The Leadership Trend – Does the American Model Fit France?

As I was going through existing material on the internet about French and American corporate culture, I realised that, in spite of my five years of living in France, I still had not fully grasped the differences in French and American (read mainly US) corporate culture. I happily embrace most American concepts of leadership, leaning in, inclusiveness, diversity, and being “authentic”, that are published and debated in the press and online.

Therefore I also assume that everyone must understand how wonderful it all is. It might even save Europe from a future of a segregation and old fashioned traditionalism. You could describe me as a recent, enthusiastic religious convert if you like, I think my approach is not much different. Only, when I think about my experience working in France, not much of this seems to exist in the everyday debate in the press, let alone in the everyday corporate environment.

When I search the internet for items in French on leadership, the only sites I find are either sites describing what good leaderhip is “A good leader is this and that”, “Leadership is an American concept and means this and that” or companies providing coaching to become a “good manager” etc. The public debate that I find in English speaking media, and admittedly mostly US media, is close to inexistent. There are blogs and women’s forums, but there is not a lot of general debate in the media.

Is it shocking that everyone is not as enthusiastic as I am, that everyone has not yet “seen the light”, or is it simply different? And if it is, how is it different, and is that OK?

To be able to put my finger on the differences between American and French corporate cultures and perceptions, I took yet another tour around the Net. I also decided to have a chat with people who have experienced both the American and the French ways of working, to see if they shared any of my thoughts.

I found Eleonore Breukel, who is the author of over 100 articles for various business magazines, newspapers and the online media. She describes some of the most important points in French corporate culture. Things such as copying the boss in all emails, following the chain of command, and share ideas with the boss before you do it with your colleagues, are part of the rules of the game.This is confirmed by a coach in French etiquette, Kara Ronin. The role of the boss is of outmost importance in France. If the boss is not involved, he or she will take it as an insult and lack of respect (what do you know).

She adds another less known subject, the of finger pointing. The French apparently have a need to point out whose fault something is – even if they then move on to solve the problem. I can confirm this first hand: a problem somehow always has to be the fault of someone – preferably from outside your team (you have to remain loyal to your team – at least it’s a start). In the US, it seems to be more important to show a general company cohesion, and finger pointing seems to be less of an accepted behaviour.

From this, I take it the French hold people “accountable” in a more negative way than the Americans, who prefer to empower people and have them “own” a project, for example. Ultimately, the point is to make people responsible for what they do, the only difference is how you motivate people to do it.

The head of sustainable development at the French group Areva, Laura Clise, was interviewed by Ellen Weinreb (a coach on French corporate culture). She confirms what I have long felt, which is that the French need looong discussions to make decisions, and that the American way of making decisions is sometimes perceived by the French as being hasty and not supported by sufficient information. According to Clise, France is also, more than in the US, a place where the higher management makes a decision and then cascades it down the ranks.

What surprised me even more, was the approach to sustainable development. When reading up on McKinsey’s Women Matter reports, and others, focus is most of the time on profitability. There is always a “business case” to diversity, and it is mostly people focused (read: “rewarding”, “meaning of work”, “a happy employee is a productive employee”). In France however, according to Clise, the focus is on “sociteal impact”, and corporate responsibility, with the profit aspect being secondary. So, in practice, what do people say who have worked in or with both of these environments?

Michael (Swedish), has taken part both in a takeover of a French company from Sweden and a takeover from the US of the Swedish company he worked for, summarises things like this: The French had a clear “afraid of the boss” approach, which stopped them from taking much initiative. They accepted a change because the boss told them to, but continued grumbling and did not actively help in the change. The Americans the other hand was highly result driven, in a way which caused the Swedish company to have to report on clear progress on matters far more often than before. On the one hand this was good, it forced you to shift gears in some cases, but on the other hand a lot of reports were made “for show” to make sure things were “in the green”, even if they weren’t really, when that energy could have been put into making real progress on the issues at hand, rather than reports.

Charlotte (French), has worked both for an American multi-national and a French medium sized firm: The Americans show more “punch” and initiative, and seem to say that everything is possible. The French are very conformist and anti-change. She dreads the day she will be closed up in an office full of grumbling Frenchmen who are not happy about their everyday lives at work.

Jessica (French), has worked both in Australia and France, and says that her Australian boss criticised her for not showing enough initiative, while her French bosses had previously been so directive that it seemed like a bad idea to show too much initiative, unless you were specifically asked to.

Jacques, Anne-Lise, and Olivier (French), who have worked only in French companies but with American partner companies, think that the Americans are over enthusiastic, that they believe “everything is just awesome” all the time even if it’s not, and that they take issues too lightly and don’t research enough before they make decisions. On the other hand, French bosses rarely take the time listen to their team members, which makes people – yes you got it right – grumble a lot.

(I must say I lack terribly in Anglo-Saxon views and anecdotes on these differences…)

I personally remain convinced that positive leadership and empowerment, inclusiveness, and diversity are key to a more dynamic working environment, and thereby long term economic success in France, and Europe as a whole. (Is that already too late? Well, to re-establish the European economy then.) However, in order to “sell the concept” to any French managerial community, it seems you have to rethink the strategy, and position yourself more in the field of corporate responsibility, rather than proving a “business case”. And, it may not be possible to approach it from the “that’s awesome” American angle, so you have to find a more moderate way to get the message through. And you have to respect the chain of command before starting any corporate grass root movements – well, we already understood as much from the above.

To end this, extremely long, post, I will have to make a general disclaimer, of course. Both systems surely have their good and bad sides, and no solution is a “one size fits all”. The Europeans all have their specificities, between countries as well as compared to the US. To believe that the US mindset is the only one that works is to be highly naïve, but knowing that there is a growing awareness of women’s place at work etc, in France even if the leadership debate as such is not quite there yet, makes me hopeful that these subjects could also make it to the European continental arena.

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3 Responses to The Leadership Trend – Does the American Model Fit France?

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