Phenomenal Women of AltoPartners – Toral Patel
Born into the first family of executive search in India, following in her illustrious father’s footsteps might have seemed like a given for Toral Patel, managing partner of Accord India. But it almost didn’t happen. While at college, she accidentally auditioned for and was cast to play the lead character in a TV series. The series was cancelled, and Bollywood’s loss was Accord India – and AltoPartners’ – gain.
Your father, Dr. Bish Agrawal, is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of organised recruitment and executive search in India. Were you under pressure to join the family firm?
There was never any pressure. In fact, I believe my earliest ambition was to be a hairdresser! My first formal job was as an intern in an advertising agency with Ogilvy, which, while a lot of fun, made me realise that was not what I wanted to do with my life. I grew up reading resumes and hearing recruitment stories and found it fascinating, so I was keen to explore it further. It spoke to all my interests – I enjoy being around people and am interested in what motivates them and why they choose to behave as they do. I am also interested in business, and this is an ideal way to understand how different businesses fit together.
After a few years in the broader recruitment industry, we expanded to include executive search, which was at that time was still new to India. I was lucky enough to get in right at the beginning.
What did you study to prepare you for a career in executive search?
I completed my schooling at La Martiniere Calcutta (Kolkata) and then moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), where I graduated in commerce from Sydenham College. I followed that up with a Postgraduate qualification in Personnel Management from Xavier Institute of Management & Research, Bombay. Eight years later, I did the Accelerated Development Program at London Business School. Of these, I would say school (at La Martiniere Calcutta), and the ADP program at LBS have had the biggest influence on who I am today.
Twenty-nine years on, and you’re still loving it. What drives you to do what you do?
It’s a privilege to be a trusted advisor. I love seeing the impact of our advice on clients and candidates. Executive search is an opportunity to shape people’s lives and careers – it is a big responsibility. Nothing beats the thrill of finding the perfect fit and then the satisfaction of watching the magic unfold once the person takes on the new role.
I also love mentoring younger colleagues to help them be the best versions of themselves and share the strange alchemy of art and science that is executive search.
Did you have a mentor? And if so, what was the best piece of advice they gave you?
I have the best mentor – he happens to be my father, but he is also the pioneer of the recruitment industry in India. What he taught me then holds now: advise – stay relevant. Never lose touch with the clients and candidates’ aspect of the business.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Pace yourself …. It’s a long journey.
And don’t listen to naysayers who say it can’t be done… it can if you want it badly enough and are willing to do the work.
As a mother and businesswoman, how do you manage to pace yourself?
Fortunately, juggling is my superpower - work, kids, family, and friends. I enjoy time spent with family and friends and putting together special themed events. During the pandemic, I also discovered a knack for charcoal sketching. It keeps me engrossed and still for hours on end, which is most unusual for me.
Any assignment that sticks out over the last three decades?
Each is special in its own way, of course. Still, some do stand out, especially where we have partnered with clients from the get-go and built the organisation’s leadership team from the ground up, resulting in some hugely successful businesses. A case in point is Burger King India. We were involved from the initial business plan stage, advising them on all aspects of leadership talent and remained advisors for the seven years it took the company to launch a successful IPO. It was extremely gratifying to see so many of the initial leadership team being part of the entire journey and success story.
Within Accord, I have really enjoyed setting up specialized industry verticals – Media, Retail, Consumer, Real Estate, PE – for the firm and building deep expertise in them.
Toral leads and manages top management searches in Consumer, Retail, Services, Media and Real Estate, with additional experience in Private Equity and Education. She also serves on the boards of Accord, ABC Group and is a member of EO (Entrepreneurs Organization, a global peer network of young entrepreneurs).