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Egomaniacs, psychopaths and good bosses

When top executives fail, it’s less down to external factors than internal intrigue. Seasoned headhunters Thomas Deininger and Heiner Thorborg have seen many a battle. (F.A.S. - 09.05.2021 by Georg Meck)

Thomas Deininger und Heiner Thorborg | © Lucas Bäuml

If the world is in a permanent state of emergency, what does that mean for corporate bosses? Can it be business as usual or will they have to change completely? We talk to two seasoned headhunters who have worked in top management for decades: Thomas Deininger and Heiner Thorborg, both born in 1944. Together, the recruitment stalwarts clock up 89 years of experience in “executive search,” as they call the hunt for managerial talent.

“Corona was a watershed,” says Heiner Thorborg. “The prevailing style of management just doesn’t cut it anymore – by necessity.” Leadership requires other qualities for the foreseeable future, he says, “more oriented towards distance, with video calls and remote working here, there, and everywhere.” Thomas Deininger adds that ethical demands are changing along with management style: in his opinion, empathy, loyalty, and transparency are now more important than ever. “There will be a renaissance of values. Young people will only remain loyal to their employers if they feel they are being treated well.”

As the balance of power on the employment market shifts toward employees, Deininger says managers have to adapt: “A CEO has to be a role model, otherwise talent will go elsewhere.” However, personal warmth, as called for by the two headhunters, should not be confused with a ‘cotton-wool’ mindset in the upper echelons: “We don’t need wimps, we need genuine high performers. If you want to get to the top, you need more potential than ever before.” This is something that Thorborg and Deininger are in complete agreement on.

Both have been in the industry for decades, and have experienced – and found roles for – entire dynasties of managers; the fathers, their sons and daughters, and soon probably the third generation. Thorborg and Deininger met ten years ago – where else but in an airport lounge. Yes, there were times when they were zealously clocking up the air miles. A successful HR consultant without a Lufthansa elite circle card? Unthinkable.

Over the years, the two men have developed a friendly relationship while squaring off as competitors on the market. “We share ideas,” says Thorborg. “We don’t talk about clients, but about people,” Deininger adds,  - they mostly reach agreement on their judgment of the human qualities of top managers. After so many years, they can see through the lies and peccadillos of the executive level, and know what the real value of the “we all love each other” slogans or the currently en vogue flowery talk of “only the team counts”: not too much, that is. “Many top executives just don’t get on with each other, regardless of gender,” observes Deininger.

If the length of time spent at the top of a company is declining and top managers stay in their roles for shorter periods of time today, this is not just due to pressure from the capital market or even to the inferior talent of the individuals concerned. The top managers of today are no less intelligent or lazier than those of the previous generation. A significant role is played by the increased deployment of elbows and intra-company cockfights. “Some managers harbour a lot of conflict potential,” Deininger says. Thorborg puts it less diplomatically: “There are a lot of egomaniacs roaming the boardrooms, and they don’t solve problems. Psychopaths only pretend to have empathy, but are cold at heart, whatever their gender."

At some point, this shows through, no matter how much the people concerned attempt to conceal it. The recruitment consultant’s task is therefore to fill the top jobs with people who are “not prone to conflict.”

But is it possible to recognize psychopaths at an early stage? “Yes,” Deininger answers, “but not in half an hour in a hotel lobby or at the airport.” What is needed, he says, is an undisturbed atmosphere, several meetings, each lasting one and a half to two hours. That’s how much time it takes for the doubts to crystallise. “We’ve been in the business far too long for anyone to pull the wool over our eyes,” says Thorborg. To be on the safe side, they check the candidates’ backgrounds and have people close to the candidates tell them what they know. They are convinced that fraudsters and impostors like Wirecard board member Jan Marsalek would have no chance of surviving this process.

“References are my life insurance,” says Heiner Thorborg. “People you’ve known for years tend to tell you straight up what’s what,” confirms Deininger. “I’ve done 50,000 interviews. That teaches you to actively listen and pay attention to the nuances.” The search for a potential board member for a corporate client initially involves approaching 60 to 80 individuals; he then shortlists 12 to 15 candidates before allowing a handful of them to go on to meet the potential new employer.

The pandemic has forced everyone to abandon familiar paths. Even prospective board members now conduct job interviews digitally. “This can only be the starting point,” say the two headhunters. They are firmly convinced that “you can’t find the right boss only via video.” An on-screen interview, they say, provides at most half of the information that is needed. “Otherwise, the human element comes up short, and that’s where you separate the wheat from the chaff,” Deininger explains. “I can gauge someone much better when I see him or her walk in the door, when I can observe facial expressions and body language in a face-to-face conversation."

Catastrophic mistakes, however, are penalized after just one video call. “Anyone who wants to climb to the top of the corporate ladder and conducts the conversation from his or her garden shed at home has already lost: this stance clearly shows a lack of preparation and earnestness.

Thomas Deininger started working as a personnel consultant in 1974, having initially worked as a mechanical engineer for seven years after graduating from university. In 1981, he set up his own consulting firm. Today, the Deininger Group has 135 employees at nine locations in Europe and Asia.

After a ten-year partnership with Egon Zehnder, Heiner Thorborg now runs his own personnel consulting firm. Based in Frankfurt and Zurich, he advises globally active German and Swiss listed companies as well as large family-owned companies. In 2007, he founded Generation CEO, today one of the most important networks for the female leadership elite.

 

Source: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, May 9th 2021, Nr. 18
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Jun 15, 2021