The Geeks & The Traditional – Managing Alliances and Learning for the Future

Research has shown that between 30 and 70% of all alliances fail, for various reasons (Note 1). Last month I did some research around a merger to apply theory around alliance strategy to a real life case. I summarised this particular case in a short, eight slide presentation.


The story is now a common one: a smaller company with “cool technology” is bought by a bigger one with more traditional technology.

The companies’ management teams, as well as staff, were very different. One was led by a group of 35-40 something entrepreneurs, with staff that had been part of product innovation and business development from the start of the company history (company B). The other company was run by a senior management team, with experience from large industrial groups. Staff mainly consisted of more senior people, who had stayed in the company over time, as other parts of it had been bought by outside corporations  (company A).


The activities and teams were completely merged. The new executive committee was set up with representatives from both companies, with company A’s former CEO as CEO for the new company. Managers from the larger company A became team leaders of the smaller company B’s team members.


Considerable frustration erupted among all teams, both at management and working levels. Digging into why, the following causes were easily identified.


Many alliances fail because the ultimate goals are not shared by the two merging companies. This, however, was not the case here. Instead, the main reasons things got tense, could be found in the cultural differences, and the difficulty both sides had to communicate, and ultimately, understand each other.

Management style, to start with, was very different between the two companies. The entrepreneurial spririt of company B’s staff was more or less stifled by the traditional, hierarchical way of managing in the new company.

Everyday communications on work seemed to flow normally. However, the approach to doing business, was not the same. People in company A feared the fast paced thinking of people from company B, which was necessary for company B’s product to develop and cater to customer needs. As they did not understand the particular customer needs of company B’s products, this led to lowered customer satisfaction in that segment. In addition, company B representatives were very direct, and maybe too pushy, in trying to introduce a more agile and reactive way of working, in a company where products had been allowed to develop more slowly over time.


Over time, the lack of addressing these root causes in a transparent way, lead to a lack of trust between the different groups of people within the new company, including, to some extent, at the excom level. (The fact that the original representatives of company A do not agree between themselves on the course the company should take after the merger did not help.)

One year later, dialogue has improved and people have gotten to know each other better. However, the teams still do not fully understand how they could work better together, as no clear dialogue has taken place around this. Therefore, trust is still fragile.


Company A is now more dependent on company B’s added services, and would be in a complicated situation if things were to not work out. In addition to this, new acquisitions are coming up.

The company has decided NOT to integrate the new company into its organisation the same way that was done in the first merger, for fear of repeating the same issues once again. However, this is not necessarily the best solution.


The executive team certainly possesses the intellectual capacity to overcome these issues. Intelligence, however, is not enough. In order to fully learn from the previous experience, clear dialogue has to be set up, and a clear plan to work with the teams, has to be put in place.

Disney and Pixar worked, among other things, on a type of “prenuptial” contract, setting out things that would not be expected to change at Pixar, in relation to company culture and ways of working, for example. They also seem to have done a good job on change management and communication within their ranks (Note 2). However, things like these are not enough alone, as trust does not come from a contract, it comes from actions.

Research has found that trust is main building block for company profit. For example, Daimler Chrysler’s strategy to maintain trust, albeit with its suppliers not with its merged partners, was directly correlated to its EBIT/vehicle and, when this trust was lost, the EBIT plunged at a closely correlated rate (Note 3). The companies also provide examples of practical measures that can be taken to help deal with these issues, and that can be applied elsewhere.

Drawing from this experience, among other things, here are some measures that can be considered:

  • Have employees from both companies be equally involved in the teams (not one company A manager with five company B team members, for example, and also include members from different functional silos)
  • Work in joint task forces with mixed teams to create shared goals, for example on
    • Ways that the new Company can increase its market share (part of the goals, which in addition everyone seems to agree with
    • Ideas on how to improve customer support strategies (one of the business issues identified)
  • Stop “ego positioning” and make sure the executive committee joins together for the good of the company. Joint development of short but useful “best management practices” is one way to help align the executive committee on the ways chosen to pursue the company management.

However, working actively together on “real business” projects to reach the main business goals, remains the best glue to create cohesion at all levels.



Successfully merging companies is not about forming an “integration committee”. It is about making all teams (horizontally and vertically) work toward common goals.



Note 1:”Managing Strategic Alliances: What Do We Know Now, and Where Do We Go From Here?” by Prashant Kale and Harbir Singh, Academy of Management Perspectives, August 2009

Note 2: “Disney and Pixar: The Power of the Prenup” by Brooks Barnes, New York Times, June 1, 2008

Note 3: “Lost supplier trust, …how Chrysler missed out on $24 billion in profits over the past 12 years”, By John W. Henke, Jr., Thomas T. Stallkamp, and Sengun Yeniyurt, Supply Chain Management Review • May/June 2014


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Merging Companies – Merging People

A while ago, I got the opportunity to talk to someone who has built his own company from a rather small, local enterprise, to an international group. Let’s call him A. I also talked to a person who built up her own company, entered the international market, and decided to sell off part of her life’s work to a bigger firm. Let’s call her B.


Slide1Both are passionate about their businesses and want them to succeed, develop, and prosper. One sees this from an acquisition perspective, the other from the perspective of selling off the company to a bigger one.

When I asked about tips, tricks, and difficulties in mergers, they mentioned partly similar points, especially in relation to the cultural merger that is inevitable when two companies join together.

“A” underlined the importance of maintaining a continuity in the management of the company you buy. If A buys a company, it is because it already works well, and will continue to generate profit, while enlarging the reach of A’s business as well. There is no reason to throw out the old management and risk losing the confidence and motivation of the entire remaining staff.

A also believes that delegating and allowing errors is vital. If you manage everything top down, with no room for errors, the teams of the newly acquired company will inevitably lose some (or much) of the dynamic which made it successful in the first place. This, A believes, is especially important if you work across cultural borders. You can’t impose your own culture on a company in another country, at least not fully, if you want that new part of your company to remain successful.

B’s story somewhat confirms this, but from the perspective of the acquired company.  B’s experience of previously highly demanding corporate positions, combined with entrepreneurial enthusiasm, made B’s company very much of an “international, agile, and innovative startup”. Decisions were made quickly, and research and project planning had to follow the same pace. This was part of why the company was acquired after a few years of successful business. B was of course wary of selling off this “life’s work”, and have it absorbed into a bigger organisation. B also knew that the acquiring company was a bit on the “conservative” side.

Once the acquisition had gone through, B remained in charge of the acquired business segment. Certain aspects, such as strategy, finance, and overall management, were merged between the two companies. The mother company however had a completely different way of working, and the “agile” part of B’s company was being lost in the new company operations.

B tried to maintain the reactivity for the acquired business segment, but got bashings from the new owner when trying to support the staff of the mother company to follow a quicker pace. The reprimands were not a result of wanting to maintain the pace, but because the new boss perceived his “position” to be threatened by B’s initiative. All that B wanted to do was to pursue the business, and its development, as before. Since then, B has decided to take a step back and not do anything which might be perceived as being outside of the agreed perimeter of work (i.e. managing the acquired segment). As a result, the acquired business has lost in reactivity, and sees its potential market share, part of its attractiveness in the acquisition, under threat.

These two experiences can be put together. If B’s new boss had had more of A’s approach, things might have been different, and B’s enthusiasm encouraged and followed. After all, great managers are often said to bring out the best in their teams. Allowing the teams to shine contributes to their own success. On the other hand, B could also have considered ways of approaching the new boss to offer help, rather than doing so without “warning”, knowing full well that the acquiring company had a different culture from the outset. “Managing up” is a skill which is just as difficult to master as traditional “top down” management.

Finally, it all boils down to how different corporate cultures, even on a small scale, can be and how to deal with that if you want to put them together. If you merge companies, you not only merge business activities, you also merge people, and you have to make sure that both the mergers work out.


(For the record, A and B are not acquainted, and their companies do not do business together.)

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Back in business

It’s been a while. I am back at work with top levels of motivation and the belief that I can make a difference. Sounds like a bit of a cliché, don’t you think?

Almost a year ago I wrote about how I perceived the landscape of women’s networks in France. Yesterday, after over a year away from Toulouse, I attended a women/leadership/networking event worth its name. It was organised by HEC au féminin, together with KPMG, SNCF and WIA (Women in Aerospace), and called “Portraits de femmes: Oser et diriger” which could translate into “Portraits of Women: Dare and Lead”.

The program of the evening was ambitious. KPMG presented their study of leading women in France: “Portrait(s) de femmes dirigeantes en France”. This study in itself is worth a cheer. A first, as far as I know. I was desperately searching the internet for stats on women at work when I first started this blog, and now I finally have some!

I’ll have to deep dive into it soon, but one interesting point, which I haven’t come across very often in stats like these, is what drives women to lead. It seems the management itself is a strong factor (31%), followed by making strategic decisions (28%) and in third place, commercial development of the company (26%). (For men the same question gives you strategic decisions at 36%, management 33%, and commercial development 30%). A lot of interesting thoughts can be derived from this, but that will have to be in a dedicated post.

After this there was a panel discussion between two men, and two women, all leading their own companies or a major department in their group. The biggest take away from this was the advice that the two women gave: Dare pursue your ambitions, and tell people what you want (another take on this in a previous blog post). If you don’t, five years down the line someone else will have risen above you, because they did and you didn’t. Learn how to navigate the invisible networks within your company, the bigger it is, the greater the challenge. Think about what you want, position yourself, work your “brand”, within that organisation. I am convinced a lot of women don’t think about this. Before going to the event, I spoke to one of my colleagues about this, and she was totally in the “I’ll get settled with my life first, and then I’ll see”. Only, your life always changes, and developing in your job is a long-term project. So you have to get to it, now.

This was rounded up by a stand up comedian, and then the audience was released for cocktails and networking, which included a really good “speed networking” session. It was set up using a tool called pitch and match (which might need some tweaks to be perfected), through which you get a list of all participants, and you can then slot them in for 10 minute networking sessions around different tables.

However, there is still a long way to go (as it is everywhere) to make the 14% of leading women in companies increase to reflect their representation in the working population. The ways however, will not be the same in all countries.

Take the young woman who asked how to reconcile work hours and picking up at the crèche (daycare). I know how this can feel from having felt it myself. One important point raised by the panel was that women have to stop giving other women a hard time about wanting to have a career. This is, of course, super important. But nobody raised the point of the dads. So I did. Why can’t they pick up the kids? A male colleague of mine is scolded by his wife if he doesn’t take his fair share of pickup days. I have a feeling the reverse is more unusual; most women will just do it anyway. In a country where 48% of the working population in France is made up of women, it is unbelievable that young mothers should still have to worry about the compatibility between daycare pickups any more than young fathers.

Funnily enough, if you go through the KPMG report, you will also find that men in leading positions rate work/family life balance higher than women in what they find difficult in their lives as managers. It would be interesting to understands what this means, and the reasons behind it compared to the women, who rate stress higher.

In the conclusions of the study, KPMG brings out the need for men to engage in equality questions. If even we, as women, lack awareness of this, then who will contribute to making the men aware? The “He For She” movement is also a great initiative, but more of this is needed too (another post about that topic here). Then again, the subject is far more complex than just daycare and having men join “the cause”.

Dare and Lead was the slogan for the evening, and that, I believe, is one of the most important things to remember. If women don’t dare, and don’t take the lead, no dads in the world will change the situation on their own.

However, this is what events like these are for, to create awareness, motivation and empowerment. And this one did. Hopefully it is not the last one, and hopefully the message will start seeping out beyond the walls of conference rooms filled with enthusiastic women and into mainstream French society.

Posted in Career, Diversity and Equality, Leadership, Multi-National, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“So, What Is The New Boss Like?”

Most people have probably changed bosses a few times during their career. I’m part of those who find it exciting and interesting to get a new boss. I paint bright pictures of how they will sweep into the office, smile, introduce themselves, and transmit their energy and charisma to the team within ten minutes of our first meeting.

That may be one reason why people still see me as overly optimistic, and sometimes naïve. Because how often does this actually happen? Most people are just people, and even if they do become managers during their career they do not necessarily possess the charisma of an engaging world leader.

But, if you are not the charismatic leader you would like to be, there are still things you can do, and some things you can try to avoid, to help the team welcome you and appreciate you as their new manager.

I have a few examples of this retold from my connections’ stories:

The first one is about a person who was nominated for a position in a company known for its touchy relationship with unions and a not too motivated group or employees. Once the nomination was official, he decided to take a one-day tour of the company, both to introduce himself and meet the teams and unions, his future co-workers. As he didn’t know the details of the business, he invited everyone to present the key subjects they were working on. He was open with everyone about his intention to listen and analyse the information, and then discuss the company’s situation with the leaving manager to avoid any sudden disruptions in the ways things worked. This allowed both him, and the co-workers, to gain mutual trust and appreciation from the start, and begin a positive transformation of the company.

The second example is of a manager who was nominated in a company where the employee satisfaction was relatively low, and there was considerable mistrust within the teams. He waited until the first day of his mandate to do a one-man presentation about himself in front of the staff. However, rumour had preceded him, and people were already wary of his arrival, doubting his ability to drive change. At the end of the speech, he let the audience know that he intended to meet up with the different teams during the coming weeks. However, the team introduction round was interrupted, and many never saw the new manager other than at critical work meetings. Needless to say, this manager experienced a much more difficult task in gaining the trust and appreciation of his co-workers to achieve a positive environment for change.

Here are a few thoughts on what can be drawn from these, albeit simplified, scenarios.

As soon as you can speak with the teams about your arrival, or your departure if that is the case, make sure you do. That doesn’t mean that the departing manager is no longer the manager until the handover date, it means that he or she trusts employees with information that concerns them.

Firstly, you gain in credibility by not hiding information. Transparency, when well managed, is part of good leadership. Secondly, rumours spread quickly, and most people listen to them whether you like it or not. Rumours also make people uncertain and wary. Take the chance to precede rumours by sending a positive message on the change in management; it will save a lot of time trying to fix things once negative ideas or wariness take hold of the general “corridor” discussion.

Do it together, with both the arriving and the departing manager if that is possible (it is always reassuring to see that the person who comes in is respected by the one who leaves, and vice versa). If your predecessor or successor is a grumpy punk, then so be it, but make sure you go at least halfway, you don’t have very much to lose here.

Why should you not wait until the first day of your new job? Well, if it is on Monday next week, why not. But if the wait is longer, you can be sure that the wildfire of rumours will help spread the message before anything is made official.

This may sound like silly things to do. Some people I have talked to have heard comments like: “People are grown ups, they can wait until I begin” and “Why should this matter, the teams have their tasks to carry out anyway.” Sure, but regardless of age and experience, people appreciate having access to information, they appreciate attention, and they are therefore, most of the time, more than happy to share information about themselves and their work with the new manager early on. And think about it: if they can do their job without a manager, or the manager doesn’t impact their work one bit, then maybe they don’t really need one?

We have all heard about the window of opportunity of “the first ninety days”, the time period you have to prove your worth in a new position. There is no reason why you shouldn’t increase the chances of giving those first ninety days a positive outcome. It may change the reply when people get the question “So, what is the new boss like?”

– And if you still want to add some charisma to those other things, here are a few tips from Forbes.

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American and Multi-Cultural – “You Cannot be Heard if you Do Not Speak Up”

In this interview Sarah Rifaat, a corporate lawyer turned entrepreneur, shares her thoughts on ambition, career, and what makes you develop as a person at work.

Name               Sarah Rifaat
Age                   35
Nationality   American
Lives                London, UK
Profession     Corporate lawyer, currently pursuing independent entrepreneurial businesses (real estate and contract guidance websites).

Sarah has a diverse cultural heritage that she describes as “quintessentially American”: Her father is Egyptian and came to the US in the late 60s after leaving Egypt post-1952 revolution and spending interim time in Libya and Switzerland. She regrets that she doesn’t speak Arabic, but she is fluent in French thanks to her Egyptian grandmother, with whom she spent a lot of time during her childhood. On her mother’s side, there is a cultural mix of German, Swiss and English. Thanks to this, Sarah grew up feeling both Egyptian and “typically American”, with a sprinkle of English and German traditions added to the mix.

Sarah’s mother is one of the greatest influencers of her educational and professional life. A strong and independent woman and corporate lawyer in a major construction company for over 17 years, she has set the example for Sarah over the years.

Sarah was a driven student in high school, and attended a highly competitive parochial school in Houston, Texas (St. John’s School) up to graduation at 18. Academics were her top priority, and thanks both to her multi-linguistic background and having the motivation to be “the best,” rigorous studying was always part of the agenda. She also played competitive tennis, ran cross-country, and played the violin and the piano for several years. “Sports, she says, helped me balance the academics, and they still play an instrumental role in stabilising my hectic life today!”

After graduation she attended Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving both a Bachelor of Science in Economics, concentrating in management and international business, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in French/French Literature from Penn’s College of Arts & Sciences.

She then spent one year working at American Airlines in the Airline Profitability Analysis Group in the finance department. She describes this as “a fascinating year, both for the incredible professional experience and personal travel opportunities, but also for the impact of working with such a company during the 9/11 tragedy and its consequences to society and the industry”.

However, her heart was not entirely in corporate finance, and she applied to law schools, choosing to attend Pepperdine University School of Law. There, she finished in the top 11% of her class, was an editor and published author with the Pepperdine Law Review, and held two judicial clerkships (US Federal District Court and the state Supreme Court of California).

After passing the California Bar, Sarah has had a diverse experience in the legal domain, working in CMBS (commercial mortgage-backed securities) for a large law firm in New York (Cadwalader), and holding two in-house positions, one with an aerospace conglomerate, and one with a real estate investment company in San Diego, California.

Sarah’s advice is to do something different every three years or so. It makes you learn new things, and prevents you from stagnating.

She started her career helping to build a legal department from scratch, which she describes as “trial by fire.” She worked both with complex commercial real estate closings and financing and tax vehicles, at the same time attending to more “mundane” corporate matters on a daily basis. With time, she outgrew the position and needed to relocate to New York for personal reasons. She seized the opportunity to do something new and accepted an offer to work in a leading law firm’s CMBS group. As this was the height of the real estate (and securitisation) boom, the job was both busy and rewarding. She was asked to take the New York Bar as well, and did so successfully in July 2007. However, with the financial and real estate crisis, she and 87 other colleagues were laid off more or less overnight, in August 2008.

Instead of seeing this as a setback, Sarah says it gave her the chance to try something new. While it took a while to find work again during the economic downturn, she managed to land a temporary job as a contract manager filling in for a woman on maternity leave at a US affiliate of a big aerospace group. As the local in-house attorney was promoted while she was there Sarah got the opportunity to fill his shoes. She describes this as another extremely gratifying experience, allowing her to not only practice law but also function as a corporate executive, taking part in major, business-changing decisions for the company, including a facility move. She saw the move through from start to finish, negotiating the commercial lease and managing facility consolidation, including personnel issues, among other matters.

Once again, however, external factors presented Sarah with an opportunity to move in a new direction, transferring to London (UK) with her husband for his work. The decision to leave her job was a very difficult one, but as she says: “It has allowed me to pursue some completely new ventures, such as starting two websites, and even the chance to become a mother to little Andrew, born January 2015.”

H&CB: What has been the biggest challenge for you in terms of work/career? How did you deal with it? 

SR: The biggest challenge to me in work is staying interested. Many times work becomes rote and boring, and you have to find new ways to keep yourself feeling challenged and fulfilled.

Another big challenge I have had is being taken seriously as a lawyer in making “commercial” decisions. Attorneys are too often seen as “business inhibitors” rather than “business enablers,” which is an unfair generalisation. Legal issues are just as important, if not more important, to the bottom line – what happens if a contract has an incorrect discount figure written in? And even then, lawyers can add an interesting and new perspective to “purely” commercial decisions. I have managed this issue in my career by consistently proving the importance of contractual terms, and by continually and persistently offering my opinion in commercial matters where appropriate.

One important lesson I have learnt is that you cannot be heard if you do not speak up! As a woman this is all the more important, especially if you feel that you tend to get “pats on the head” instead of being listened to.

H&CB: What is important to you in your work, what makes you motivated, what makes you unmotivated?

SR: Motivation for me comes mainly from professional satisfaction. I love knowing that I am making a difference in some way, whether to the bottom line or to handling a management or personnel issue in the best way possible to all parties. However, it doesn’t hurt to also receive praise and/or financial benefits on top of the personal satisfaction!

There is also the importance of having a great boss.

H&CB: What is typical for a good manager, in your view, and how can the manager impact the work environment? Can you give any examples from your experience?

SR: Personal understanding is essential to any managerial relationship, that is to say, understanding that your boss or employee is another human, with “normal” human issues, and treating them with decency and respect. People have lives outside of the office, and if you get to know the people you work with on a personal level, you understand how they work and what makes them tick…which in turn helps you to become a better manager or employee.

I believe that respect and understanding on a personal level is of utmost importance to a work environment. Once you understand from where people come, and what makes them move, you avoid many misunderstandings and help create camaraderie that makes the work seem less like a negative chore and more like a positive team project.

For instance, one of my team members had two very young children. Understanding and allowing her to manage her personal situations as she needs, if for example she is told her child is ill at day-care, you know that when she is back to work, she will do an even better job with her mind at ease as well as feeling motivated to please a manager who has treated her with kindness and empathy.

If I look at my own managers, in one position I had a really great boss: he was motivating by provided a great balance of positive feedback and support, for example at times when I got bashed by others. On another job I had a fabulous experience because it was a great firm in terms of business, and the partners were very professional and encouraging. They helped in pulling me upwards. It also helped that one of partners was a woman who pioneered the legal practice in the company. To work with a woman who has done this was “really cool”, and out of luck I have also had other great female role models through my career.

H&CB: How has your outlook on work been shaped over the years, by whom, what etc?

SR: For me, work is about the relationships you build to accomplish a common goal. My outlook on work is definitely shaped and dictated by how I feel as a member of a team, even if my “team” is just me on a given assignment, and the sense of satisfaction in reaching completion.

It has been easiest to work where I have had great bosses, and I have been very fortunate to have had a few.

H&CB: From your experience and perspective, how do you look at the subject of women and leadership in the area of paid work? What comes to mind when you hear these words?

SR: The first impression I have is that women can absolutely lead, but we still have a lot to improve, mostly in breaking down artificial barriers that persist despite women’s myriad of accomplishments in business and otherwise over the past few decades. Perhaps it is a misperception of the responsibilities of motherhood and other gender biases, or perhaps it is just endemic to certain “macho” industries. In any case, as they say, we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

H&CB: How do you think the industry you work/have worked in deals with a) diversity (gender and in general) and leadership at the workplace, and why do you think it is the way it is?

SR: For law: In my experience, the legal field has been very open to diversity. Perhaps it is a function of compliance with national laws (and don’t say this in jest!) but either way, women have done very well, holding positions of leadership in companies and in law firms.

For aerospace: Diversity, especially regarding women, has been a harder sell in aerospace which is a traditionally “masculine” industry, heavy in engineering and manufacturing. Sure, women can try to act more macho, as they often do in situations like this, and that can help. But that is not the only solution, if it is a solution at all. It’s all about gaining confidence and understanding of your colleagues, and again, I believe getting to know people on a more personal level really helps accomplish this. Once you see that someone is more than just a “woman” or a “man” but a human team member, mental barriers fall quite easily.

H&CB: How do you see your future, and how do you see the future for women in leading roles in “your” industry?

SR: I see myself being in top management of either a multinational corporation (likely aerospace, since I have the experience and love for the field), or running my own business. Either way, any role would likely have legal aspects to it, but I wouldn’t necessarily be in a purely legal function. I constantly seek new challenges, and taking on a more managerial role would provide a whole world of novel opportunities and mountains to climb.

I would hope that women will continue to succeed in the legal field, and to break more “barriers” in aerospace, to become a more integral part of the industry. It can’t happen overnight, but I think as the world becomes smaller and the talent pool widens, more and more women will become the “must have” candidate for managerial positions.

Posted in Career, Diversity and Equality, Everyday Women, Interviews, Multi-National, Women at Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Surfing and Pursuing a Career Have in Common

This morning I went surfing. Lucky sod, you may think, and there I can only agree.

Other than just being a lot of fun, surfing can to some extent be compared to what it is like to work and pursue a career. To master either, you have to work hard and be resilient.


Do you remember how you felt when you graduated and headed toward your first job? Before you tried it, it probably looked like a lot of fun, and not too hard. When it comes to surfing, most people think the same thing. You happily pick up a (very long and very large) board and head into the oncoming waves. – Then you realise that to be able to actually surf those waves, it takes a lot more than just initial enthusiasm.

Remember how you ran into your first challenges and obstacles at work? Once in you are in the water to go out and catch the waves, you realise several things: There are currents you don’t see before you are actually in there, and the waves can be both strong enough to topple you, and irregular enough to make you struggle to find a routine and progress. So you start out, you paddle, you are toppled over, and the salty water washes through your nostrils, all this wrapped up by the board hitting you on the head.

This is where the importance of a good manager, or a coach for surfing, comes in. One that will give you little tips and tricks that help you avoid the big mistakes in the beginning, and who helps tweak your technique as you progress. It is also someone who can be a source of inspiration, when you see what they can do and they are willing to share their knowledge to get your there aswell. The positive energy will help you pursue your goal, and help you use your full potential to get where you want. To start with, this means standing up on the board…

After a while though, you start to recognise how to make the currents work to your advantage, which waves to take, and how to work with the board. Sometimes you have to let the board carry you. Sometimes you have to force the board to stay on course and get you where you want to go, by using the energy of the water. This is when you understand your job and the work environment, and you also learn how show leadership and make the best and most of it.

On the way you will feel tired and exhausted, and your muscles ache after each hour in the water. But if you keep at it, you will find moments of triumph and thorough satisfaction, like when you manage to stand up for the first time, or when you get the hang of some little tweak that will help you gain momentum. However, if you let go and stop practising, there is no way you will progress.

Being surrounded by others is important for most of us. It may be our colleagues or our network when it comes to work, it is your group of friends when it comes to surfing. If you do it all by yourself, you can definitely learn everything but it will take you quite some time, and it will be tougher to stand up again every time you fall off the board. If you take the classes with a group of friends, you are more likely to continue even when things get tough, either because you have a commitment toward the others to be there, or because you have someone in the group who needs additional cheering on, or who cheers you on when you feel exhausted, or to celebrate with when someone in the group succeeds.

The grit you need to learn how to surf is the same as the one you need to pursue a career. To get there, you have to get in the water, paddle, and try to stand up, again and again, until you get the hang of it, regardless how many times you miss a wave or are toppled off. If you let go, you get nowhere, but if you stand up again and again after each little failure, you will start getting both results and satisfaction from what you are doing.

You will get better and better at it as you keep going, and one day you’ll be the one motivating and giving advice to others on how to make the most of it. It works for surfing, and it certainly works for a career as well.

If you want to know what competitive sport can teach us about teamwork, business success – and surpassing failure, Guardian just published a good piece on this by Sarah Kiefer, head of EMEA marketing at Ooyala.

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But Daddy, Mummy would have to become a boss first

Earlier this week, during the usual bedtime story chat one evening, a little voice made a comment of the more unusual sort : “But Daddy, Mummy would have to become a boss first.”

Why, you may ask, do you hear this at bedtime? Well, with a father who is very close to his children, always full of good humour, energy and good ideas to do things we all enjoy together as a family, the discussion came up what it would be like if Daddy one day took time off to be at home full time. To pick up and drop off the children, help them with the homework, and cook dinner – which is part of what I do during my current sabbatical.

After having explained to this wonderful little person why you do not have to be a boss to support your entire family on your own, we said good night, turned off the lights, and sat down together for a parent discussion in the living room. No, I will not describe the details of that discussion here.

I will however try to summarise a few points that this bedtime comment should make us all think about. Then, you will also see why this reasoning is actually diametrically wrong, even though many both older and presumably wiser people might have reacted the same way:

First – Supporting partners. From Sheryl Sandberg*, the COO of Facebook, to Torborg Chetkovich**, VP and GM of Swedavia, women in prominent positions say that if you want to have a “get somewhere” as a woman, you need to have a supportive partner. In the UN, the He For She campaign kicked off last year encouraging men to stand up for women. The project has gained enormous support, and today nobody contests this principle. Still, the traditional supporting female partner remains the rule for many couples.

Second – Taking that year off. It is OK for a guy to take a year off to sail around the world (with or without his family), or try to set up his own business. It is much less so if he “just” wants to take time off to be with his family. Again, when you look at it from the other side, the fact that a woman might want to take time off for her family is never questioned.

However, this point may be shifting. In the Scandinavian countries fathers are already a normal part of the scenery at cafés and in parks (as well as golf courses) taking care of their children during their “paternity leave” (click here to see a wonderful series of pictures of this). South of Denmark however, things are not as easy.

Men don’t want to, because it’s not a guy’s thing to do, they cannot, because their leave is not covered by parental leave benefits, or don’t dare to, because their colleagues and bosses will frown, take paternity leave for any extended periods of time. Therefore, I was both surprised and extremely happy, that the French association Mercredi C Papa (@HAPPY_MEN_Fr), made the headlines in most French newspapers this week, including in the business review Challenges, after having been received at the French ministry for health and women’s rights earlier this week. (Why these two subjects are under the same ministry, and why the women’s rights are not referred to as general “equality”, is a mystery to me.)

The two points can’t be separated. Without supporting partners, less women are likely to reach the top. And if there are no clearly expressed rights or incentives for (male) partners to engage in family life to the same extent as women, there are bound to be less opportunities for women at the workplace (unless they have nannies or access to an extensive day care system, but for that even more money –private or public – is needed, if they are not Superwomen). As Sophie Jaunel (@lentremetteur) laconically pointed out on Twitter: “Aidons les hommes qui aident les femmes qui aident les hommes ..” (Let’s help the men who help the women who help the men)

Getting tangible as well as moral support both for Daddy and Mummy (as general personalities) on these two points is crucial.

So, if Daddy wants to stay at home with the kids, Mummy shouldn’t have to become a boss first. To start with, the whole outlook on what Daddy can do and cannot do has to change. Because otherwise Daddy can’t stay home at all, to increase the possibilities for Mummy to become a boss. If that is what she wants.


*Sheryl Sandberg talks about this in her book Lean In

**Torborg talks about this in an interview in the Swedish book “Bortom Glastaket” (“Beyond the Glass Ceiling) by Lena Gustafsson and Ulrika Sedell

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Last Friday – On Mentors

Last Friday was one of the more stressful days I have had so far in my life.

Not stressful like “I-have-too-much-to-do-at-work-and-I’ll-miss-the-kids’-school-performance-and-I-can’t-leave-because-of-this-really-important-meeting” stress, as the one you sometimes feel when you are a new working mum, but which goes away after a couple of years (yes, especially mums, my excuses for the bias), nor stressful like “the-big-boss-will-review-this-and-it-really-has-to-be-more-than-perfect” stress.

It was the “I-am-opening-my-heart-and-soul-on-stage-to-ten-strangers-to-achieve-something-I-really-really-want” stress. Have you ever felt that way?

It wasn’t at a job interview for the top job where I wanted to look and talk my best. It was doing that, plus explaining my personal feelings about why I should be accepted as a candidate.

Why would I do this? Because I really, really wanted to participate in a Mentorship programme and find a Mentor.

After one gorgeous sabbatical year, I will be going back to my regular day job at the end of the summer. But going back to your “usual” environment might also make you fall into the “usual” routine. I come back filled with energy and good intentions to make sure I bring some change to what I’m doing.

Having a mentor in a more organised way is something that is still pretty underground to many French in a regular corporate environment. The networks of top universities engage in mentorship programmes, as do other specific organisations for executives. But when I told my colleagues that I was applying for a mentorship programme, many asked: “What does a mentor do?”

A mentor can do many things. One is help you structure your business as an entrepreneur to make sure it takes off using its full potential. Another is to help you choose the right direction for your future career development, or help you better understand how to get where you want to go. But most importantly, it must be someone who is willing to invest time in something that can become a rewarding two-way relationship of personal development and exchange.

Forbes featured a piece last year by Bonnie Marcus, an executive coach, on the difficulty that women still perceive in finding mentors. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, also talks about mentorship in her book Lean In, and the importance it has for women’s career development. In my series of interviews “Everyday Women”, corporate lawyer Sabine Naugès gives an example of one of her early bosses who contributed to advancing her career. Another close friend of mine found a mentor through a mentorship programme similar to the one I participate in. Ten years later she still seeks his advice on questions related to her business and upcoming mergers and acquisitions.

However, women are not alone to benefit from mentors. If you look around you, many people have them in their networks, be it as formal, or informal, mentors. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it can simply be a person who inspires you, and who will listen and provide good advice when you need it.

Did I get a Mentor? Yes, I did.

Was it worth the stress? Definitely yes!

And if I hadn’t pulled it off this time, I would still have learnt something for the next time I stand in a room too small to hold a serious speech, but filled with too many people to have a personal discussion.

However, to be able to bring any change whatsoever to my own situation this autumn, I will have to pull things through myself. Nobody else will do it for me. Not even a Mentor.

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Networks – Useful or Social?

Networking is The Thing people tell you to do if you want to land that great job after university, move forward once you’re on the job market, or make your new business take off. But what is a good network? Does the person with the most contacts on Linkedin win the race?

I have always loved meeting new people and discussing and exchanging experiences, opinions and good advice. It contributes to making life more interesting, at least to me. When I look at how I “connect” with people, it turns out that the best contacts I make are with people with whom I share something. It can be an interest in a particular topic, a situation in life, or simply that from the minute the discussion starts, we just get along perfectly and the debate flows without my really knowing why.

On the other hand, I have never liked networking for the sake of adding “potentially useful” people to my contacts list. It makes me feel terribly uncomfortable to approach someone and try to chit chat (I say “try” because it rarely works well) to create a connection, just because they are in a position of influence which might be useful later on.

I have sometimes wondered how people manage to become chummy, through backslapping and beer drinking, with persons who are in these “positions of influence”. Sometimes, it seems, with no particular points in common at all. I have also had a feeling that all the backslapping is a guy thing. I have told myself time and time again that I am probably wrong, and that I am not helping my own case by pulling out gender bias like this, far from it.

But, it turns out that women actually do network differently from men. In a book called Beyond the Glass Ceiling (“Bortom glastaket” in Swedish, by Lena Gustafsson and Ulrika Sedell), a Swedish national study shows that women tend to create their networks more around “social contacts” and men more around “useful contacts”.

Are social contacts less useful?

Harvard Business Review published an article in February about this. A recent study shows that women’s networking doesn’t necessarily bring them to higher positions. Instead, staying long in a company and having a reputed degree seem to make more of a difference. At the same time, one third of women in leading positions in Sweden got to those positions thanks to their networks, while Swedish men to a larger extent found higher positions through ads (according to Stjärnkraft, or “Star Power” literally translated, a study about women leaders by consultancy firm Karios Future & WES). Having all of this is probably the optimum solution.

But even if your network is more based on “social” than “useful”, it may turn out that the social actually becomes useful. It can help you share and develop ideas on how you want to evolve as a person. It can also help you to remain determined and gain momentum if you want to kick off something new, or to re-surface if you are going through a difficult period. All this is just as important if you want to grow as a person, and influence your career.

During my year off, I have met two wonderful women who are both driven and determined. We met for lunch once, just because we thought it would be nice. Then we met again, because we had started a discussion on work that wasn’t finished once the lunch hour came to an end. These lunches have turned into recurring “coaching lunches” where we exchange ideas, debate leadership, and support and push each other in relation to our jobs, and all that goes with it. They may not be the people who will offer me The Top Job later in life, but they are part of the people who make a difference to me, and that will help me make a difference once I get back to my own job.

Networking isn’t about adding as many people as you can to that list on Linkedin. It is about finding the people who can help you move forward. It may be people with influence, or it may be people with insights. In the end, the most important is that it is the right people for you, and that they help you grow, one way or another.

Network Lunches Go A Long Way

Network Lunches Go A Long Way

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Ways to Look at Talent – Is France Changing Direction?

“Make sure you study something you like and that you think is fun, it’s the best way to get good results. The rest will sort itself out later.” That’s the advice I was given when I wondered what I should specialise in at university.

This was nearly twenty years ago, in Sweden. Since then, I have managed to travel around the world and work on three different continents. It hasn’t been the easiest thing to do as a law degree is about an as nationally specialised degree as you can get, but somehow I have managed to pull it off. On the way, I have gained a lot of interesting experience, and I have seen a lot of different ways to approach hiring.

In Sweden, you should have a basic notion of the job you are applying for, but your personality and fit in the company culture are just as important. In Australia, the university a person has attended is not the prime factor when it came to “hirability”. At least it was not in 2006 when I was there (unemployment rates at the time were around 5%). It was more about what people thought someone could contribute with to the company. In Singapore, there was, and still is, a strong focus on studying and graduating with top grades from top universities. However, as the country’s unemployment rate hovers around 2-3,5%, changing jobs is not difficult regardless where your degree is from.

In France though, the differentiating factor has traditionally been about which top rated engineering school (or Grande Ecole, as they are called in French) or well known university you have graduated from. Big corporations have a tendency to hire people from these schools, and keep looking at the university people attended even when people are halfway into their careers. In addition to this, companies often hire people who have always worked in the same field, as this is somehow a quality guarantee. In one sense, this is probably true. If a person has done one thing all his or her life, the person is bound to be good at it, or at least that is what you would expect. The fit with corporate culture, or the general capacity to adapt or contribute beyond the criteria specific to the position, are not in focus. If you do not have an activity on paper (first as a degree to start working, and then in terms of experience) it is difficult to get past the first sorting of CVs. This may also be a contributing factor to why people stay longer in their positions than in other countries, or don’t look for work in fields beyond their past track record, in turn contributing to soaring unemployment rates (above 10%, read more about that here).

So, when young people ask for advice on what to study in France, they are often oriented toward the “Grandes Ecoles” or, at best, law or medicine, and certainly not toward something just because it is “fun” or “interesting”.

However, the pattern may be changing. LesEchos, a French daily, recently published an article by Jean-Baptiste Pinton (General Manager of Défense Conseil International (DCI) a French military consultancy firm) where he lamented the lack of open-mindedness and diversity in French recruitment policy.

At the same time, word in France is spreading about “liberated companies” (read more about that here), and big, industrial, and traditional companies such as Airbus and Michelin are looking at new ways to make their companies more dynamic.

Finally, the younger generation in the French workforce is just as much a Generation Y (or X) as elsewhere in the world, and their view on work and hiring is no longer in line with the traditional French way of running companies*.

Diversity (be it in terms of education, culture, gender, or experience) is the key to increased productivity, especially if you can optimise the use of that collective intelligence. Maybe, in addition to advising young people on what they should study, it might be a good idea to advise employers on what type of people they should hire.

My hope is that, in a few years’ time, I will be able to tell my children to study what they find “fun and interesting” rather than “what looks good on the CV”, knowing that this advice will give them a good foundation to work not only in the world, but also in France.

* However, I suspect that the people who run large companies today were all part of the 1968 movement, and thought that their parents’ generation was too backward and had to change. Given this, we probably have to wait and see how Generation X and Y develop over time…

Unemployment statistics from Trading Economics 


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