Bring me my wine: a guide to being French at work and why that’s a good thing.

The modern corporate environment is changing rapidly and whilst we are all scrambling to adapt, there is one nationality who act in a way already suited perfectly to 2018. You might be surprised, but right now, best practice is French.

I have been fortunate to work with a number of French people in my career. I worked for years for a French company, lived there for a couple of years, have a degree in the language and to this day look for the Stade Toulousain scores in the paper (Allez le Stade). This is my disclaimer to say that I’m a massive Francophile and always will be.

I write this so I can be entitled to say how mind blowingly frustrating and time consuming it can be to be involved in a French person heavy team. Every decision is a 20 minute discussion (or what an anglo-saxon would call an argument), every piece of information needs to be backed up with a barrage of verbalised evidence, everything takes ages but that’s okay because they are happy to work all hours and if they disagree with you, they are likely to ignore you anyway. Managing conflict is an emotional rollercoaster with tears, phones being hung up and sulks which can last days (after which all is forgiven and forgotten). But that’s not the whole story, they are also brilliant.

When you break down some of the main skills being required of successful business people in 2018, I’ve come to realise that the future is French. Namely:

·      The ability to adapt to new processes and ways of working.

·      The need to be analytical and thoughtful in looking at problems and information.

·      Playing a role which requires independence and thinking differently.

·      Having the confidence to try and fail.

For a French person, all of this is no problem.

Adherence to structure and process – in the corporate world, what you will find is that most French people have very similar backgrounds. They almost all went to a top business school or at a push, an engineering school. You very rarely encounter a French person with a degree in Geology who now works in consulting (very unlike the Brits). Even more so, they have a very consistent curriculum and learn methodologies which they all follow religiously.

Ask 10 French people to conduct an analysis of a company and you are almost guaranteed to get all of them following the same process to produce documents which look pretty much the same. Over structured you might think? However, I think it represents a respect for following well thought out and reasoned models and structure. A new approach say ‘Design Thinking’ is very easily taken up and applied by French people who then do not cut corners in its application.

Driving change amongst French workers is easy as long as you can show the evidence to support the approach. Where speed is required in delivering projects and change is constantly adding new ways of doing things. You need this ability to adapt and follow.

Questioning and analytical process – entirely in contradiction with the above, whilst French people are great with the process, what comes out of the process is subject to incredible debate and discussion. There is a fundamental ethos to French learning and culture which is to challenge anything and everything with a view towards stimulating debate and discussion. Playing Devils Advocate is a core facet of French life to the point where two French people in complete agreement will naturally allocate one person to disagree just for the fun of it.

One of my favourite colleagues I’ve ever had would typically arrive late to meetings claiming he was astoundingly busy and could only stay for 15 minutes. He would then proceed to argue furiously for at least 45mins after which I would discover he agreed with me all along. I would however, have generated 25 new things to think about, alter slightly or remove completely.

This is exactly what we need in 2018 to challenge ideas, promote discussion and encourage new ways of looking at things. It is an endemic skill to being French which is not the case for many cultures.

Combine the two above and you use the time saved from the process bit to augment the thinking bit. Perfect.

Independence and Rebellion – you will be well aware of the French love of rebellion. This is not just an aspect of their history but a deep rooted ethos. It is also linked to an incredible sense of ‘the people’ e.g. the community and the greater good.

A great example is the one where they tried to introduce wheel clamps into France. Apparently, if you put superglue in the lock of a wheel clamp, it makes it almost impossible to get off without completely destroying the whole apparatus which means you have to completely rebuild it (at considerable cost). When clamps started appearing in France, people would routinely carry superglue in their pockets to put it in the locks of every machine they saw. For the person who owned the car, this meant a huge inconvenience but eventually, the cost of constantly rebuilding the clamps led to France dropping the whole scheme. Individual sacrifice to the benefit of the group. If you tried that in the UK, you’d get a very different outcome.

The application of this at a corporate level is that French people are very aware of the group dynamic, are reluctant to accept leadership without question and importantly, are always looking for things to improve. Can this be frustrating….yes indeed, but there is a perpetual and unquenching enthusiasm to identify and act upon opportunities.

Accept failure and move on – the stereotype would suggest that French people do not lack in confidence but more than anything, the ability to successfully accept failure and move on from it is predicated on confidence that the next go will be better.

Having confidence that you did your best and any failure was down to bad luck, the circumstances or the cosmos is more a mindset than anything else and this is a skill in abundance amongst the French working population. The ‘start-up’ culture is increasingly an objective for almost all businesses so that ability is only going to be of value.

The US is also renowned for not having a confidence problem and the rates of entrepreneurship in that country are extremely high vs most other nations. It’s worth considering who came up with the word though; ‘entrepreneur’. No prizes for guessing.

So what

Diversity always brings value to any business or team and there’s a rapidly changing environment of how you have to approach projects/work, build a new culture and deliver changes to mindset. Each culture has some built in traits and working styles which contribute to creating the way you work and anyone who has worked in different countries will appreciate the differences. With mixed cultural teams, it’s even more pronounced. Learning from each other, blending the strengths inherent in each person and adapting the team to get the best out of everyone is the best you can aim for but…..

Trust me though, if you have the choice and the opportunity to think French. It’s well worth a go.

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