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The French management style
November 30, 2017

Management à la françaiseThe value of impertinence within the French management style

Jean-Luc PlacetFor 35 years, Jean Luc PLACET has supported major groups and public authorities with their strategic planning and with changes to their organisational structures. He kindly answered our questions, providing his own personal view of the “French management style”.

What did you learn about your French culture from the foreign bosses for whom you provided consultancy services?

For a long while, I managed a small business specialising in consultancy services, which achieved around 25% of its turnover internationally. Between 2006 and 2008, I was President of the European consultants’ federation.

The characteristics my foreign clients most appreciated were my ability to listen, my courtesy and my “old France” aspect.

You have to understand that when a Frenchman goes abroad, whether he intends to or not he takes Molière and Alexandre Dumas with him. You only really appreciate to what extent this is important when you step outside France: the whole world is attracted by French culture as a whole.

15 years ago, you published French Touch. Can we still really talk about a French management style? 

When I wrote this book, I was firmly convinced that French culture is a definite advantage! The French management style had not yet assumed the importance that multinationals gave it during the 2000s. This book highlighted the French touch, which could be used by company managers to improve their performance and to learn to manage people.

Courtesy is far from dead A striking example is Jean-Dominique Senard when he took over the running of the Michelin group.

When he arrived in the United States, his teams told him about the declining sales of truck and tractor tyres and encouraged him to close a plant.  Jean-Dominique Senard began by analysing the market for tyres and found that it wasn’t working properly. He then considered how he could put this market back on the right footing. Ultimately, he took into account the high degree of technical skill involved in a tyre worker’s job. Above all, he had confidence in his workforce! If the business took off again, how could he find new workers as qualified as those who had been made redundant, given that they were the only manufacturers of this type of tyre in the United States? What’s more, it would have taken more than a year to train up the replacements. Ultimately, Jean-Dominique Senard took the decision to wait. The decision paid off because six months later, the market recovered. This earned him a good reputation in the United States and recognition from the workers, in addition to an image which many American bosses simply don’t have.

The “courtesy factor” is a key aspect in my view when seeking to describe what can today still be called the French management style.

The subtitle of your book is La vertu d’impertinence en management (The value of impertinence in management). In a globalised context, in what way can impertinence be considered as a weakness or a strength? 

Impertinence shows that people haven’t lost their critical spirit.

I’m always amazed at how these days old organisations, political ones for example, are so quickly being left behind and updated. The sociological profile of the staff has become more diverse and much more fragmented today, when compared to what I described and what I was dealing with in French Touch. We today have fewer references then we did 15 or even 50 years ago. These need to be rebuilt and we are today seeing the renewal of social codes.

In the 2000s, I was working to perfect a system in which references were still present. Today, what I wrote still remains valid and fully applicable for those with higher education qualifications. However, the difficulties appear when we’re talking about more intermediate levels of study. What’s paradoxical, is that a wider and more extensive level of general education is needed.

At the EPIDE (the Etablissement Pour l’Insertion Dans l’Emploi, an organisation promoting employment opportunities for young people) I helped young people who had not had a high level of schooling, and who gained a better understanding of social codes there. Codes which provide access to society and are the key to something vitally important: respect for others and for yourself. This self-respect was illustrated during a visit by President François Hollande to the EPIDE in 2015. A former student, answering a question from the president, told him that he had been taken on by an employer as he had come across better than the other applicants. Such self-assurance can be surprising and can even be seen as impertinent, but self-respect is vital.

What are your recommendations to help managers adapt to these changes? 

I recommend that when a manager creates or inherits a team, he should introduce a number of  “rituals”. Rituals help provide references for people who don’t necessarily have them or whose references are incomplete.

A valuable quality in a manager is the ability to set rules and then to know when not to apply them. This positive rule-breaking must obviously be exercised wisely and sparingly.

The key to succeeding internationally is to take account of the person himself, his awareness and his acceptance. In French Touch I discussed how a boss should behave in a company in order for it to improve.

To these analyses, I would add today that we must also ensure that the members of the company remain physically and mentally bound to it. The best way to achieve this is to ensure that almost all decisions are taken by means of participative and collective decision-making.

In your view, what are the fundamental characteristics which French managers must display during interactions with the international environment?

Firstly, in a fragmented organisational and social system, it’s vital to have a critical spirit to receive and share information.

To this analytical approach we must also add humour. It help forges a valuable link in difficult situations. Humour and not irony or sarcasm is a necessary human aspect in companies.

The third aspect in a globalised management environment is culture. It can be extremely useful if you know your own culture well and naturally that of the people with whom you are working. It’s a boundless and exciting subject.

It’s today vital to have people understand the benefits of listening to others, respecting others and yourself, consideration, politeness and an analytical spirit.

The world’s bosses must be sure of their values, share them and pay careful attention to those of others. In short, be an “honest man”.

Jean-Luc Placet, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers,
interviewed by Charles Rostand for Akteos

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Jean-Luc Placet

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