One recent evening, Payal Sharma, 26, played mother, ailing relative, travel agent and caterer in a span of two hours. It's not theatre that has her changing roles so rapidly. She changed her identity in the line of duty as a recruiter, who often has to adopt various guises just to make contact with potential candidates who work for her client firm's competitors. Such subterfuge is an accepted industry practice.
That morning she had walked into her sixth-floor office in Andheri with a swashbuckling air of confidence, greeted her team, skimmed through the schedule of client appointments that hangs prominently on her bulletin board and ran through the team's targets for the day.
As a team leader at the HR company Ma Foi's banking section for Mumbai and Pune, Sharma supervises 12 people. She juggles this with scouring the job market to find matches for clients' specifications, tailing peripatetic head honchos and finally, procuring for banking firms some of their best top executives.
What makes Sharma's story special is her initiative to super-specialise, a concept that was then alien to her 1,600-member HR conglomerate. Within a year of joining the firm, she had the foresight to hone in on the booming banking sector, and doubled her two-member team's annual targets.
"A lot depends on your initiative," she said. "No one can explain an industrial term better than a domain expert. Call the head of a bank if you have to," she said, over a mid-morning cup of coffee in her purple-and-yellow cubicle, pulling out a little red diary from her top drawer. Its pages still crisp, it contains notes from hours of research, phone calls to financial company biggies, and excerpts from financial books.
To think she began as a bumbling graduate from Indian Institute of Modern Management, Pune, who entered the firm's banking, financial services and insurance domain in June 2004 clueless about the sectors.
"I was surrounded by veterans and I didn't know the difference between retail and corporate banking," she said, laughing.
But she put her nose to the grindstone. Within three months, Sharma got insurance firm Tata AIG Life an assistant vice president of operations, which fetched Ma Foi Rs 1.5 lakh. "This was an achievement, considering most consultants start with mandates of Rs 16,000 and Rs 20,000," said Sharma.
That fillip got Sharma cracking on her next big catch. But this time, it wasn't going to be a single mandate (industry jargon for assignment), she had her sights set on a position: team leader. So, in 2006, eighteen months into the job, Sharma approached her boss Sarita Mudaliar with the idea of starting a team that would focus on hiring for the banking sector alone.
"Even though she was just one-and-a-half years into the company, she was capable of taking on responsibility, and showed a spark that we decided to invest in," said Mudaliar, business head of banking and financial services and insurance.
Within two years, the two-member team increased to six. Sharma put her winning formula down to teamwork and co-ordination.
"You must know each member's strength so that you can assign responsibilities accordingly and keep them motivated," she said.
So, when team member Priyanka Naik was asked to procure a particular product specialist based in London, she knew that Sharma was backing her all the way. And the reassurance worked. Earlier this year, Naik bagged the 'star of the month' award for bringing the firm the highest commission in its Mumbai wing's 10-year history.
"I'm sure Payal must be facing flack from seniors when projects fall through at the last stage," said Naik. "But when she returns to the team, she's always composed and positive." Each time a project fails, Sharma sits with the team and brainstorms on a new winning formula, Naik said.
Dressed in a pinned-striped skirt and a beige blouse, and carrying a chic Marks & Spencer tote to complete the look, Sharma prepared for a meeting with a client in south Mumbai, the hub of corporate headquarters. "I meet with CEOs and vice presidents of organisations who are looking to me to find the right person for top managerial positions."
Finding the perfect candidate gives her the ultimate high. To get there, she must study her client's competitors, make hundreds of phone calls, often posing as the target candidate's a friend, travel agent or even the mother-in-law. "We are on pins and needles until the candidate turns up to work at the new firm," said Sharma, who has seen six-month-long searches go kaput.
As the buzz on her sixth-floor office reached a mid-afternoon crescendo, Sharma leafed through a file listing the team's monthly targets. 'Rupee labour cost margin watchdog' - that's another hat she wears, which simplified means she must ensure that each employee churns out revenue that is six times his or her annual salary.
At the end of the day, when she settles down to a large bowl of popcorn in her one-bedroom Andheri flat, she knows that the day's grind has been worth the while. Much of the satisfaction stems from the fact that she shares a portion of her success -- a monthly salary in five figures plus handsome incentives -- with her parents in Himachal Pradesh.
In 2007, Sharma bought a shop in a local mall in Shimla for her father, fulfilling one of his long-held wishes. "He's always wanted to manage a property of his own," said Sharma. "It feels good to have been able to fulfill his dream at 25."
She then lets us in on a little secret: the huge rock that she now sports on her finger was "something she indulged herself in" earlier this year.
Quiz her about her future, and she is back into her swashbuckling mode. "I now have my sights set on heading the banking division at the all-India level," she said. Another year is all she's giving herself. "After all I'm already managing operations in the financial hub. How difficult can all-India be?"