Shailja Dutt: Founder and Chairperson, Stellar Search

“Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure” is the mental compass that I have chosen to navigate my path on. I’ve always been deeply self-motivated. Finding solutions to difficult problems, maintaining lofty fitness goals, ideating and brainstorming is what propels me every single day.

–  Shailja Dutt

Indeed, the right attitude seems to form the fine line between simple decisions and life-altering ones. Choosing global leaders for organisations world-wide requires unparalleled decision-making skills, sagacity, and keen discernment. 

It was exactly 19 years ago that Shailja Dutt, a woman of substance took the leap into entrepreneurship with her brainchild Stellar Search, a global executive search firm. She shared, “If I had to describe myself I’d say I’m a very involved mother, a committed & fun partner, an avid reader, an expert in fitness and nutrition, inspired by lyrics but mellowed by music, adventure-lover, and an authentic leader.”

Stellar Search’s new brand identity embodies their timeless values of “People, Passion, and Purpose”, something Shailja touches upon several times in conversation, but it is the team at Stellar that personifies their steadfast mission of connecting people to their purpose with passion and commitment. 

The CEO Magazine had an opportunity to have a dialogue with Shailja Dutt, a driven, inspirational, and extremely nurturing leader. Here are the excerpts of the candid interview:

Shailja: Nearly two decades back, in February 2002, I founded Stellar Search, driven by my passion to make a difference. I walked into entrepreneurship with one goal in mind and that hasn’t changed in the last so many years- I wanted to make a difference, wanted to add value to the lives of people, organisations, and the world of leadership.

I didn’t realize that my idealistic dream would become a larger than life reality and we would become a renowned leadership advisory firm across emerging markets globally. Connecting people to their purpose with passion and authenticity form the firm’s foundation. Although offering a plethora of leadership advisory services, the firm is best recognized for its Executive Search practice, which connects Companies & Boards to the most prolific global talent in their industry space.

Strong processes, excellent networking skills, domain expertise, impeccable ethics, and infinite passion form the essence of Stellar’s service offering and we have been true to the same throughout our journey. Digitization has added the extra dimension, the X factor that helps us move ahead of the competition with ease.”

The CEO: In the journey, did you deal with the challenge of acceptance? 

Shailja: Challenges have always been learning opportunities for me. It is difficult to have had this long entrepreneurial journey without any challenges. And indeed, at the start of my career, being a young, relatively inexperienced woman, came with additional challenges. Eventually, it is about persevering, doing your best every day, and setting a high benchmark in terms of the quality of work you deliver.

The CEO: What are the mistakes you wish you could’ve avoided as an entrepreneur?

Shailja: As an entrepreneur, the biggest mistake, we commit, is thinking that we know it all. I am no exception to that, having made that mistake numerous times. However, experience teaches us otherwise.

Looking back, I can say that, indeed, there were days when I didn’t get things right, but in hindsight, it was an adventure and an incredible journey where I enjoyed stumbling, falling, and standing back up to continue building the business. If given the opportunity to go back in time and fix those mistakes, I would politely decline as those mistakes were the defining moments of learning in my journey and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

The CEO: How did you differentiate yourself and your brand from the competition?

Shailja: The “Stellar” brand enjoys a huge amount of trust, respect, and credibility with clients, we are often acknowledged as the most passionate executive search team in the country. In a client servicing-focused, niche business, trust & credibility are the very foundation of your reputation and I’m extremely proud to say that we are one of the foremost flag-bearers of integrity in our industry.

The CEO: How did you build your team?

Shailja: Being the ultimate collaborator, building a team came very naturally to me. Being in Executive Search, I have always had a deep appreciation for talent and often found talent in unconventional industries.

My team is built on the idea of shared values and deep emotional connection. While building our team, we search for the four vital traits when we hire i.e. passion, courage, authenticity, and empathy. Every colleague at Stellar, today, exemplifies these values. We don’t only talk about them, but practice them every day!

The CEO: What are the activities that allow you to keep your team motivated?

Shailja: At Stellar, we follow a few simple set of principles that keep the team engaged, motivated, and collaborating constantly and successfully:

Firstly, we have meeting rhythms which are very regimented. Other than monthly/quarterly meetings, the entire team meets daily for 30-45 mins to discuss our priorities for the day. It helps people set their daily goals which then flow into weekly/monthly goals.

I have always believed that setting and aligning goals helps people understand their purpose better, they understand their role better, expectations better. It also helps the team create a better work-life balance as they plan their priorities.

Secondly, once or twice a year we go on a company offsite where we don’t discuss work at all and focus on team building, bonding and learning. This has helped build a culture of complete trust and transparency in the company and is the most “looked forward to” event in our calendar.

Lastly, our performance appraisals are completely development-led. They rely on self-assessment and have a coaching-led feel rather than the dissection of an employee’s annual performance.

These activities along with a multitude of others have helped us create a culture of Transparency, Collaboration, and Connectedness

Shailja: With courage, conviction, and focus. I believe that outcomes must drive our behavior and the attempt is to understand a situation rather than reacting to it. Looking forward, we will continue to build on our current practices in healthcare & Life sciences, Industrial and Manufacturing along with our B2C businesses. However, my focus is to grow our private equity and family-run business practice. Also, we are looking to expand the Stellar footprint in Asia and Africa.

The CEO: What does success look like in the current role and for the company?

Shailja: Success is relative and transitory. What felt like success yesterday, seems just status quo today. Personally, I am still navigating through a part of my journey professionally where I am driven by new challenges, complex searches, and difficult negotiations.

However, I always measure success through the lens of the success of the team. If the team is growing both personally and professionally, they are happy, motivated, and engaged; I feel a deep sense of satisfaction.

The CEO: What are the questions you ask after each breakthrough? What would you advise a young female executive’s question of ‘How can I be a good leader?

Shailja: The questions that I usually ponder upon after each breakthrough are “What are the lessons I learned?”, “What could I have done differently?”, and “Have I created value for all stakeholders?”.

To every young female executive reading this, Be confident, be your authentic self and let your work talk. Demand the respect you think you deserve. Lead with resilience and empathy.

The CEO: Do you believe in giving back to society, if yes, how?

Shailja: Absolutely! Being raised in a very philanthropic family, giving back was a value I inculcated at a very early age. Also, in our journey as a business, at a nascent stage, we founded the Stellar Foundation. Today, the company is fulfilling its philanthropist goals through the foundation by supporting numerous community-focused initiatives.

We extend a helping hand with initiatives like education for the girl child, geriatric care for abandoned senior citizens, and animal shelters, amongst many others. For 2021, we will be focusing our efforts on abandoned senior citizens via the Earth Saviours Foundation.

“It is better to look back on life and say ‘I can’t believe I did that’ than look back and say ‘I wish I’d done that

– Shailja Dutt

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