Ross McInnes, the Chairman of Safran’s Executive Board, kindly accepted our invitation to discuss his career. We talked about that all-important sense of belonging, which involves a “dual culture” and about the French in the international environment.
Would you like to tell us a little about the cultural context in which you began your career?
Born in Calcutta to Australian parents, brought up in France and a naturalised French citizen, I’m proud to say that I chose France. Although my parents are Australian, I’m French. Thanks to them, I had the good fortune to grow up here, with my primary and secondary schooling taking place in Paris in local schools and in a state sector high school (Janson de Sailly). France is the country of my youth. Later, when I was 18, they decided to send me to study at Oxford.
At that time, I was removed from a system which had worked well for me. Today, looking back, I can say that the decision imposed by my parents turned out to be a great gift… When I came back to France a window opened for me, a window revealing other people and other destinations. This laid the foundations for my career, in addition to several years spent abroad later. By doing so, my parents gave me a genuine dual culture. Today this is something which is very common but at the time, and in the context in which I grew up, it was quite rare!
How do you deal with these diverse cultural influences?
Having two passports does not mean having two cultures or half of each if you prefer. It doesn’t prevent you from making a choice and expressing a preference. And I would be tempted to say that this choice is all the stronger once you’ve made it.
When I left Oxford in 1976, I lived for a few years in London, Rio and Chicago. At the age of 26, I’d already experienced other horizons, worked elsewhere, and it was then that I decided to return to France. At the time, I was involved in business banking as a career. My return to France was a real lifestyle choice. Although I profoundly believe that we can have two points of reference, for my part I only have one single anchor point.
You can also forge a “dual culture” by working in binational or multicultural companies. As an example, the time I spent at Eridania Beghin Say – which at the time was a Franco-Italian company – proved to be a real intercultural experience for me. They spoke both French and Italian there, and both influences were perceptible.
I believe that it is the professional environment in particular which really ingrains a “dual culture” in you more than just travelling and living abroad.
How enriching did you find this professionally?
Often ridiculed, the French educational system creates outstanding elites which are the envy of our neighbours. Just look at the City and its thousands of French staff, much sought after for their skills. Perhaps though, within this system we underestimate the importance of questioning, of discussion and of contradiction.
What I learned at Oxford is I suppose what could be described as the teaching of sociability. You learn to live and interact with others, you learn to speak in public too. Public speaking is encouraged. There are the famous tutorials: two or three students with a tutor who is also a teacher. Naturally, there are the lectures and other traditional learning methods but the tutorials provide an opportunity for discussion, dialogue and above all to challenge views. Creating such an environment while combining this with the discipline necessary to the business world is a valuable factor when it comes to meeting your goals as a team.
What’s your view of the French in the international working environment?
In the international management sphere, the French are adaptable, successful and well trained. A Frenchman who has worked in the United States, in the United Kingdom or Germany will have made considerable efforts to adapt, beginning by learning another language, working in this language, and blending in with the culture in this environment. He therefore already has an advantage in addition to his intellectual skills.
The groups comprising the CAC 40 enjoy a level of international expansion envied by the rest of the world and are successful leaders in their fields. Numerous major foreign groups are proud to include French managers among their senior management teams.
Say ‘no’ to French bashing!