INTERVIEWDR. THOMAS D. ZWEIFEL
STRATEGY & PERFORMANCE CONSULTANT, PROFESSOR, AUTHOR WWW.THOMASZWEIFEL.COM Published: May 4, 2013
Dr. Thomas D. Zweifel is a strategy & performance expert, catalyst and coach for leaders of Global 1000 companies. Since 1984 he has partnered with clients on 4 continents to meet their business imperatives. An authority on integrating planning, people and performance, he helps his clients confront taboos, build vision and strategy alignment and boost the productivity of organizations, teams and managers. Ultimately Dr. Zweifel’s specialty is unleashing the human spirit in organizations—without unnecessary blah-blah, impractical training programs, or false dependencies on high-priced consultants.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: At the start of my career, with 22, I was working for an international organization at the United Nations. My job was to supervise 27 global affiliates and I was accountable for their business performance. The problem was that I did not have authority over their decisions, so I could not force people. What I had to do instead was to empower and mobilize them. I left the organization with an annual revenue growth of 45% compounded over a five-year period. At that time I didn’t know what competencies I had built. Only after I left the organization in 1996, I found out that I had developed highly valuable skills over this time: Executive coaching and performance management to help people grow beyond themselves and achieve much higher performance. I joined a consulting company in early 1997. But I realized I did not just want to join a company, I wanted to build my own. I started consulting, teaching and writing, and these strands became mutually reinforcing.
Q: Who is a leader that you have great respect for and why?
A: Winston Churchill—although some things he did would not work today, for example he called Mahatma Gandhi “this little naked man”, which is not acceptable to say nowadays. He was also very hierarchical and top-down. But having said that, I still think he was an extraordinary leader. He simply never gave up. After the war he gave his shortest speech of his career with the famous line: “Never, never, never, never give up.” An interesting biography about Winston Churchill is written by William Manchester, it is called “The Last Lion” and is one of my all-time favorites.
Q: How much time do you spend on networking versus focusing on the internal affairs of your business (such as management, project work, etc.)?
A: I spend a lot of time on networking, probably 20% of my entire time. And that means I want to provide value without necessarily going for a sale or something to get. I have found out: The more I give, the more I get. To use a quote of Churchill: “You make a living by what you get you make a life by what you give”. I have about 6,000 contacts; some 10% of those I know personally to the extent that I wish them happy birthday. I don’t just want to send greetings on the holidays; I instead want to really connect and care. It is always a nice way to reconnect with people this way, and it makes them feel that I care for them.
Q: Can you share a story of how networking led to a great success?
A: What I can say is that no success has ever been done without networking. It is the quest of an organization. By networking I also got the biggest contract, which was about $750,000. I could not have done this if I had not heavily invested in my network. I don’t think I ever have got something by myself, I know that I am not brilliant. I know I am a simple guy. And anything I have accomplished that is beyond me is because I had other people around me, a network of like-minded individuals who believed in me and helped me along.
Q: What are your top 3 tips for networking?
A: The one example I gave already are birthday notes. I also keep a blog and I am member of 28 different LinkedIn groups where I distribute articles, as well as on Twitter. This is the whole networking factor, where I just spread messages. I don’t really want to sell anything; it is more about background relations. It is about an environment or an ecology, which then can provide an opening for consulting. What you can do is to ask yourself in every conversation: What kind of value can I give, rather than what can I get? What does this person I am talking to need right now? And if I cannot provide value to this person: Do I know someone who could provide value to him or her? To put it this way: I am always coaching, I am never selling. I am providing value without getting money. I would never go to a meeting to tell how great we are, or how great our service is. The question is if I can listen and if I am then able to provide value in the meeting I am in, right there.
Q: If you had the opportunity to give advice to your younger self at the age of 15, what would you say?
A: I would probably say: “Get out there, don’t be afraid of human beings. Take risks. Be with people. Don’t assume that others think you are stupid or that you are weird.” I thought I was pretty weird that time. At that time of my life I was very withdrawn. Because I became an actor when I was 17, I had the chance to develop my own leadership skills, from public speaking to emotional intelligence, from presence on the stage to co-leading with others, from empathy with a character to improvisation. These turned out to be invaluable for my leadership. Then I made two vows: First, I made the decision to do only work I really like and second, to make sure I get paid for my work. These were my two vows and they served me well in life. In general, if I can give any advice to younger people: Follow your dreams. Do what you really love. And then, make sure you get compensated for that. When you do what you really love, the money will follow.
ON CAREER TRANSITIONS
Q: Nowadays, people become discontent with their current career yet are too afraid or reluctant to make a change. What’s your best advice in this situation?
A: Obviously, if you have a family you have financial constraints and obligations. In this case you would go for safety rather than risk. But still, you can look out for possibilities to try something new. Generally speaking: If you really like doing something, start on a small scale. And start doing it now. What my students usually do is a “100-day Catalytic Project”. First you picture what it would look like if you achieved your 5-year vision. Whatever it is, e.g. founding a company or writing a book: Imagining it in vivid details will give you a better sense of where it could lead to, and if you could make money with it. The “100-day catalytic project” is based on Gandhi’s “Be the future now. Be the chance, you wish the world would make.” The goal is to produce a reality for your idea. It can be done by anyone, from employee to entrepreneur to consultant. Just start with one project. I would do this approach on a small scale while keeping my job. After a given amount of time, for example after 100 days, you can decide how you want to go ahead: Do I actually want to let go of my job? This way you can phase in your future while your job is still going on. Now, this is if you have a family or other obligations to fulfill. If you are single and you are 20 years old, I would say: Hey, just take the risk. Whatever your culture is saying about a certain career pathway: Do your thing. Follow your heart.
Q: Who has been your greatest mentor?
A: The President of the organization I was working with first was a great mentor for me. This was when I worked with 27 affiliates as Director of Global Operations”. And the CFO at that time was a really great mentor, who actually helped me to get into Columbia University, who pushed that through the Board of Directors. Those were great mentors for me.
Q: Do you formally or informally mentor anyone? If so, who and why is it rewarding?
A: Actually, I am mentoring a lot of people. Not always in a fixed structure; they know they can come to me. And obviously I have coaching relationships with our clients, e.g. at many Fortune 500 companies. Why is it rewarding? What inspires me the most is when I can assist someone in achieving a vision. This is most exciting and enlivening. And it only takes a conversation between two people, or a series of conversations. And then things happen which would not have been possible before the conversation. I see people accomplish literally breakthroughs in performance that were not possible before. That is why I admire the spirit of conversations. It doesn’t need money; it doesn’t need a title or a level of authority, or a certain educational background. But it can support accomplishments, all over the world.
Q: It’s hard to focus on the “big picture” sometimes because we can get caught in the pieces of work and life. When does visioning come clearest or easiest for you? Or what inspires your vision?
A: One task my students do in my course is that they have to write an article about themselves, which is dated on the day five years time from now on. And the question is: What have you accomplished? The article has to be written in the 3rd person: “He/she accomplished … and received these results …. These are his/her core values: … This is how he/she was as a leader: … These were his/her leadership principles: … and how he/she worked with the people around … What do people say about him/her? What do the spouse and the colleagues say about him/her? And this is how a day of his/her life looks like: …“ That forces people to become very clear about their vision. And the more specific, the more measurable the statements in the article are, the more likely someone will manage to accomplish this vision. In addition, it is often interesting when people realize the impact they have. E.g. when a CEO understands how his behavior affects hundreds or thousands of people in his company. How he can make a difference on a large, maybe even global scale. What also inspires me is to invent a language that empowers human beings. What I try in my books is to find a language that really gives power to human beings to accomplish their vision. I have not completely found it yet. I am still working on it.
ON GETTING STARTED
Q: Let’s assume you have a young sibling or a child who is close to graduate from university, anxious about landing the first job or unsure of what to do, what would your advice be?
A: “Make sure that what you do, e.g. an internship, is adding value and is profitable for what you really think you would like doing. That it leads to the position you really want. So that it is not just looking good on your CV, but something you really like.” Beyond that, it depends then on the specific person. But it is always about developing your personality and your skills, while following your dream.
Q: Life is full of setbacks. Can you share an experience of one, and how you were able to bounce back?
A: In the very early days of building my company I was invited co-lead an executive education course. And everything I said, three participants made it look as if it were complete rubbish. At that time I had no experience with such a situation and I was in massive struggle. I felt in the wrong place and misjudged. So I decided to give the money back to make these people satisfied. And they took the money back. But afterwards I made a silent oath that I would turn this around and become a great teacher. A year later I got a call to teach future leaders. In America you get the chance to do something even though you have not done it before. I proved that I could become a brilliant teacher. Nowadays I teach at Columbia and other universities. This is a real example and I even made it into a method: Anything that looks like a breakdown, that looks like something that could stop you, or that makes you want to give up, that could be the raw material for a breakthrough. Some of the biggest commercial breakthroughs of our time, from the Post-It to the CAT-scan, even Viagra (laughs) originally came out of failures. Everything that looks like an obstacle can actually turn out to be a great opportunity.
Q: You developed a tool for leadership which you explain in the book „Leadership in 100 Days“. Why should one read specifically this one out of all the thousands of books written about leadership?
A: First of all: I do not say one should read this book; instead, you are welcome to read it. A few days ago I did a search an Amazon and it came up with about 70,000 books on leadership. The problem is most leadership books, unfortunately, don’t help you to lead. A lot of the books are great descriptions of leadership, great biographies or great practices of people who have great leadership abilities. My book aims to give you real access to leadership. You get access to what it means to lead in the action. My approach, I hope, allows you to access leadership in a systematic way. You could say, in a Swiss way (laughs). If it doesn’t work for you, throw it away. This is what my PhD advisor always said: Theories are not to be believed, theories are to be used. If it’s useful use it, and if not throw it out.
Q: In the world, what are your three favorite destinations?
A: I have lived in so many places — Paris, Basel, Berlin, Munich, Mumbai, New York, London, Tokyo, San Francisco and now Zurich. And they all have their unique charm. If I have to say three only: 1. My own house, if that counts. That is really my favorite place. When I am away, with a client, I often can’t wait to get home. 2. Berlin. I think Berlin is a fascinating city, it is the New York of Europe. 3. Ascona in the South of Switzerland, the Italian area. It’s a marvelous place. But I have to state that I like many more places like New York City and Rio de Janeiro.
Q: What is the most valuable lesson your father taught you?
A: That a man who does not cry is not a real man. You got to be able to cry. In addition, thanks to my parents I learned the value of global citizenship, to always be interested in other cultures, and in how others think and how history works. To be fascinated by and perhaps acquainted with many, many different value systems — I really got that from my parents.