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Leading heart

Published on Saturday, 20 Sep 2014
Damien O'Brien, Chairman, Egon Zehnder International

Egon Zehnder chairman Damien O’Brien believes leadership should be collaborative, inspirational and based on values.

The concept of the servant-leader may be relatively new to many top executives among the higher echelons of major organisations, but it is an approach Damien O’Brien feels entirely comfortable with. 

As chairman of Swiss Switzerland-based recruitment firm Egon Zehnder International, a partnership structure operating 69 offices in 41 countries, he sees his role as essentially to coach, motivate and communicate, not to exert command or rule by personal decree in the manner of some of the revered titans of global business.

And with priorities changing to meet the new demands of transparency and better engagement, O’Brien firmly believes this style of values-based leadership is the way forward. Therefore, he is committed to building relationships with clients and colleagues, ensuring alignment, and uniting a dispersed firm through a strong set of core values and a shared sense of purpose.

“We have a collaborative model and I lead colleagues because they let me,” he says. “Leadership in our firm is much more about inspiring and supporting than telling, and I believe deeply in growth and freedom and people being able to improve their lot.” 

Making that happen, though, has not been without challenges. After assuming his current role in 2008 – just in time for the global financial crisis – his fundamental objectives and long-held principles were put to the test. Within a few months, the phones stopped ringing, revenue was evaporating, and a sense of near-panic hung in the air and future prospects were very much in the balance.

“At a partners’ meeting, I galvanised the troops and made the case passionately that we faced a moment in history and would ultimately be judged by the course we took,” he says. “It was a bit of a baptism of fire, a very difficult time, but it allowed me to take control pretty quickly and get the partner group to see the gravity of the challenge.

“Like in the dotcom boom, when we lost people to start-ups and were tending to drift, I took the view that the best way to deal with concerns was to air and debate them in the belief that our values would carry us through. These were cathartic moments for the firm and character-forming for me too.” 

In confronting such challenges, O’Brien clearly had a wealth of experience to draw on. His route to the top of Egon Zehnder included responsibility for functional practices focusing on positions in private equity, communications, consumer and board advisory.

He also handled the firm’s global operations and professional development and, in the 1990s, was put in charge of establishing offices in China after telling management something had to be done. “I’d see that as a clear turning point in my career,” he says. “By developing our China practice early on, I became known for taking things on and this also gave me a profile for making things happen.”

The firm’s fourth elected leader, he has also been guided by in-house mentors, notably the previous chairmen, and, when necessary, adept at winning allies. However, he is largely motivated by a desire to help others and win their respect.

He hopes to exemplify a leadership model that extols the need to be curious, insightful, determined and able to connect the unseen dots. “It is difficult leading a professional services firm, where the partners are opinionated, independent-minded and located all over the world,” he says. “But you grow into it, and I feel more comfortable now.” 

O’Brien originally joined Egon Zehnder in Sydney in 1988 after completing a commerce degree at the University of New South Wales and an MBA at Columbia University. He also had stints with a family-owned group of companies and consultancy firm McKinsey to get hands-on experience. 

But one of the biggest influences on his outlook and ideals occurred before. He spent seven years studying for the Catholic priesthood, including two years spent working in poor communities in the southern Philippines at a time of conflict and intense hardship for the local people. “I was in a very isolated part of Mindanao in an environment where two civil wars were going on simultaneously. I saw a lot of suffering and death and that laid the foundation for later views on what is and is not important in life. My faith has given me ballast, a deep sense of peace and centredness.”

Nowadays, away from work, he describes himself as a “family guy” who has four grown-up children and is happy just to spend time at home when not circling the world on business assignments or contributing to discussions at World Economic Forum gatherings and similar events. 

If in need of inspiration, he still relies on his faith and, sometimes, examples from the life of a particular hero: Nelson Mandela. “His tenacity, commitment and integrity are just inspiring, but he was also tough, very resilient, and could take people with him where he wanted to go,” he says. “His optimism was also a huge source of hope for many people. I love that combination of qualities; it is what you need in today’s world.” 

Get in the game

Damien o’Brien outlines key factors in leading a firm with a global reach
Focus on goals “I believe in having a clear sense of what is important and of where I want to get personally and professionally – and of how to get there.”
Team effort “I understand that I don’t have all the answers; any success I have now is the product of the successes of the people I lead.”
Spur them on “Good communication is essential, so I can connect with the minds but also the hearts of my colleagues. I would say about 80 per cent of the leadership communication in our firm is directed at the heart to get people motivated and passionate about what they do.”
Play to the end “It is important to come across as someone who is happy and optimistic in the job. If a leader becomes overburdened, cynical or pessimistic, it is effectively ‘game over’. I remain full of optimism and generally fulfilled, and that is very important in my role and my organisation.” 

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