Egon Zehnder’s senior headhunter Claudio Fernandez-Araoz has interviewed thousands of executives |
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Egon Zehnder’s senior headhunter Claudio Fernandez-Araoz has interviewed thousands of executives

Published on Saturday, 08 Aug 2015
Egon Zehnder’s senior headhunter Claudio Fernandez-Araoz has interviewed thousands of executives

Many dream of writing a bestseller and strive to land a publishing deal for years, but for Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, that was never part of the plan. Instead, he was intent on making his mark in a succession of roles with executive search firm Egon Zehnder International, and focused on helping organisations and companies find and develop future leaders. This gave him the chance to work with global companies, state-owned enterprises, NGOs, family businesses and even progressive governments

That was until good friend Daniel Goleman, who popularised the concept of emotional intelligence, suggested that he convey some of those ideas and experiences to a wider audience. 

“He saw that I could be a powerful writer and speaker and introduced me to the Harvard Business Review,” says Fernandez-Araoz, now senior adviser for Egon Zehnder and previously a member of the global executive committee for over 10 years. “In 1999, they published an article of mine on hiring without firing — and it just continued from there. It was the Pygmalion effect: when someone believes in you… you start to have greater confidence in your own ability.” 

Global bestseller Great People Decisions: Why They Matter So Much, Why They are So Hard, and How You Can Master Them followed in 2007, spurring demand for keynote speeches at business conferences and management schools and invitations to advise on challenges facing high-profile organisations around the world. 

“Research, writing and speaking events now take about 30 per cent of my time,” says Fernandez-Araoz. “But that helps me see how different cultures and companies can make better leadership appointments and to show the corporate and social sectors that, with the wrong leaders, you go nowhere.” His new book It’s Not the How or the What but the Who: Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best explains how people find success by surrounding themselves with the right people. 

Born in Buenos Aires to a family with ties to a fishing community in Galicia, northwest Spain, he was aware early on of the link between success and hard work. With limited education, his grandfather rose from a job as a manual labourer hefting sacks of potatoes to founding and running Argentina’s first home-grown advertising agency, representing the likes of Coca-Cola. 

Exemplifying the all too common rule of “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in two generations”, the sense of prosperity had evaporated by the time Fernandez-Araoz was studying an MSc in industrial engineering and achieving the highest GPA in the history of the university. On graduation, he took a job in logistics but then, in 1981, he won a Fulbright fellowship to do an MBA at Stanford, which led to a summer internship in Spain with management consultants McKinsey & Company. 

“The time at Stanford changed my life dramatically, with the exposure to global culture and professors who could set your heart on fire,” he says. 
“I realised…the variety of learning there would let me operate at a completely different level and that, overall, I’m more interested in promoting good leadership than in being a leader myself.” 

After a short stint in Madrid with McKinsey, Fernandez-Araoz moved to Madrid for three years, from where he threw himself into a wide range of consultancy projects in Spain and Italy. Clients included a struggling retail chain, car company Seat, a mining conglomerate, white goods firm Zanussi, and the IT section of a central bank. The assignments entailed aspects of strategy, operations, organisation and finance and were never less than engrossing. But, after a while, he decided to return to Argentina in 1986 and take a job at Egon Zehnder. 

“I was very open with McKinsey about wanting a move. They had nothing suitable, but put me in touch with Egon Zehnder who, in 1986, needed someone based in Buenos Aires. “I thought I would be lousy at the job because, basically, I was shy, introverted and had no network in Argentina. Also, my image of a search consultant was someone who spends time at cocktail parties – the sort of thing I hate. But after interviews with partners in London, Paris and Brussels, I said to them: ‘If you’re willing to take a chance, then so am I.’” 

On all counts, things could hardly have turned out better. He built up the business and went on to found the firm’s management appraisal practice and become its global leader for people processes and intellectual capital development. He came to specialise in helping organisations choose senior executives who inspire others and can set a direction which makes sense. 

The key to this, he notes, is identifying individuals who have motivation and the “paradoxical blend” of fierce commitment and humility. The best prospective leaders also demonstrate a strategic orientation, great influencing skills, the ambition to achieve results and, most importantly, the ability to surround themselves with the best. 

“In today’s complex world, you need a great team. Everything will depend on the people you have chosen.” 

Reflecting on his own career, Fernandez-Araoz says he has found his niche. “Over the last 29 years, I have interviewed maybe 20,000 people, but never once felt I’d prefer to be in the other person’s position,” he says. “I know what I like which, at this stage of my life, is a combination of three things: to keep learning all the time, to meet and be inspired by extraordinary leaders, and to have an impact by promoting great leadership in different walks of life and advising organisations how to spot their high potentials and help them go faster and further.” 

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Looking for leaders.

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