At a worldwide partners’ meeting in June 2000, Egon
Zehnder, the founder of the executive search firm bearing his
name, announced his retirement. Instead of reflecting on the
36-year-old firm’s steady growth under his leadership, he
issued a warning: Stability “is a liability, not an asset, in
today’s world,” he said. “Each new view of the horizon is a
glance through a different turn of the kaleidoscope” (a symbol of disequilibrium, if there ever was one). “The future of
this firm,” Zehnder continued, “is totally in the hands of the
men and women here in this room.”
From someone else, the statement might have come across
as obligatory pap. But Egon Zehnder built his firm on the
conviction that changes in internal and external environments require a new kind of leadership. He saw early on that
his start-up could not realize its full potential if he made himself solely responsible for its success.
Individual executives just don’t have the personal capacity to
sense and make sense of all the change swirling around
them. They need to distribute leadership responsibility,
replacing hierarchy and formal authority with organizational
bandwidth, which draws on collective intelligence.
Executives need to relax their sense of obligation to be all
and do all and, instead, become comfortable sharing their
burden with people operating in diverse functions and locations throughout the organization. By pushing responsibility
for adaptive work down into the organization, you clear
space for yourself to think, probe, and identify the next challenge on the horizon.
To distribute leadership responsibility more broadly, you
need to mobilize everyone to generate solutions by increasing the information flow that allows people across the organization to make independent decisions and share the lessons
they learn from innovative efforts.
To generate new leadership and innovative ideas, you need to
leverage diversity – which, of course, is easier said than done.
We all tend to spend time with people who are similar to us.
Listening and learning across divides is taxing work. But, if
you do not engage the widest possible range of life experiences and views – including those of younger employees –
you risk operating without a nuanced picture of the shifting
realities facing the business internally and externally.
Creating this kind of environment involves giving up some
authority usually associated with leadership and even some
ownership, whether legal or psychological, in the organization.
The aim, of course, is for everyone to “act like they own the
place” and thus be motivated to come up with innovations or
take the lead in creating value for their company from wherever they sit.
Zehnder did in fact convert the firm into a corporation in
which every partner, including himself, held an equal share of
equity and had an equal vote at partners’ meetings. Everyone’s
compensation rose or fell with the firm’s overall performance.
The aim was to make all the partners “intertwined in substance and purpose.”
Zehnder’s collaborative and distributed leadership model
informed a strategic review that the firm undertook just after
his retirement. In the short term, the partners faced a dramatic collapse in the executive search market; their long-term challenge was a shifting competitive landscape, including the rise of online recruiting and the initial public offerings
of several major competitors.
As the firm tried to figure out how to adapt and thrive in this
environment, Zehnder’s words hung in the air: “How we deal
with change differentiates the top performers from the laggards. But first we must know what should never change. We
must grasp the difference between timeless principles and
daily practices.” Again, most sustainable change is not about
change at all, but about discerning and conserving what is
precious and essential.
continued on page 20