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Financial Times - Egon Zehnder's Jill Ader: Challenging Partnership Traditions

  • June 2019

The full version of this article is published in the Financial Times. View the full article here.

The leader of the executive search firm won her post after an unprecedented election.

Egon Zehnder’s collegial atmosphere convinced Jill Ader to take a job at the executive search firm in 1996. She has been there ever since.

In an exclusive interview with the Financial Times, Egon Zehnder Chairwoman Jill Ader discusses Egon Zehnder's commitment to diversity, the changing state of leadership, and being the first woman Chair of any executive search firm.

On changing how Egon Zehnder appoints Chairs

Since EZ’s foundation in 1964, its chief executive had always stood unchallenged for the chairmanship, winning automatic election and holding both roles before eventually appointing his replacement.

But it seemed to Ms Ader that the Swiss-registered partnership should practise what it preached on succession and governance. It was hard, for instance, to advise corporate clients to split the roles of chair and chief executive when EZ itself did not.

Colleagues gave her a sense of what the firm needed. “We want to feel that we have a say,” they told her. With a politician’s ear for an effective sound bite, she sold this back to the electorate of 256 partners as “you need choice, and you need voice, and how can you have choice and voice if it’s just one option and we all raise our hands?”


"Leadership has to be about much more than the individual, it's about connecting with something bigger and more meaningful than you. That's when you get followership."

Jill Ader, Chairwoman, Egon Zehnder

On Egon Zehnder's commitment to diversity

As steward of Egon Zehnder's strategy and values, Ms Ader faces many challenges. The continued push to diversify EZ’s own ranks is one.

Ms Ader has championed particularly the expansion of the firm’s advisory and leadership development work, taking it beyond the basic search-and-assessment tasks it did when she joined. Describing herself as a “servant-leader”, she has eagerly swallowed her own medicine, including a programme of intensive retreats, created with Mobius Executive Leadership, that encourages participants to discover who they are.

She is convinced, though, that the nature of leadership is changing. EZ needs to be able to spot and develop different traits among the chief executives of the future. A strong performance and the ability to execute strategy are just “table stakes” for tomorrow’s leaders, she says: “Some of the big CEOs of the past wouldn’t succeed in this day and age, because there is so much more complexity and CEOs and leaders can’t know all the answers. If you can’t know all the answers, you have to be very much more inclusive and less hierarchical.”

Published: Egon Zehnder's Jill Ader: challenging partnership traditions. 9 June 2019. The Financial Times, Andrew Hill.


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Three Questions for Jill Ader

Who is your leadership hero?

"Has to be Egon Zehnder, our founder. He built the firm from scratch with a vision, values and principles that have endured and differentiated us beautifully since 1964; in fact they're more relevant than ever in today's complex world. He's also a leadership hero for me because he stood firm on what really matters and made everyone feel empowered and very special. He retired 19 years ago but he built a unique and sustainable legacy."

If you were not a leader, what would you be?

"An art collector, I love discovering pieces with my husband."

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

"My early career in retail taught me a lot. One specific occasion stands out to me; we had been working with the team through the night to open a new store concept. Our manager arrived, walked around with speaking to any of the staff, then turned to me and said, "This is going to do wonders for your CV." I was appalled. His example showed me that leadership has to be about much more than the individual, it's about connecting with something bigger and more meaningful than you. That's when you get followership."

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