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.

Leadership in 2017: The end of corporate leadership and the Machiavelli matrix.

The changing dynamics of how and where we work, are changing what people need in a leader.  Leaders used to inspire, inform and create an atmosphere. Do they do so now, and do you even need them to?

At some point as you go through your career, you have to make a decision about what type of a worker and what type of a leader you are going to be. The learning process is to understand more about people and different cultures, and to work out how you get the best out of those people. There are a million books and random motivational messages to support you in the process but that is all nonsense unless you can apply what they say.

As Machiavelli said you can choose to be ‘loved’, collaborative and engaging or ‘feared’ directive and imposing. Everyone ends up on that spectrum but if you are at the extreme, you won’t be effective or happy. I.e. everyone takes advantage of you or everyone hates you. (see any leadership textbook anywhere for 500 pages on variants of this).

This has not generally changed but the context around it has. To summarise the change; consider a view of distance to people. Not just emotional but physical. You can be close to your team sat in the trenches under fire from the enemy (insane client requests and visiting leadership) or you can be sat behind the lines sending instructions from headquarters.

Machiavelli matrix

Line yourself up against the model being honest about who you are and what you enjoy the most.

Me, I love being in trenches close to the people and applying the iron fist in the velvet glove approach. It’s all smiles and laughs until a line is breached and then it is fire and brimstone (not for long, then it’s back to the laughs). I’ve trained myself over the years to adapt my approach and my mindset to be good at doing that and I’m pretty happy with where I am.

Big, massive however…….

If you look at where things are going at corporates. The fundamental dynamics of people working together are changing which means that the role of leaders I think is changing too.

Change from experience to efficiency – most if not all corporates are moving towards some type of activity based working with the addition of collaborative spaces. In addition, there are multitude of articles and surveys showing the changing preference towards working from home.

The foundation for all of this is built around people becoming more efficient, better use of space, and more effective allocation of resource.  To me, this goes against a core principle that I have worked to, namely you want to enjoy yourself at work. It’s not a question of the time spent but a value judgement about what you can create in the team. I’ve got more value in the osmosis from being next to people than I ever would have getting my work done an hour earlier and going home. The 30 minute coffee discussions, the Wednesday afternoon cake competitions, the side conversations have all contributed to knowing people better,

I grew up in consulting where you would often work away from home; breakfast in the hotel, you would leave as a group in taxis to go to the office, you would leave as group and commonly all go for dinner. It was a 14 hr a day engagement with the same group of people. I probably worked for 7 of those hours but I learned more in the other 7.

The role of a leader in that context was to create an atmosphere over the whole day where everyone could contribute to more than just the work. Think about graduates in particular, if you only see them in the course of their work during the day, you miss the opportunity to see their richness of knowledge and way of thinking in other ways. I know more about the people I worked with 10 years ago than I do about the ones I did last year.

Ask yourself now in the workplace in 2017 why so many people have large noise cancelling headphones? How much time do your leaders spend engaging you outside of core working? This is a skill and an environment which is disappearing. I can completely understand the opposing argument but we haven’t replaced that old fashioned approach which an equivalent and so the skills are becoming redundant.

Information and insight – it is the same for the tools and methods which enable collaborative working. The potential is huge to improve engagement and alignment in co-production of documents or in the sharing of information.  However, the increase in volume in information does not always equate to equivalent quality and value. Look even at Linkedin and consider how much original content you see produced vs content shared. I know a huge range of people who I’ve never seen write a single thing themselves. Spend a week reading and liking only an article that was written by the poster and see how you behaviour changes.

Sharing a link to the Harvard Business Review with no comment or insight is not entirely valuable. Should I get any credit for knowing something because I’ve shared it. This is translated into corporates too. Leaders now with access to a huge range of material don’t have to produce anything or promote their own thought leadership. Even more than this, because everyone has access to all of the information, younger people no longer are turning to leaders to see what they think in the same way.

Consider, when was the last time you were asked by a junior person what you thought about something or when was the last time you shared something that you did yourself to a colleague?

Inspiration –   a role of a leader was always to inspire the people that worked for them. It was a ethos that anyone would be happy with what they were doing if they felt inspired by the leadership. There’s a great but possibly apocryphal story of someone asking a janitor in 1967 what their job was with the response being ‘I’m putting a man on the moon’. The role to inspire was essential to building that connection with the organisation.

Now with twitter and LinkedIn etc . you can connect with very important global leaders and experts. You can listen to Richard Branson’s thought of the day or assess Justin Trudeau’s utterings on foreign trade. A bit closer to home, you can see the CEO of your own companies account, what she thinks, is reading or is listening to. Younger people in particular therefore, don’t need the inspiration as much from the lower tiers of management because they think they’ve got what they need elsewhere. I don’t need to know what Keith Logan thinks about AI because I can read what Mark Zuckerberg thinks all, of, the, time.

Ask the junior people in your organisation who their business role model is. 10 years ago who would have been given a name in your organisation. Now, it’s likely to be a global CEO or a superstar TEDx er.

So then, the fundamentals for how we work have changed and we are perhaps becoming a industry of managers. So, have a think about your own organisation and look at your leaders. What is being valued and rewarded higher up and even more importantly, think about what’s important to you in a leader and think about the leader you want to be?