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An Ego Represents a Risk

Why the ability to self-reflect is one of the most important attributes of a successful leader.

  • November 2019

What’s changing at the top level of corporate management? Jill Ader, Chairwoman of Egon Zehnder, provides insights in an interview with Swiss newspaper Handelszeitung. “When it comes to leadership, there is an incredible amount of change going on,” says Ader and points to the integrated leadership advisory service offered by Egon Zehnder. “You can’t simply place a top executive and then walk away,” she says. “We’ve been supporting the integration of CEOs and their teams for years now.”  Ader goes on to talk about the leadership services that Egon Zehnder is driving forward by building in-house capacity and forging partnerships like the one with Mobius Executive Leadership

Read the full interview below.

A year ago you staged a coup d’état at your employer, the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder.

Now that’s a big exaggeration.

The next chair of Egon Zehnder had already been designated, then you decided to enter the race – and were promptly elected.

That was a break with tradition at Egon Zehnder – and to that extent it was historic. What you have to understand is most consulting firms are set up as partnerships in which the leaders are elected by the partners. Our case was different. Traditionally, our CEO has always moved up to become chair. But this time there was a choice.

You decided to oppose the candidate elect. What does that say about you? She’s one tough cookie?

I don’t think anyone has ever called me a tough cookie (laughs). I only said that we would never advise a client to let their CEO automatically rise to the post of chairperson. And if you want to maintain a strong partnership, the partners have to feel like genuine partners. Having everyone sit in a room and rubber stamp the only candidate is not the best way to go about that.

It takes lot of courage to run against your own boss.

At first I didn’t have this courage. Since an automatic succession was a tradition in the firm, I couldn’t imagine challenging the designated candidate. When my colleagues came to me with the idea, I told myself: Hear them out and don’t say no before you’ve thought it through.

What did your personal coach say to your plans?

He suggested that I ask these people why they wanted me to run. Was it a matter of principle, or was it personal? And that led me to start examining my own identity. What do I want, what do I stand for, can I even imagine doing this job? And then there was my understanding of governance. As a firm, we should follow the sort of advice we would give to our clients, supported by good arguments. We should practice what we preach.

Were you already pushing for these principles before you sensed your big chance?

I had already made my opinion on governance clear. When you look at professionally run service companies around the world, you see that it’s hard to be a success if the governance isn’t right.

You are the first woman at the helm of Egon Zehnder. What has been your greatest challenge since taking on the role?

We have offices in 68 countries across the globe. Visiting a lot of these offices means travel and jetlag. Initially I thought it would be pretty tiring, but in fact it infused me with a lot of energy. You’re close to the source, get a feel for your own people, see how client relationships are developing. Another challenge was definitely inhabiting the role fully, by which I mean learning to be the chairwoman.

Is that harder for a woman than for a man?

It wasn’t so much about being a woman as about the fact that I was challenging the status quo. As women we sometimes wait until we meet a job specification in full before we say yes. At the beginning people asked me if I wanted to be called “chair” or “chairperson” – until a colleague asked me frankly, “Why should you try to hide your gender when as a firm we’re doing all we can to make boards more diverse?”

Your new position has meant leaving your big city life in London for Switzerland.

Our company has Swiss roots that are very important to us, so it felt right, symbolically, to move to Zurich. And Zurich is incredibly beautiful.

Is that a charming way of saying it’s boring?

Not at all. I travel a lot, so I’m only here a few weeks of the year, although my husband and I are almost always home on the weekends. So we don’t have enough time to get bored. The countryside and the arts scene are magnificent, and it is refreshing to have new things to try after having lived in London for so long.

And what’s your biggest challenge in your new job?

The many different uncertainties that confront our clients. This impacts on our work – we have to anticipate what will happen in different parts of the world, how the market for talent will develop.

Crises and uncertainty are good for your business.

They mean that people need consultants. We are not dependent on economic growth. In some growth markets we saw no crises at all, in other markets like Greece or Japan we kept growing despite the crisis. When clients have to hold back on their searches, then they need to invest more in developing their own talent.

Are you more resilient than others?

Maybe. And we also know how to adapt. When a client is growing, they’re going to want to recruit new talents. If that doesn’t work because of legal hurdles or because the market has dried out, we do succession planning and talent development with our clients. When it comes to finding a successor to a CEO, we start work two or three years in advance. We identify in-house talents and look at their development potential. Today our planning horizon is much longer than it used to be. So we don’t feel the dips in growth so much.

One specialty that goes back to your company founder is that at Egon Zehnder remuneration isn’t based on performance, but on seniority.

We have a lockstep partnership of the sort that used to be common in law firms. Many of them have since abandoned this model or adapted it, because the high performers were unhappy and switched to the competition. A few years ago, we asked ourselves if this lockstep model still worked for us. Ninety-nine percent of the partners said yes.

Because the cartel of elders likes being paid by seniority?

I don’t know who voted for or against it; we used secret electronic ballots. What I do know is we have young people who deliver high performance. And we have more older people who deliver high performance.

The average Egon Zehnder consultant is male and over 60?

You mean, are we an old boys’ club? Our average age is 50. When I became a partner 18 years ago, it’s true that there weren’t many women here. Today, women make up a quarter of the partners.

You’re not aiming higher?

Yes, we are. We’re aiming first for 30 percent, later for parity. I’m confident we’ll get there. Unlike law firms, we don’t have the problem of not being able to hold onto female partners. That’s down to our corporate culture, to the intrinsic motivation.

You’re expanding your leadership development business and continue to advise top executives after their appointment. You once said that Egon Zehnder aims to generate a quarter of its revenues in this new field. Is that realistic?

We don’t partition our business; we have an integrated model. Because when clients consult with us, they want advice on leadership, on corporate culture, on talent development, and so on. It would be hard to split that up.

You recently engineered a collaboration with the Mobius Executive Leadership consulting firm. Doesn’t that contradict your strategy of offering everything from a single source?

When it comes to the topic of leadership, there is an incredible amount of change. We are building in-house capacity and forming partnerships that will bring in additional expertise.

Did leadership use to be easier?

Succeeding as an executive is far more complex today, because there is more and more uncertainty. The old command-and-control style doesn’t work anymore, except in crisis situations.

"Having a leader who is all about ego, someone who can’t engage and inspire people, is a risk for the company."

Jill Ader, Chairwoman, Egon Zehnder

What does it take nowadays to succeed in the c-suite?

Given the current complexities, a top-down style is no longer wise because good ideas come from everywhere. Executives have to stay humble and be able to say, “I don’t know the answer to that.”

When you think about the salaries in the millions, the ego trips that executives indulge in, the aging boards of directors, the lack of knowledge about digitalization – there is a lot to be done.

The game is changing. We see how the boards are getting younger. In Switzerland in particular, there is a much higher percentage of international board members than in other countries. When it comes to diversity, on the other hand, Switzerland lags behind the pack.

Why is that?

There are still structures in society that make it hard for women to work. Working women with children in Switzerland have told me that people feel sorry for them when they say that they go to work. It can be difficult to push back against such attitudes, but it also means that there is an enormous amount of untapped potential in Switzerland.

You have pleaded for inclusion, for humility. But isn’t leadership still one big ego show?

If that were the case, then the board of directors would have to get involved and demand a change. Because having a leader who is all about ego, someone who can’t engage and inspire people, is a risk for the company. Today it’s important that a leader should also be capable of reaching out to the next generation, otherwise the company will have a hard time attracting new talents. Top-down definitely won’t work here.

Have you already told that to Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook?

In Silicon Valley you’ll find a lot of innovative minds, but they’re often not role models when it comes to humility, motivating people or diversity. It’s more common for the culture to be built around the strong personality of the founder. Just because you’re a digital company doesn’t mean your corporate culture is perfect.

Recently the Business Roundtable, a gathering of the most important corporate bosses in the U.S. economy, spoke out against the maximization of shareholder value. Isn’t this just a cheap PR trick?

No, there’s more to it. Companies need to have a grasp of how society is changing. Anyone trying to get rich at the expense of the environment, their employees, or others, is going to meet with resistance sooner or later. Because society won’t accept it in the long term.

What does that mean for managers?

We advise them on their personal development and try to raise their awareness of the new challenges and expectations – diversity, inclusion, dismantling hierarchies, internationalization, and so on.

What new qualities do they need to demonstrate?

To keep pace with these changes, they need the curiosity and humility to be open to new trends, to shifts in society, to employees, to the world, to themselves and their own values and feelings. This quality of self-reflection is what’s required of managers today. Anyone who can’t think about their self and their feelings and doesn’t know how to keep developing as a person is not tapping into their full potential. You are literally placing a cap on your potential. So be curious, think outside the box. There are many executives who are open-minded and have a wide range of interests. But there is also a shockingly high number who have never given any thought to their own curiosity.


Is becoming more and more common. It’s a very important journey that an executive must be willing to embark on. Last year we conducted a global survey of CEOs. Seventy-eight percent of them see the need to change personally. It’s not a choice between personal transformation and performance. It takes both.

So the consultant is turning into a therapist for the CEO?

Today’s CEO needs more than just one advisor. That was the old model. Today they need multiple coaches or consultants, because there are so many different aspects to the job. A CEO has to be able to adapt their style of leadership, fight against activists, drive digital transformation, foster diversity, attract young talents, be a role model and leader, communicate effectively – and deliver top performance. That’s why we work with CEOs – to make sure they are getting the support they need.

LinkedIn is also looking to position itself as a management consultant. A potential rival for you?

It hasn’t affected us. But at the same time LinkedIn has been helpful in making the search for talent more transparent. In former times we had to invest a lot of resources in the search for young talents – today it’s easier. This gives us more time for questions like, does this person have good leadership qualities, do they have potential that can be developed and nurtured. Now more than ever, it’s about personally discovering more about the true essence of a manager, not just finding them.

You used to have a list of candidates – now this knowledge is on LinkedIn or a similar site.

It’s something to build on, but social media comes with its own set of questions. Anyone can post anything, provide references. Often you don’t know who the source is and whether the facts are true.

Do you recommend that top managers post on social media?

First they have to make sure their company maintains a regular presence there. In my experience, very few top managers are active; most accounts are not managed by them, but by their teams.

You allowed an image of you and your daughter to be posted on the internet. Was that a good idea?

That was a special occasion. We were launching the Leaders & Daughters project aimed at supporting the children of executives in their career planning. But I wouldn’t do something like that too often.

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This interview was originally published in the Swiss newspaper Handelszeitung. Read the original interview here.

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