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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To Value or Evaluate Employees

I recently came across a discussion on my new favourite network Skiller, about the benefits and horrors of yearly objectives and evaluations. Why not just assume that people to do their job well, and that would be the end of it?

Well, it’s not that easy, especially not in the traditional systems of objectives and reviews/evaluations most companies are using today. Different things drive different people, and “one-size fits all” is not necessarily the best way to go.

Some of those participating in the exchange expressed their frustration over objectives that they cannot relate to or that cannot be measured. Some saw reviews or evaluations as being extremely sensitive to the relationship between the team members and their bosses: Good relationships gave good reviews, and bad relationships gave bad reviews, given the same work input. Others found it motivating, but there were also those who said that they would put some tasks aside just because they were not part of the objectives.

From personal experience, people I have talked to often do not see how for example corporate objectives actually help them perform in their daily work. “The objectives have nothing to do with my tasks, what’s the point”, or “They are unattainable, how can we increase productivity by x percent when we are already squeezed to a maximum”. Many have the feeling the objectives are flowed down just because they have to be, and don’t influence the level of personal motivation on the job.

The SMART method, which is often pulled out to describe how objectives should be designed (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-sensitive) dates from 1954! However, there seems to be not only a challenge in setting objectives SMARTly, there is also a general issue with both motivation and performance in many companies today. Employers in the west sometimes struggle with tough economic conditions, unmotivated staff, and competition from emerging, or now rather established, economies elsewhere. Even well written “SMART” objectives seem to make people feel more evaluated than valued, something that goes against most “modern” management theories.

Various studies have been conducted on the topic, and one is presented by Deloitte in the April edition of Harvard Business Review. Deloitte decided to revamp their system of yearly objectives, and looked into many of the points that I mentioned above.

Simply put, they found that they used 2 million hours per year to discuss ratings of team members between managers (not with team members), and that these discussions focused mainly on what people had done, rather than on what they could do in the future. Looking at it that way, it sounds like a pretty useless way to develop your teams and your company performance, doesn’t it?

About the complaints that the relationship you have with your boss will impact your rating more than what your performance does, Deloitte found something which is not quite the same, but still very interesting: 62% of the variance of ratings turned out to be based on the rater’s perceptions (personal interests in the job performed etc), and only 21% was based on people’s actual performance. Who would have guessed that you’re not rated on your actual performance but on other people’s perceptions of what work is interesting? You can learn more about what a manager finds important during the review, than what you actually do well in your job.

Finally, and this is what I like the most, Deloitte found that high performing teams have a lot of people who say “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day” (personally, my dream is to work in tandem with someone who loves administrative tasks…). These teams also had a global feel of commitment; all team members felt that the others contributed as much as they did, and that they were inspired by the company’s mission. How do you make all teams work like this?

Deloitte chose to change their interaction between managers and team members to become more regular, more about how future tasks could be carried out, and less about how past tasks had been treated, and more adapted to individual team members’ ways of working. This requires a regular check-in with team members, to make sure the manager inspires future work rather than evaluate past work (which is what happens if the check-ins become too scarce).

During “performance reviews” the managers are not asked to rate how the year went, but rather how they see the evolution of the team members during the coming period. Is this person ready for a promotion? Is there a risk of low performance? Would I give this person a top bonus if I could? Do I want this person to stay on my team or would he or she be better of doing something else? All these questions are oriented toward the future, rather than on past performance. Furthermore, they are centralised around the team member, rather than between managers discussing that team member in separate management conferences. These check-ins and the visionary thinking by managers have become part of what managers should do not in addition to evaluation work, but instead of it.

So, it turns out there was a good reason why David asked the question: “what’s the point with having objectives, variables & annual reviews?” [extract, freely translated from French]. Instead of using objectives, reviews, and evaluations, there is a good reason to use project management, previews and evolution to get the best out of your team.

Suddenly, the process of working toward objectives becomes much more inspiring!

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Does Happiness Guarantee Productivity?

Working in France, I often hear that “The French are the most productive workers in Europe” (if it wasn’t even “in the World”). I find that very odd. Coming from a culture of a simple “Hello+smile” in the mornings and “coffee at the desk”, I sometimes think the cheek kissing, coffee breaks, and “pesting” about different things, take up a lot of time during office hours and has a tendency to slow a lot of productive work.

Now I have started blogging, and a few days ago I took a bit of a spree in statistics focussing on Europe and work satisfaction, completed by a bit of unemployment, GDP and other data (read the piece here – it turned out a bit long). But I didn’t actually dig into the productivity per worker. Here is a complement to that.

It turns out both the Economist wrote about this not long ago, and the OECD has ready-made statistics to look at (I love the OECD for that). How good is that?

So, here goes. There is data on GDP per hour worked – of course!

The Danes, who have the highest rates of life satisfaction among the working age population in Europe (according to the OECD’s How’s Life publication), score approximately 103.

The French, who rank in the middle, score about 105.5.

The unhappiest Europeans, in Greece and Hungary, score 100 and 109, respectively.

The most productive workers in the world are the Koreans (137.8), followed by Poland, Chile, and the Slovak Republic (all around 126) and then Estonia (at 124.5).

Now, I am not sure that the “per hour worked” includes coffee breaks, cheek kissing, and other interruptions, i.e. the total time in the office (I leave that up to the reader to ponder). The Danes do work shorter hours than the French (more about that here), but do they also take less time for coffee breaks? Here is a little bonus read from HBR  on coffee breaks by the way, saying they don’t actually boost productivity, but the length of the breaks is nowhere to be found…

Regardless, the point is not to measure coffee breaks, cheek kissing, or chatting, but to look at productivity vs happiness. To simplify things, you could say that it doesn’t seem to matter if people are unhappy or happy, they can still be productive. The scary part is that this doesn’t necessarily give any incentives to employers to make their people happier at work if you just look at productivity numbers. Then again, goodwill, “Best Employer”-rankings etc may, so the case is not completely lost.

There we go. Wishing you all a happy – and productive – week at work!

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The French, the Danes, and Happiness Indices

You can read a number of articles in France’s online press on how the young generation is fleeing the country to work in other, less sordid, environments. The Sinistrose* is widespread in the workplace. Factories close. Only 11% of the French are happy to go to work in the morning. And so it goes on.

So what is this all about? Is it even true? Are the French really worse off than other Europeans? I decided to dig a little bit deeper into things because, honestly, can it really be all that bad? I was really hoping that it would prove not to be. Here are some things I got hold of, to see how things are in France compared to other countries in Europe.

There are regularly articles about the happiest people on earth, and the OECD** does a lot of interesting research on this. In terms of overall “subjective happiness” (how happiness can be anything but subjective, I’d like to know), Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark are at the top. Hungary, Portugal, Greece and Estonia are at the bottom. France scores somewhere in the middle.

The OECD hints that low-income countries in general tend to do well on subjective well-being and work-life balance, while higher income countries often have more difficulties reconciling work-life balance. I guess Denmark would be an exception to this…

In terms of overall feeling that people have too much work and too little resources to do it, only 9.6% of the Danes feel this way, followed by Norwegians, Fins, Dutchmen, and the Irish. Almost a third of the French on the other hand seem to think there is too much to do at work, with too little resources. They are followed by the Greek, Spanish, Slovenians, Hungarians and Germans. Reversely, 62% of the Danes think they have a lot of resources for little work load, while only 22% of the French think the same. So, it would seem a lot of the French feel overworked, and a lot of the Danes tag along without too much stress in terms of having too much to do at work…

Too much work also translates into long hours. The Danish workweek is officially 37 hours, and 34.5 in the public sector (due to included lunch breaks). France has got a 35-hour workweek. It was reduced from 39 hours in 2000, where the remaining 4 hours were supposed to create new jobs. But still, loads of French seem to work more than 50 hours per week. In the UK, France and Austria, around 10% of people say they work 50 hours or more per week, while this number is between 0 and 2 % in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark. So far, it makes sense in relation to the “pressure” or workload; high workload translates into longer hours.

Still, if people feel they are overworked and unhappy in general, you might think they would change jobs to do something about it. But, here is an interesting take on how long people stay in their positions: In France, over 55% of the workers have stayed over 10 years in a position, but at the other side of the spectrum around 11% of the population have temporary jobs. In Denmark, around 35% have staid longer than 10 yrs, and around 6% have temporary jobs. So, the French are not happy, but they still stick to their jobs and long hours. The Danes on the other hand are happy at work, and still they move around. Maybe the Swedish expression of “change makes you happy” is actually true.

Is it easier to change jobs in Denmark? Is that why people move around more and have more long-term, rather than temporary, contracts? If you look for example at the stringency of dismissal rules on a 0-6 scale, it is 1.5 for Denmark and 2.5 for France (Portugal tops the list at 4 point something, and as a comparison, the USA is at 0 point something). It is not clear if it is easier to get a job in Denmark from the OECD stats, but it is definitely easier to dismiss workers. In France, it also seems around 85% of all new hires are for temporary positions. Could this be because once you have hired, you can’t be flexible and adapt the workforce if the needs of the company evolve? – I’m only speculating… Looking at unemployment rates, unemployment was at 10.6 in France, and 6,2 in Denmark, in early 2015 (Germany is at the top of the class at 4.8% and the USA are at 5.5%). By this, I would assume it is, indeed, easier to find a job in Denmark than in France.

So, without being an economist, and possibly with the risk of being called a total amateur when it comes to interpreting statistics, it seems that the Danes have a higher employment rate, and that each person works less, but that they are more easily fired. At the end of the day, they still earn more per person than the French, and they are happier – “subjectively”.

Between the length of working hours, too much work to do vs not too much, unemployment rates, and various happiness indices, looking at the bottom line at how well different countries perform in numbers could be interesting. Expressed in relative GDP per capita, where the EU as a whole is indexed at 100, Denmark comes in at 125 and France at 107. This should be possible to transform into a productivity number per person for the working population only, using numbers on working age population, unemployment, etc, but as I am sure I would miss out on some important factor that would discredit the entire calculus, resulting in one country having more productive workers the other, I’ll leave my theories here.

Lastly, how many people actually leave France, compared to other European countries? If, to start with, the French don’t leave their positions at work, are they likely to make the more drastic decision to move abroad?

The OECD happiness at work index is not reflected by any particular statistics on immigration or emigration from European countries. The EU is very good at providing statistics for how many arrive into the EU, but far less on how many leave the EU, each year.

A total of 14 of the EU-27 Member States reported more immigration than emigration in 2012, and France was not among these. The ones where people leave in larger numbers than they come in are Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Croatia and the three Baltic states.

The French outside of France are today around 1.6 million (the freshest stats I could find are from end 2013) against 65.5 million inhabitants, and in 2007 they were around 1.3 million against 63.6 million inhabitants. Based on this, the percentage of French living abroad was slightly higher in 2013 than in 2007 (2.44 vs 2.04%).

There has also been a lot of talk about the younger generations leaving France in greater numbers. Generation Y is known to be more impatient than previous generations, so maybe they are more likely to go abroad to look for better opportunities? The Parisian Chamber of Commerce, CCIP, did a survey on this in 2014. However, in spite of an increase in emigration, the CCIP says it is too early to tell whether the trend is here to stay or not.

So, time will have to tell if more and more of Generation Y decides to leave, or if they decide to change the system from within to create a happier nation. It is true that the French management model is far from the flat Scandinavian models, and that the American leadership debate is just beginning its quest on French territory (read more about that herehere and here). Maybe this is part of the dissatisfaction of Generation Y. You can already see a booming group of entrepreneurs, of “collaborative” economy ventures (read more about that here and here), and of champions for the “liberated” company trend (read more about that here), who believe that the French leadership model needs to change in order to boost motivation at work.

Would a change in mindsets help bring France higher up on the “work happiness index”, and, ultimately, could internal change push the French economy in a positive direction?


*Sinistrose. First, I thought this was just a fun way of combining “sinistre” and “sclérose”, and that it really fits well with people who complain about everything’s lousiness, but it turns out it is actually a defined pathology. The word was first used by the French doctor and neurologist Edouard Brissaud in 1908. It is often observed in relation to road or work accidents, and is the state of refusing to recognise one’s re-established health, and (unconsciously) amplifying the damages that one has suffered. Further, it can create apathy and a conduct of “badwill” in relation to the person who caused the initial accident, by the person who suffers from it.

**Please note that the OECD urges that all information be interpreted with caution, be put into a wider context, and that a lot of factors play into the results when you gather this type of data. Cultural differences also play a part when it comes to evaluation individual, subjective, satisfaction. So do bear that in mind.

Sources: Eurostat, OECD, CCIP, Wikipedia, Insee, LeMonde, TradingEconomics

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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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