Interview with Frédéric Thoral, HR Manager of BNP Paribas Personal Finance
Fréderic Thoral kindly agreed to answer questions about his career. In a frank interview, he talks about his role in the transformations brought about by BNP Paribas’ internationalisation.
Can you tell us a little about your international career and experience?
My international career really got underway in the 2000s. Firstly, at SFR thanks to experience with SFR’s international shareholder, namely Vodafone in the UK, and in Morocco for Maroc Telecom as part of Vivendi Télécom back then.
This experience opened my eyes to two key training-related subjects:
- Language learning: when I arrived in the UK, I found that I didn’t speak real English. The English I currently speak was learned from my work and immersion courses during my personal time, not from my schooling or my studies.
- Preparing expatriates: training solutions of the sort that AKTEOS propose today simply didn’t exist. With no preparation, staff found themselves faced with diverse cultures very different from their own. These days, all of the expatriates to whom I have proposed this training have told me that it gave them a head start of between three and six months where integration is concerned.
Next, I joined Areva, where from the outset I was involved in the integration of T&D (ex Alstom) and its multicultural teams all around the world. Later, I was appointed as VP HR with responsibility for HR development.
Finally, I’ve spent the last eight years at BNP Paribas. When I arrived here, I worked on the completion of the merger with BNL in Italy, and then on supporting the TEB-Fortis merger in Turkey and on the beginning of the application of group HR policies at Bank of the West in California.
I was then appointed as head of HR for International Retail Banking, non-euro zone, for five years until very recently. The task here was to organise an international entity with a streamlined headquarters based in France (45,000 in all, 500 in France). This involved a considerable change of mindset: the creation of a head office with a team of experts, then adding staff representing the different countries with which we worked. To do otherwise risked a loss of credibility.
A brief anecdote on this point: during my first stay in California, where French people traditionally receive a rather lukewarm reception, the local staff quickly changed their attitude towards me when they saw that my assistants were not French. I “walked the walk” and therefore became a little more credible
Finally, I was offered the post of HR manager for Personal Finance, a post I’ve held since January 2017, with my duties including the task of accelerating and internationalising HR and its policies and finding the right balance between France (30% of the staff) and the rest of the world.
70% of BNP Paribas’ staff work abroad. Does this have a real impact on management?
Yes and no. Let’s put things in context: 15 years ago, there were 100,000 staff of whom 70% were in France. Today, there’s 200,000 staff, of whom 70% are abroad.
It’s quite a challenge to get everyone to accept a change like this in such a short time. People often criticise the French model and its supposed lack of international vision, its excessively France-centric management style, etc. I say stop the French bashing because it’s no better when the head office is in Germany or the United States!
We should also look at the way French companies perform internationally, and I believe that the international vision from the French perspective is one of the most agile, innovative and adaptive of all, even if there is still a lot to be done.
So, in a changing environment, how can internationalisation be seen as an opportunity for staff?
Getting all staff to embrace an international vision is no easy matter. Because most of the time, most of them work in local activities.
Particularly as we only need to look at our environment and the tendency of cultures to look inward rather than outward. Some people are genuine citizens of the world and have quickly understood the impact of globalisation and the benefits it offers, but they are a minority.
The challenge today both inside and outside the company is to demonstrate that an open world benefits us all and that it is not only an economic matter but also a cultural, political and above all social one.
Before we talk about internationalisation and therefore the transformation of the company and the way it thinks, acts and works, we need to remember the basics:
- In a volatile, uncertain and complex world, it’s important to be aware of who you are, of what you want to and can do collectively and on what basis you want to get things done (on values, history, shared plans, etc.). Values are a key bedrock;
- Many things which were done at times when companies were less international are still relevant today and were designed for the long-term. It’s not because an idea dates from the past that it should be discounted. We therefore need to be able to capitalise on existing successes and not revolutionise everything but rather adapt and transform things;
- A person’s capacity to adapt, whatever the level, has limits: not everyone is multilingual or wants to be a global executive, travelling around everywhere. You sometimes have to take a look back behind you to make sure that everyone is still following. And if no one is following you any more, you need to be asking questions about your leadership and your capacity to carry others along with you.
What about “business cultures” versus “national cultures”?
At BNP Paribas, the corporate culture provides a solid foundation. This is important when it comes to bringing teams together. Next, on a secondary level, you find distinct cultures depending on the organisations concerned: the CIB culture is different from that of Personal Finance, with each having deeply ingrained values which must be maintained despite the transformation underway.
In an environment turned upside down by internationalisation, my role is to circulate the values of BNP Paribas and those of Personal Finance in France and abroad, and to have them understood by everyone, to ensure that acceleration means transformation, and to work on improving the acceptance of diversity while at the same time highlighting those points which unite us and preparing new management and working methods, etc.
In your view, what exactly does it mean to “be international”?
Firstly, being international is something you have to learn internationally and I believe that expatriation to another country is not enough to call yourself international. In my view, you become international through contact, contact of a multi-country, multi-team, multilingual and multi-project nature. There are lots of ways to become international.
Next, although there is no firm rule book, it means learning a number of basics which apply everywhere in the world, in all situations:
- Displaying humility;
- Showing respect;
- Understanding, as a bare minimum, what you should and should not do
Interview with Frédéric Thoral
by Charles Rostand and Mehdi Clément for Akteos