The Libération of French Companies

Libération. It sounds like some type of communist concept, or at least as if the sweat shops in Asia were being dismantled and changed into factories where the workers are well treated. This was my first reaction when I saw this title in a French article.

When I wrote a while ago that leadership seems to not exist in the French debate, I was partially wrong. Digging into the concept of “company liberation”, I realised it is just another way of saying that you give meaning, ownership, and leadership opportunities to all of your employees.

The idea is that work is no longer managed top down. The boss becomes more approachable, and may even become less of a boss and more of a manager. Employees can influence how you carry out your work so that the business works better, they are valued by their managers, and, most importantly, their work becomes meaningful (read more about meaning here). A lot of this has to do with good old leadership, which is within reach for everyone in one form or another, regardless of their job in a company.

Finally, in a “liberated” company, people work together regardless of the “hierarchical level”. What’s the hierarchical level? you may ask. In France, the pyramid organisation is still very much present. You do not address whomever you like whenever you like, and you ask for permission before you do something that is not in your work description (read more about French corporate culture in one of my posts here and a personal account here).

In the entirely liberated company there are no bosses, except for maybe one. There is no excom, the organisation is totally flat. Then again, you might imagine different extents of this type of flat organisation, for example where the management style is more inclusive, and employees are more empowered, even though there are lower level managers. When you follow the debate on Skiller, discussions among open minded French business networkers diverge, and not everyone thinks you must go “all the way” to create a liberated company. If you look at Scandinavian companies for example, there are still managers and hierarchical organisation, although they are (overall) a whole lot more approachable by the average worker than what you may, in general, find in France. (This paragraph was added 12 April)

The word for boss in French is “patron”, which is closely linked to father in people’s minds. This is pretty telling for how the relationship can be between a factory boss and his (seldom her) employees. But, patron has its origins in the word meaning protector and sponsor, as a “patron of the arts” in English, which in the end is exactly how a boss should be acting to “liberate” his company (getting carried away here…).

In short, the idea of liberation comes from the thought that you liberate the company and the employees from the old ways of working.

Today, there are a lot of movements in France looking at “liberating” companies. The clothes chain Kiabi has done it, the bakery Poult has done it (more about that here), and others are interested in looking at what it means, as new online debate about this is making itself heard more and more. One name is making more of a buzz than others, and that is the name of Isaac Getz, a professor in leadership and innovation at ESCP Europe, a business school in Paris. I love this, because it means there is a change in mindset in a country where the economy is suffering and needs to be boosted.

Still, I can’t get away from the feeling of consternation that there seems to be a need to break with old habits in a very revolutionary way. As soon as you say “liberation” in a work context it rings very left wing, at least in France. You will expect people on the barricades with red flags calling for revolution.

The risk with this is that you limit the impact on the old guard of “patrons” and right wingers, who risk seeing this first as a leftist idea, and only then, if they even make it that far, as a new way of working to increase productivity and employee satisfaction.

Using other words, such as “innovation” and “leadership” in relation to management (please do find the word “leadership” in French for me!) might have more impact, ring less of revolutionary utopia, and more as a way to improve company culture, image, and results. Then again, I’m not French.

After all, the success of a new trend is not all about its benefits, it is also in the marketing. One word in the tagline can make a lot of difference.

Note: This post was edited 12 April

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3 Responses to The Libération of French Companies

  1. Pingback: Ways to Look at Talent – Is France Changing Direction? | Herring & Crisp Bread

  2. Coucou, je ne sais plus si tu l’as déjà mentionné ou pas, mais quelqu’un m’en a parlé récemment et cela m’a fait penser à ton blog. Tu connais l’usine Favi ?
    http://www.capital.fr/enquetes/strategie/favi-l-usine-qui-tourne-sans-chefs-802390

  3. Pingback: The French, the Danes, and Happiness Indices | Herring & Crisp Bread

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