north of neutral dialog

March 11, 2012

by anne lueneburger

Damien O’Brien, CEO & Chairman, Egon Zehnder International, Paris

Damien O’Brien doesn’t necessarily fit the image most of us have when we think of a Chief Executive Officer. O’Brien heads up Egon Zehnder International, one of the world’s leading executive search firms with revenues of over US$600m. Born and raised in Australia, nowadays O’Brien is based in Egon Zehnder International’s Paris office where, unlike many C-level executives who are chauffeured in limousines with tinted windows, he frequently travels to the airport on the back seat of a motor bike that a rider-for-hire expertly zips through the crazy traffic of the French capital.

Before he embarked on his stellar career in business, O’Brien spent seven years in the seminary and served as missionary in a community in the Philippines. O’Brien enjoys being provocative and questioning the status quo. In 2000, he was the junior of two partners who initiated the first ever strategic review of the way Egon Zehnder International managed itself since its foundation in 1964. This initiative was subsequently captured as a Harvard Business case study[1] and is today used as one of the classic examples on leadership in top institutions around the world.

I first met Damien O’Brien when I accompanied my husband to a Firm conference in Istanbul in May 2011. I was immediately struck by Damien’s warmth and approachability, and how genuinely curious he is about people and their stories.

The role and the Firm

Damien O’Brien was elected Chief Executive Officer of Egon Zehnder International in June 2008, and Chairman in June 2010 after 22 years with the Firm. The Firm had originally been founded by Swiss national Egon Zehnder, who introduced the concept of executive search as a reputable profession in Europe. Strong on cultural values, Egon Zehnder International’s commitment to charge clients a fixed fee rather than a commission stands out from its competitors. Wholly owned by partners and functioning as a single profit center, the Firm is highly selective and, after an average of over thirty individual interviews, roughly one out of ten candidates makes the cut to join. Once part of Egon Zehnder International, however, most consultants receive an offer for partnership and stay with the Firm for the rest of their career.

Damien’s primary practice areas have been Consumer Products, Private Equity, Leadership Strategy Services and Board Consulting. As CEO he spends most of his time personally checking in with his colleagues across the Firm’s 65 wholly owned offices in 38 countries. He held a range of leadership roles prior to his appointment as CEO, including leading the establishment of the Firm’s China practice (which now comprises offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing), overseeing the Firm’s global industry and functional practices, and responsibility for global operations and professional development.

Rebel with a cause

From a working class Irish family, Damien O’Brien’s father built a successful catering business in Melbourne. A talented tenor, he had decided to leave a career in music behind to raise his growing family during the depression of the 1930s.

The third eldest of seven children, young Damien was very much a contrarian: “I remember early on wanting to be different. I enjoyed blending the naughty with the good and being unpredictable.” Academically strong, the self-confident adolescent who grew up in a supportive family environment did not follow the most intuitive path after graduating high school with honors. While most of his friends went off to study medicine, law or finance, and started having girlfriends, O’Brien decided to join the seminary – despite his parent’s reservations.

He was attracted by the challenge of the journey he had chosen: “I was deeply motivated by making an impact. I was not a particularly religious kid in the traditional sense. I used to go to church, and I was very inspired by the church’s social teachings, but I wasn’t the pious type. I believed in the story of Jesus and I also believed in working for a better world. And I saw that this particular style of priesthood would allow me to make a difference and to work with people who were less privileged than I. I saw it as a platform to make a difference.”


As part of his time in the seminary, Damien O’Brien spent five years studying academic subjects including philosophy, anthropology and theology. Unsurprisingly, within the seminary O’Brien was considered something of a revolutionary with his particular interest in edgy, Marxist inspired theological literature. The underlying idea that attracted him was that both priest and church work with their communities to overthrow structures that were impediments to the freedom and development of people: “I was never a Marxist but I liked the idea of working to change structures without a big revolution that causes death and mayhem. To this day I think of the world more in terms of systems and structures. I am acutely aware that we are a product of the cultural milieu and the systems that we grow up in. We are given concepts and frameworks and value sets that are pretty much pre-defined for us and given to us. They shape our consciousness, how we approach problems, our aspirations, and the way we relate to people. I like to sit back and reflect about this structure and get a sense of perspective.”

As a seminarian O’Brien was sent to work on Mindanao, the southern most island in the Philippines with a dominant Muslim population in an otherwise Christian country. Religious differences between Muslims and Christians, as well as widespread poverty, had led to the development of two aggressive separatist movements – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MNLF) and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) both fighting the Philippine Armed Forces, and as a result displacing over 100,000 people: “This was a profoundly life changing experience. Literally, on one mountain range were the Muslim rebels and on the other side were the communist rebels, or the ‘barefoot solders’ as they were known. And I was living with farmers, in the middle of these conflicts.” Only in his early twenties, O’Brien saw incredible suffering and displacement of many poor and innocent people. One night, after a particularly vicious attack with many fatalities he found himself surrounded by members of the local community, drinking the local wine and talking: “I was quite fluent, so I was able to converse with them but I realized that I wasn’t part of their world, I wasn’t part of their history, I wasn’t part of their families. I felt vulnerable and, in the face of the suffering all around me, I felt a deep need for intimacy. I discovered loneliness, deep profound loneliness. That was the moment I decided to leave the seminary, because I knew I could not lead that celibate life, this lonely existence. I needed someone to be close to.”

Trappings of success

O’Brien was now 25 years old and without a penny in his pocket: “I wanted to be successful. My idea of success at the time was pretty selfish and one-dimensional. Different from my friends who had gone off and who had already achieved success in their chosen careers, I had nothing, no savings and no real qualifications, certainly no qualifications that would help me build a career. I had to prove something to myself, score the points that would demonstrate that I was capable.”

O’Brien enrolled to do an economics degree with the University of New South Wales in Sydney, about 500 miles from his native Melbourne. To finance his studies he took on part time jobs. Graduating with honors, he held various management positions in a family owned group of companies before he relocated to New York where he got his MBA from Columbia. Following graduation he was offered a position in investment banking in New York but chose to return to Australia instead to join McKinsey.

It did not take long, however, for O’Brien to move beyond his initial instinct of adding brand names and ‘badges’ to his resume: “I loved McKinsey, yet I came to the view that important as strategy and advising companies on operational improvement is, I believed leadership was the key to bringing about positive change in communities. That was another pivotal time in my life because that was when I became aware of Egon Zehnder International as a platform for working in this realm of leadership. I joined the Firm in March of 1988. “Now grey-haired”, he laughs, “it was black when I joined!”

The spice is in the mix

One of O’Brien’s core values – a profound respect for people – is rooted in his upbringing and his family: “I grew up in a household that had a remarkable capacity for hospitality. Our home was always full of people with diverse backgrounds. Even though my father became a successful businessman and we ended up dealing with people with money at times, my family’s friends came from all walks of life including the very poor and one or two who had spent time in jail. My mother had a tremendous sense of respect for all people, coming from her strong sense for community, and everyone was welcome at home no matter the time of day or night.”

As a leader of Egon Zehnder International, O’Brien continues to encourage a diverse, open and tolerant environment. Diversity for him is about bringing together people who approach problems with different perspectives: “I recoil from notions of diversity based on politically correct concepts and categorization of people based on gender, race or cultural origin. And I am often surprised by the quickness with which those who champion diversity are prepared to put people in boxes and stereotype them. Diversity should be about the exact opposite, yet it seems the very language that we use to discuss diversity often reinforces the very things we want to avoid.”

Within the context of Egon Zehnder International, fostering diversity remains a priority and a challenge. Looking from the outside in, the majority of the Firm’s consultants are very similar – products of top business schools, many are white males, and they have most often worked for Fortune 500 firms or leading consulting firms. With this in mind, O’Brien leads his executive committee of six in a way which encourages a high level of open debate and dissent and he wants the same culture to shape the broader interactions of his partners when they convene twice a year. His executive committee brings together a spectrum of skills, personalities and life experiences which both complement and challenge him. All well educated, they come from five different continents and have different socio-economic and professional backgrounds: “In serving our clients we have a certain global template of what our consultants should look like. And I think our clients expect to deal with consultants who have a similarly world-class education and who have demonstrated success in many traditional ways. But this pulls against the idea of building a truly diverse team. There is a natural tension here that we are dealing with by hiring ‘less traditional’ consultants.”

As the world of his clients is changing, and as diversity gains in importance as a means to solve problems creatively and effectively, the culture of Egon Zehnder International is also becoming more diverse: “If on a scale of one to ten on diversity we are a four or five now, we were about a one a decade ago. And that would be a culture defined by traditional European values, male, and individuals of a certain socio-economic grouping. I am sure about 99 percent of us reflected this type of profile. Today it might still be true of some of our offices, but it would certainly not be true of all offices.”

Part of this spirit to embrace diversity and different point of views is undoubtedly rooted in the Firm’s origins: “Our founder Egon Zehnder was a pathfinder, a pioneer in our industry. I love the boldness in him. To this day, when you meet Egon he will engage you in a discussion about a wide range of issues and he embraces people with very different perspectives. He loves meeting people with different views and different experiences to himself.”

As the Firm’s CEO, O’Brien clearly continues to nurture Zehnder’s legacy of healthy discussion and championing and celebrating different personalities. Yet, as the partnership grows, the challenges rise as well: “I think we need to work hard to maintain this spirit and to avoid the tendency that all large institutions face as they grow to average down and become homogenized. So as the partnership gets bigger and more dispersed we need work even harder to celebrate and promote our differences.”

Lonely at the top

Becoming Chairman and CEO of Egon Zehnder International has been something of an organic process for O’Brien it seems: “There was no moment. Egon Zehnder himself had over the years subtly indicated that he saw me as a potential leader. Dan Meiland, who was Egon’s successor, took risks on me and gave me opportunities that also indicated that he saw me as a possible future leader. And ultimately John Grumbar, my predecessor, did likewise. It took shape almost unconsciously in my mind. I do not believe in pre-destination, but it was almost living into something that was coming towards me. And with hindsight I think I made a lot of decisions that enhanced my candidacy – including not particularly wanting the job.”

Many of us are familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen parable about the Emperor with no clothes. (The Emperor hires a tailor to weave a suit of fine material. The tailor claims the fabric is invisible to all who are not fit for their positions or ‘hopelessly stupid’. Although he himself cannot see the fabric, the Emperor pretends he does see it. No one, not even his advisors, dare tell the Emperor he is naked as he walks around in his ‘new clothes’. Only when he strolls through the village does a child in the crowd shout that the Emperor is wearing no clothes).

As successful executives rise to the top there is a danger of experiencing the Emperor’s isolation. Consequently O’Brien supports the exchange of ideas and information, he encourages ‘shouts from the crowd’ in the Firm. He strives to achieve a rich dialogue between the different constituents. His dedication to leave ‘the tower’ and to continuously travel to many of the Firm’s 37 country representations illustrates his hands-on interest in the Firm’s local teams including their concerns and particular perspectives on the challenges the Firm might be facing at any particular time.

However, even the most adept leader who embraces differences and encourages taking risks will experience a sense of isolation that comes with the nature of the position. His experience of ‘loneliness’ in his early years while on missionary duty in the Philippines has undoubtedly created an acute sense of awareness around what loneliness ‘looks like’: “I have been CEO for four years and chairman for a couple of years. From time to time I am surrounded by colleagues whom I love dearly and with whom I spend a lot of time, but at the end of the day I have a level of accountability which puts me in a different position. My ability to share with all my colleagues at all levels has been constrained by the decisions I have to make. So I think grappling with this has been a great source of personal growth. At times it feels kind of alienating, at times it feels stimulating, and it has meant that I have grown considerably in self-awareness.”

Damien O’Brien heads up a group of professionals who own the very Firm he is directing, adding another layer of complexity to his leadership. What’s more, his colleagues, who are critiquing leaders as their day job, are by definition very demanding They are trained to be critical and very aware of what good leadership looks like (and what it doesn’t look like), and Egon Zehnder International has long been known for its emphasis on emotionally intelligent leadership[2].

Sounding boards

Historically and across cultures and contexts, leaders have been expected to possess insight and vision, particularly in the face of uncertainty or complexity, as Dan Goleman says: “The leader acts as the group’s emotional guide. Understanding the powerful role of emotions in the workplace sets the best leaders apart from the rest – not just in tangibles such as better business results and the retention of talent, but also in the all-important intangibles, such as higher morale, motivation, and commitment.” [3]

O’Brien understands the powerful role emotions play in the work place: “As CEO, the persona and the leadership role merge. Leadership is about having followers. And people follow a person, so it is about me and that can be very challenging.” To energize and increase his capacity as a leader, O’Brien has his own sounding boards, both inside and outside the Firm. Here too diversity is a dominant theme as he surrounds himself with a healthy variety of people who complement his strengths and offset his weaknesses as a leader. O’Brien spends time on the phone each day communicating with colleagues and making himself available for group calls with even the most junior consultants. The resulting relationships form a platform which allows for constructive feedback in both directions.

Outside of the Firm, O’Brien’s wife Jo (to whom he has been married for 28 years) is also a strong source of support and someone who “keeps him honest”. Damien also has a particularly close relationship with his sister who works as a professional coach. He also serves as his own sounding board. Not a big fan of popular management literature he reads extensively on broader topics of philosophy and sociology and he carves out time to reflect on his life and relationships and to learn from the lessons it has to offer.

Sufficiently introspective, he is not afraid to be his own sharpest critic, and holds himself accountable when he realizes that his ego may be getting in the way of objectivity and the overall well-being of the Firm. As well as being an excellent listener to others, he also explores his inner dialogue, and once participated in a 30-day silent retreat.

As a leader he takes time out to think about the ‘big questions’: “What is the purpose of the Firm I lead? How can I help my colleagues reach their full potential? What is the future of Egon Zehnder International and what is my own future beyond the leadership of the Firm? What are key measures to determine the Firm’s success and my success, or not? How will I hold myself and others accountable in the interest of these goals?”

There is no doubt that Damien O’Brien has had an inspiring journey to date. It’s uncertain what his next step will look like after Egon Zehnder International but there are certain to be interesting experiences to come – as illustrated by his personal mantra: “Dream, dance and don’t pitch your tent too early.”

[1] Nanda, A. and Morrell, K. (2004), Strategic Review at Egon Zehnder International (A; B; C), Harvard Business School.

[2] Goleman, D. (1998). “Working with Emotionally Intelligence.” New York: Bantam Books, pp. 305-306.

[3] Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., McKee, A. (2002).Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence, Harvard Business School Press, pp. 3 – 5.

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