Bayes Business School at City, University, London, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing in the United Kingdom. Before joining Robert Half, Ash spent several years providing management consulting to companies in the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific region and the United States.
Ash was first tapped by Robert Half to lead the company’s management resources and technology solutions practices in Westborough, Mass. He later moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to help establish Robert Half’s presence in the Middle East. Several years later, Ash returned to New England to lead Robert Half’s technology solutions practice in the region.
Today, Ash is based in Washington, D.C., where his leadership role with our executive search team, helps companies build superior C-level and VP-level teams. Ash says he “absolutely loves” his work. But there were times — twice, in fact — in his long career with Robert Half when he decided to explore different professional opportunities outside the company.
“It’s that whole idea of looking for greener pastures, right? Once I left Robert Half for a few years, and the other time I was gone for only about two weeks,” says Ash. “So, you ask, what’s a fun fact about me? You can say I’m a Robert Half ‘boomeranger.’ I’ve been back with the company for nearly eight years, and if anyone wanted me to leave now, they’d have to drag me out!”
Here’s what else Ash had to say about his experience working at Robert Half, his take on current trends in the job market, and how the COVID-19 pandemic inspired him to dust off his motorcycle-riding skills and hit the road with his son — and his wife, too.
What is it about Robert Half that made you return to the company twice?
Well, first, I’d point out that I’ve been with the company much longer than I’ve ever been away from it! But each time I returned after taking a pause, I was welcomed warmly and given a new chance to grow.
You know, people have this certain impression of Robert Half, since the company has been around for more than 70 years, that we’re stuck in our ways, old-fashioned and would never change. But that’s so far from the truth. We’re constantly evolving at Robert Half, and one important change I’ve seen over the years is how we’ve become an even more human-centered company.
Talk about your current role. What do you like about executive search?
Robert Half’s executive search business has been around for 15 years. And many people don’t know that in 2021, we were named one of “America’s Best Executive Recruiting Firms” by Forbes — for the fifth consecutive year, no less. We’re proud to help companies with their leadership needs, whether they’re looking for C-suite or VP/Director-level roles.
In my role as senior managing director, I work primarily with small, midsize and growing companies across industries to help them find executives. I emphasize “across industries” to refute the common perception that executive search firms only work in one industry and just keep moving people around within that same industry. That’s not what we do at Robert Half. We’re focused on what the client is looking for, and we’ll help them search for executive talent locally, regionally, nationally and sometimes internationally.
As for what I enjoy about my work, I like meeting and talking with people and building relationships. Earlier this week, I spoke to a job candidate on the phone who I’d placed a few years back, and she was asking for some professional advice. We talked for over half an hour. That’s just the kind of thing we do here. We work to build lasting relationships with clients and candidates.
What trends are you seeing in executive hiring? What are companies looking for?
Most companies want leaders who are strategic, technically savvy and flexible. These are all must-have abilities in a work environment that the pandemic continues to disrupt. Executives must be able to work and lead their teams remotely, and that includes being able to use digital collaboration and communication platforms very effectively. Also, they must be able to listen to their workers and stay acutely attuned to their needs and concerns.
Why is that especially important right now?
When companies lose good people, leaders will often say, “I didn’t know that person was so unhappy. They seemed to be doing their job just fine.” Well, that’s because they didn’t check in with them often enough, or in the right way. And well, yes, perhaps that employee was doing their work really well — when they weren’t interviewing for other jobs.
Many people feel disconnected from their company and coworkers in the current dispersed environment. I check in with a person I mentor every few weeks just to see how things are going. The two of us find that there’s always something for us to discuss about work and life.
So, keep your employees close to you. Touch base with them regularly by phone or video. If you do that, and they still end up leaving the company, there’s a better chance they’ll come back. I really believe this, and I can say that with confidence because I am a boomeranger. I thought I was unhappy, so I left. But when I realized what I had at Robert Half was pretty darn good, I came back and stayed.
How do you envision the future of work, at least in the near term?
Well, there’s no question that remote and hybrid work are here to stay. Companies and workers both want that flexibility. And that’s why I say leaders need to be flexible. If I call up an associate and he says he can’t talk because he needs to pick up his daughter from daycare, I can’t say, “But we’re supposed to talk now … ” The response is, “OK. Do what you need to do, and we’ll catch up when you get back.”
If you’re not willing to be flexible with your teams, it’s going to be difficult for you to retain people. Your employees will stay with you only until they find their next job, which won’t likely be long in this hiring market. Not all jobs can be fully remote or hybrid, but companies should provide some flexibility to workers, such as a compressed workweek (e.g., four 10-hour days) or flextime, where employees can choose to work, say, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. rather than an 8-to-5 schedule.
Savvy leaders recognize the value of flexible work arrangements for another reason, too: It lets them hire skilled talent outside their local market — and across time zones — much more easily.
What have you personally learned from the pandemic? How has the experience changed you?
The pandemic has given me the opportunity to have a good work-life balance at home. In the three and a half years prior to the crisis, I used to travel two or three days a week. I haven’t been on a plane in two years, and I don’t miss it. I recently met in person with a few colleagues, and it didn’t feel like we’d been apart for so long, because we see each other so often via video.
I also now follow a schedule that works well for me. I start early in the day. And when my kids come home from college to visit, I can spend time with them. If I want to work late in the day, I can do that too. We call it “windowed work.”
That reminds me of another thing I’ve seen change at our company recently. People now send emails with messages like, “I realize I’m sending this email to you after hours. Please don’t feel you have to respond to this immediately.” That’s just another example of how Robert Half has become a more human-centered company.
Lastly, what I have learned during the pandemic is that I love what I do. It doesn’t matter if I’m in an office, on video or on the phone. I truly love my job.
What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not working?
I ride my motorcycle! During the pandemic I decided I wanted to do something fun, and my son said I should get a motorcycle. I used to ride, but I hadn’t done so for years. So, my son and I worked together to get my wife’s buy-in, and, in the end, we both ended up getting motorcycles. I bought a Kawasaki Vulcan, which is a cruiser with a Ninja engine. Its looks deceiving, but it goes really fast!
I ride for an hour or so every few days, either by myself or with my son. Even my wife will ride with me on the weekends. It’s just great fun. Riding my motorcycle is the most therapeutic thing I’ve done in the 25+ years that I’ve been working. When it’s just me, my bike and the open road — no phone calls, no emails, no Bluetooth — it just clears my head like nothing else.
Meet other Thought Leaders at Robert Half, such as Dawn Fay and Stephanie Naznitsky. And be sure to subscribe to the Robert Half newsletter for future installments of our Q&A series and to discover more unique stories, experiences and perspectives on the latest hiring trends.