A cover of The Economist, Freud, an ice cream, Matteo Renzi & what humour can tell about Europe

This week’s cover of the UK, continental Europe and Middle East edition of The Economist reads “That sinking feeling (again)” and features the German Chancellor, France’s President, Italy’s Prime Minister and the President of the European Central Bank (curious to see two Italians on board…) on a sinking boat made of a 20 Euro note.

The Economist's European cover of 30 August 2014

The Economist’s European cover of 30 August 2014

The Economist’s covers are worth a thousand words.

They are thorough, they are witty and, even when I might not like them, I love to read between the lines.

Inside the paper, the “Leader” piece focuses on what might threaten the survival of the Euro.

“If Germany, France and Italy cannot find a way to refloat Europe’s economy, the euro may yet be doomed”,

states The Economist, continuing:

…there is a shortage of political leaders with the courage and conviction to push through structural reforms to improve competitiveness and, eventually, reignite growth

…the country that most dramatically epitomises all three is France

Not much about Italy, nor about its Prime Minister, with the exception of a few lines such as those:

Mr Hollande is not just deeply unpopular; unlike Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who has bravely made the case for (as yet undelivered) tough reforms [the underlining is mine]

What has drawn some local controversy is the image of Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, holding an ice cream in his hand (see for example this tweet of Ferruccio De Bortoli, one of the Country’s leading journalists, editor of Il Corriere della Sera, who blames the Economist’s “bad taste”).

But what can we really read in the Economist’s putting an ice cream in the right hand of Matteo Renzi?

In the 1905 book The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (German: Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten), as well as in the 1928 journal article Humour, Sigmund Freud noticed that humor, like dreams, can be related to unconscious content. In other words, with humour (here: with the ice cream in the hands of Matteo Renzi), the Economist lets out forbidden thoughts and feelings that the conscious mind usually suppressed in deference to society (see here for further thoughts on Freud’s view of humour).

Humour expresses unconscious desires that have been kept hidden for too long.

How about, for example, that feeling of forbiddenness that an ice cream can evoque?

How about the “hidden pleasure” and enjoyment of an ice cream? Ice creams are for kids? So be it. Kids are self-aware, a lot more so that many of us can acknowledge. How about that sense of desire for enjoying life in full as a kid does? Ice creams are for kids, as pleasure is for kids. Not for grown-ups. Or is it?

Also, the very wish that the Euro area might collapse can be at the top of the unconscious (or even very conscious) wish list of not so few of the readers (and editors) of the Economist.

Yes, Matteo Renzi’s ice cream might remind the Economist of this and much more.

Fair enough.

Yet let me repeat one thing very dear to me: the European Union (and the Euro) is here to stay.

President Draghi’s now famous “Whatever it takes” statement deserves to be re-read in its full clarity (as Open Thinking did at that time):

When people talk about the fragility of the euro and the increasing fragility of the euro, and perhaps the crisis of the euro, very often non-euro area member states or leaders, underestimate the amount of political capital that is being invested in the euro.

We think the euro is irreversible…But there is another message I want to tell you.

Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough”.

Let me now remind what Benjamin Franklin replied, when someone stated to him, in 1776, “We need to hang out together”.

“Yes, was his reply, we need to hang out together, otherwise we will hang out separately”.

And together we will make it.

Tommaso Arenare

How a few weeks of vacation can turn into greater long-term happiness & focus

For many of us, August is a time for some rest, time to cast off.

How about making good use of those few weeks? How can we use our break in order to benefit the most and return to our daily work re-energised, happier and able to connect better and more wisely?

IMG_1728 Here, I want to focus on a few things that can stimulate our thinking and increase our focus (and happiness) once we’re back to our daily work after the break:

  • Think “people”, not “activities” or “things”: as we spend time to re-assess what we do and how we do it, the summer break gives us a wonderful opportunity to re-think our lives in terms of “people“, not “things”. It’s not what we do that matters the most. Rather, it’s whose needs we address, who we do what we do with. “It’s Not the How or the What but the Who“, as Claudio Fernández-Aráoz’s most recent book summarises so well.
  • Re-think our connections and make a list of people that inspire us the most: I often enjoy discussing with my guests about this and ask them: “How many people have you known, in your life?”. Answers to that vary from “A few dozen” to the bravest, who dare say “Maybe a thousand?” Reality, though, is a lot more. Most of us highly underestimate the value of relationship and connection. Someone living their life in professional services, since their mid thirties, is more likely to have known, in the broadest sense of the meaning, between four and in some cases as many as ten thousand people (think about all the people we’ve known during our school life, then the university, then our colleagues at work…). CEOs of large companies have known several tens of thousands of people. We live a life of overexposure to connecting, not the opposite. Hence, we need to sharpen the focus:“How many, of those thousand people, are those I like, those who can inspire me, those I find satisfaction in connecting with?” Let’s write those few names (10 to 20) down, on a piece of paper, in a moment of rest.
  • Act on this list and those people, connect with them, let them know they inspire us (and we care): that much smaller and more precious list is a starting point for greater focus (and happiness) in our daily life.  I want these people to know they are on my list. These are people I want to connect with regularly, people whose advice and inspiration I want and need to seek regularly, as soon as the break ends if not now. The few weeks of our summer break can thus open up an entirely new element, which we’ve kept unconscious for so long.

People, not what we do, will make us happy. If these few weeks of vacation help us realise this, they can highly increase our long-term happiness and improve self-awareness for many years to come.



Tommaso Arenare


Why the week before a new job starts is crucial for its long-term success

I have a week left to prepare before I start in my new CEO job, what’s the best way for me to prepare?

Many times have I faced extremely bright people, with a new appointment already in their hands, and such a question in their mind.


“I have been chosen, the Annual General Meeting will appoint me to the Board a week from now, I will be appointed Chief Executive, what’s the best way for me to use this week in order to hit the ground running?”.

Integrating in a new role happens as much before we start in the new position as it happens after we’ve started.

The answer to that question is then “Use that week you have in order to accelerate your integration as much as you can”.

These are the things I would do the week before my new job starts:

  • Prepare your analysis of the situation: think of how you see your new job. Prepare a thirty seconds description of your plan, what an investor would call your “equity story”. Clearly define the pillars of your strategy in simple and effective terms. “When I start as CEO, we will focus on … Our strategy will be based on… Make sure your message is viable, clear, simple and effective. Communicate it thoroughly, repeatedly, simply. Do this alone, in a time of relax and with your mind empty and free, but then discuss it with a couple of people you trust the most, who will act as your mirror;
  • Map your key stakeholders: ask yourself this question:

    Who are the people that have a clear say in determining whether I am successful in the new role?

    Part of them will be shareholders, part of them will be team members, part of them will be peers in and outside the company. List them, up to around twenty of them. Map them carefully, thoroughly and prioritise them. I often recommend a very simple spreadsheet, listing all of them by name, role, with one line of comments and “next actions” just next to their name. Most importantly, I recommend one column with a priority number next to each of them. This is a very simple tool which will help you keep your list fresh, change it, re-prioritise it, always making sure that you can add new stakeholders, remove some old ones and manage their expectations effectively and timely. You will dialogue with key stakeholders a lot more effectively if you do so. As you dialogue with them, you will realise that you strongly contribute to influencing and defining the very same criteria they will use to define your own success. This will lay a much more solid foundation for your long term future in the role.

It is difficult to overemphasise how many great people have failed as Chief Executives (and even more so in different roles) for lack of thorough identification and understanding of key stakeholders at the onset of their adventure in the role.

In doing the above, get some help from advisors you trust. You need a mirror that helps you focus on both. As you do the above, you will realise that a number of simple actions and decisions come to the surface of your thinking. This is what we call “Day One Decisions“. The few key decisions that will help you “hit the ground running”, and do so effectively, rapidly and securely.

These few days before we start, if we spend them well, will be a key foundation for long term success in the role. Be it a Chief Executive role, as well as any executive role, or, even, a Non Executive Director position. Working on accelerating integration in the role is key to succeed in the end.

As someone said, we only have one occasion to make a good first impression.




Tommaso Arenare



This post was also published on LinkedIn.

Egon Zehnder turns 50

This time is more personal. This time is about us.

This time is about a man, an entrepreneur and a professional who, on the 4th of July 1964, 50 years ago, at the age of 34, decided to set up his own business and established a Firm which bears his name.



My selfie with Egon, June 2014

50 years on, the story continues.

Many things make me proud to be part of our Firm. I won’t discuss them here. Those who know me would know.

I want to spend a word of thanks to the remarkable dedication, spirit and vision of Egon and all the Partners who have come before us.

Our Firm would be different without them, I would be different without them and without Egon’s decision, over 50 years ago.


Tommaso Arenare




The “Who” element, the “Female Opportunity” and a matter of pride

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz published “Great People Decisions” in 2007. The book has achieved global fame with fifteen international editions, emphasizing how important people decisions are for the success of one’s personal life as well as for the broader impact of leadership in the world we live in.

Claudio Fernandez-Araoz

I have been a proud Egon Zehnder colleague of Claudio since 2004. I am now ever more proud as I hold in my hands “It’s Not the How or the What but the Who“, Claudio’s most recent book that was released at the beginning of June 2014 during the celebrations for Egon Zehnder’s 50th anniversary.

It's not the How or the What but the Who

More will follow on the extraordinary leadership insights that Claudio’s forty-four short essays can provide the reader. If only for a short minute, in this post I want to focus on Essay 34, where Claudio describes what he calls “the Female Opportunity”:

Over the past few years, as I’ve traveled the world to speak with senior private and public leaders about talent issues,… I am often asked where I see the most opportunity. My answer is never a country, it’s a gender: women.

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, “It’s not the How or the What but the Who”, Harvard Business Review Press, p. 160


A couple of pages later, Claudio, whom we at Egon Zehnder had the privilege of seeing in action speaking at our Milan office to an audience of 80 women leaders in 2012, ends this chapter on the Female Opportunity quoting one best practice: Italy.

Italy as best practice for the "Female Opportunity"

Italy as best practice for the “Female Opportunity”

And he does so with specific mention to the recent history of Italy’s most effective legislation in favor of diverse boards, arguing in the very same direction (indeed quoting this very Open Thinking) as we have for a long time.

Women mean talent, positive change, better corporate governance and endless possibilities.


Tommaso Arenare


Sow seeds, give, build bridges: networking our way to happiness

I receive many questions about “networking”.

How can we make good use of our network?

What’s the best way to connect?

What  makes connecting an experience that leaves us happy and satisfied?

One of the fundamental misconceptions about networking is on its very purpose. Many if not most of us think networking is about “asking”, “exploiting” our relationships. At times we think we want to network in order to receive a benefit, we want to ask favors from our network.


IMG_3847 This very purpose is flawed.

Networking is about giving.

We give and receive happiness through giving to people we like and trust.  Networking is always about what I can do for my network rather than about what my network can do for me.

How can I help people get better, happier, more satisfied?

Good networking is like sowing seeds. When we sow seeds, we don’t know whether nor do we know where they will turn into plants and fruits. Yet we know that the more openly we will be sowing seeds, the more openly we will reap rewards in return.

We won’t know where, nor when: the fruits of networking happens through “obliquity” and “black swans”.

Black Swans (…) are large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequence—unpredicted by a certain observer.

Nassim N. Taleb, “Antifragile, Things that Gain from Disorder, Prologue, 2012.

Black Swans can be negative as well as they can be positive. Limiting the exposure to negative Black Swans and increasing our exposure to positive Black Swans is the challenge, then.

John Kay describes obliquity as follows:

If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of ‘obliquity’: paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows us that oblique approaches are the most successful, especially in difficult terrain.

Obliquity implies that future opportunities can best be pursued indirectly. Black Swans imply that the only safe thing we know about our next occasion of happiness is that we don’t know what it is going to be.

Here are a few of the things I do when I want to make good use of my network:

  • write a letter to a friend or to someone in my network, just a note, a quick note, maybe a “thank you” note after a lunch together. Perhaps something else, yet something worth putting my handwriting on paper. This gives me an opportunity to reconsider that specific relationship, to enjoy the very fact that this person is part of my network;
  • consider something positive about someone I like in my network and call that person, write her an email, or maybe even just use Twitter or Facebook to show my positive feeling of appreciation about some achievement or some quality that the person has. This is another easy way for me to benefit from reconsidering and nurturing a relationship I have with someone. At the same time, this helps me connect with that person, help them realise how I appreciate some positive things about them;
  • build a bridge across two people I likeI might simply decide that I want to help two people in my network connect. This is one of the most fundamental things one can do the network. Bringing two people together, creating bridges across them is a great way of nurturing the network. But let’s be careful: this does not happen as a result of someone asking. This happens as a result of my desire to give. For them, for the two people I have helped connect, it equals to receiving, yet  not because they asked. Rather, just because they are part of a network where someone gives.

I have noticed this already: the wiser we are in connecting with people we like, the more will we be exposed to positive (and oblique) Black Swans. That person we like, whom we regularly talk to, seek advice and inspiration from, at a given, unexpected moment will come out with that fantastic thought, with that inspiring question, which will lead to our next opportunity, perhaps to our next job.

There’s no predictable limit to the power of relationship, the power of connecting wisely.

Tommaso Arenare


Only the brave (reloaded)

“But sometimes the market gets it all wrong, as is the case now.”

Hence, his argument continued, Italy’s debt was a much safer bet than others, such as the UK’s triple A. Italy would get things done and make it.

Erik gave me the occasion for my first tweet ever, on that very day:

Two and a half years and almost three thousand tweets later, I want to spend some time, again, to praise Erik’s ability to “see through the fog”. In his usual “Sunday Wrap”, released today, Erik could write, amongst other things:

“But here we are, just short of 2½ years later. Those of you who focused on fundamentals and had a bit of understanding of Europe, and who bought the 5-7 year sector in Italy in mid-October 2011, now sit on an annualized return of 12.5% (in euros), compared with 1.7% (in sterling – and well below inflation) if you had gone with the 5-7-year gilts.”

Italy and so called “peripheral Europe” have surprised many, but not all. I wish to finish with Erik’s own words, again in today’s “Sunday Wrap”:

For someone like me who has spent the last 2 ½ years arguing that the Italian sovereign should not pay higher yields than the UK, seeing the 5-year BTP trade through its equivalent UK gilt this past week came with some satisfaction.   Longer term, this is right.

Well-done, Erik. But also well-done to the many courageous people who’ve worked to ensure that this could happen.



Tommaso Arenare

Two or three things I think when people mention “Golden Skirts” to me

On a couple of recent occasions, I was  asked  about what is commonly defined as the “golden skirts” phenomenon, whether there’s a risk of some female non-executive directors taking on too many Board roles as a result of a law on #DiverseBoards (this is another one of many possible definitions).


I would warn to be skeptical. I would even go as far as to say that this is a clear instance of unconscious biases at play. We look at women in a different, more biased way than we would normally look at men.

The expression “Golden skirts” has the very same unconsciously negative overtones as expressions such as “pink” quotas and the like. Unconsciously, similarity bias makes us fear adding diverse members to the board.

There might be women taking on too many board positions, exactly as there might be many men who do the same. Nothing to do with gender nor with the law. Let’s note, though, that we do not seem we use a similar “gender” stereotype as that of a “golden skirt” when we describe such a phenomenon when it involves men.

Even if we assumed, for the sake of the argument, that there might be cases of women taking on an excessive number of non-executive board positions, under no circumstances would this imply scarcity of female talent or a peculiar behavior of women.


In addition, we need to be extremely careful. If you properly look for it, and manage to overcome unconscious biases, female talent is abundant so that there is no risk that women take on too many board positions as there is too little talent to meet demand.

In the country where I live, where a law on #DiverseBoards has been in place since 2012, we haven’t observed this phenomenon amongst women any differently than we would observe it amongst men. I would even go as far as to say that in my personal professional experience, I have encountered in women an extreme level of care about not taking on too many board seats, thereby running the risk of dedicating too little time to any single given board position they hold. Not for a reason of gender, we should note. Rather, as women have approached Board roles with more insight, as they have “raised the standards” in terms of preparing for a board seat. From now on, even men will have to do the same.

Reducing unconscious biases. Raising talent, merit, competencies, improving corporate governance. This is what #DiverseBoards is all about.

Tommaso Arenare


A couple of things we learn from a law on #diverseboards

I was recently asked what lessons we learn from the implementation of Italy’s law 120/2011 fostering gender Diversity on corporate Boards (so-called “Golfo Mosca” law).

In summary, this law provided an unexpected positive nudge to the country’s very perception on gender diversity, as well as to its corporate governance.


Let me comment on both aspects.

Improving the stance on Gender Diversity through reducing unconscious biases

Humanity is thought to have taken its modern form some 200,000 years ago. Back then, when we used to live in the Savannah, in small closely-knit family groups, most of our key decisions were about our “fight or flight” dilemma, when we would face dangerous animals or other dangerous human beings and we had to decide, in as little time as possible, if the best way to save our lives was to “fight” for survival or else “flight away”.

A “snap judgment“, as the word implies, is our unconscious habit to make a decision about people, or reacting to people, in a matter of very few seconds after we meet with that someone or we face the situation we consider as a challenge. A snap judgment is a very precious and important habit, which we have developed over millennia of evolution.

Separately, “similarity bias” happens when we select people that are more similar to us, as opposed to people who appear more different. Evolution has fostered this trait, as a key manner to survive ever since the difficult times when we would live in the Savannah, trying to escape from animals and all sorts of dangers.

The combination of snap judgments and similarity biases is the one reason why gender diversity (but also age diversity, geographic diversity and possibly many other aspects of diversity) is so difficult to happen without a little nudge (such as that of a proper law). The “Golfo-Mosca” law forced shareholders to select new members of the board from the “under-represented gender”, overcoming unconscious fears, to the advantage of merit, competencies and corporate governance.

Without the proper nudge of a similar law, countries that are rightly considered as a cradle for merit and competency-based choices, such as the UK or the US, have not been able to move the presence of women boards swiftly to anywhere above the 15 to 17% mark (end of 2013) as opposed to about 20% in Italy over the same period.

Improving Corporate Governance

Another great result of Italy’s “Golfo-Mosca” law was that overall corporate governance improved. Some leading Italian companies have rightly taken the law as a great opportunity to reduce the number of board members, so as to make better use of their boards. FIAT Chrysler for example, reduced the number of its board members from 16 to 9 in 2012, thereby making it more effective as well as smaller.

We have also seen the development of several training programs for candidates to the position of non-executive director (with Valore D’s “In the Boardroom” being particularly dear to me, as you will read in a separate section).
This actually sets a new benchmark not only for women but for men as well. If shareholders have to select new board members, all things remaining equal, they would inevitably prefer to select candidates that have gone through specific training.

The real next step is to bring gender diversity down from boards to executive levels. We need to foster mentoring as a way to ensure that when it comes to promoting talent, women are in a similar position as men. Similarity bias, as we have described above, impacts very much on the promotion of executives. We want to intervene to reduce the impact of similarity bias in favour of promotions based on talent and merit.

Tommaso Arenare


Three reasons Italy will surprise those writing it off too early

A recent article by @FrankBruni on the New York Times had Italy talk quite a lot about it.

Italy “breaks your heart“, is it’s heading. The fil rouge of its content is that Italians think about Italy as

a country that they love but have lost faith in

Bruni is adamant about

Italians’ theatrical pessimism, [and] their talent for complaint

Yet, in addition to that, “the arias have been different this time around”, he says. His elaborate conclusion is one of despair:

I was zipping past wonders, zooming through splendor. But I hadn’t a clue if I was actually getting anywhere

Let me share here a comment I posted on the New York Time website, as I believe this point deserves more than a passing word.

Indeed Italy “breaks your heart” and indeed when we look ahead we see uncertainty and challenges.

I want to spend a word of hope, though.

There are at least three reasons people better not write Italy off too early:

  1. We are a net beneficiary of a higher degree of discipline that the European Union might bring over time. The Governments led by Mario Monti and Enrico Letta have started working on some crucial structural reforms. The European Union is here to stay, in spite of what many people still think. Let me now remind what Benjamin Franklin replied, when someone stated to him, in 1776, “We need to hang out together”.”Yes, was his reply, we need to hang out together, otherwise we will hang out separately”. This wonderfully applies to the European Union;
  2. Our pension system, and INPS, the public body overseeing it, has been restructured and is in far better health than any of its equivalents in the Western world (strangely, one of Italy’s best kept secrets). This gives Italy a financial tranquillity that no other Western country has. All of them, but Italy, will have to come to grip with huge pension unbalances. This is way too often overlooked in discussions about Italy’s government debt to GDP ratio;
  3. What seems a chaotic disorder is, in many ways, a very solid sistem. Our decentralised republic, with all its drawbacks, has guaranteed growth and stability a lot more than it appears. I will just quote Nassim Taleb, who was recently in Italy and we could listen to him say “When you look at things that have improved with time, a lot of them come from Italy“. We are far more “anti-fragile” than we look. Great success stories continue to be in the making.

We need to keep working hard.

Yet, Italy will make it.

Tommaso Arenare