Leadership In France

leadership in France

The French have something in common with their German-speaking neighbours: they each describe the other’s style of leadership as authoritarian, hierarchically organised and even thirsty for power. However, behavioural patterns which lead to this thinking differ considerably. How they see themselves (self-perception) is different from how they are seen by the other. One’s own style of leadership is usually not felt to be authoritarian. People with a certain charisma or a unique character usually do well in positions of leadership in France. Of course, charisma is not enough on its own. Leaders should be able to make decisions and head a team with a human touch and should also have good professional knowledge.

French Management Training Academies

How do you become a manager in France? The French university system is based on two different types of educational institutions: universities and IUT (Instituts Universitaires de Technologie) on the one hand and Grandes Écoles on the other. The Universities offer all types of courses, the IUT concentrate on the practical side of certain subjects. They offer training for the lowest level of future managers. Every large town in France has a university and an IUT. The Grandes Écoles offer a wide range of courses (except medicine, law, pharmacy, veterinary medicine), but the level is much higher. In order to be accepted at a Grande École students first have to attend classes préparatoires for 2 years and take an entrance exam (concours). Competition is fierce, the success rate is low.

This difference in the two types of education is then carried over into the companies because French managers are divided accordingly into two categories: graduates of the Grandes Écoles achieve higher positions fairly quickly. Managers with a university degree take up positions under the level of department manager. Those who attended an IUT remain at the lowest management level for quite a long time. There are managers in higher positions who ›only‹ have a university degree or even have no higher education at all, but that is not the general rule.

The Grandes Écoles mainly serve the technical areas of the business world. Engineers from the Grandes Écoles in management positions are more likely to find their sphere of activity in comprehensive topics, strategy and business thinking than in solving technical problems, in operative micro-management or in day-to-day project work. The techniciens, some with IUT qualifications, some with a BTS (Brevet de Technicien Supérieur), who are usually more competent in those areas, take over such jobs.

What Is Expected Of A Manager?

In order to understand the management culture of a country I find it is worthwhile asking people what they expect of a good manager. Through customer projects, I had the opportunity of conducting interviews in several countries on the subject of management. One of the interview questions was: ›tell us about an experience which for you illustrates good management.‹ The anecdotes of the French participants often described difficult situations which eventually turned out well because the manager himself made a decision for which he or she took the responsibility. Participants who related these incidents felt it was important to show that these managers were prepared to face the music, either so that the department could continue working or to protect the team.

Furthermore, a manager was expected to know his staff, to be personally interested in them and to show that he was human. French relationship orientation often means that the people within a company know more about one another.

Many managers go along the corridors when they arrive in the morning and still have their coat on and their case in their hand, and shake hands with their staff. Everyone does that, not only the managers ‒ but also the managers. A French head of department once told me: ›when I do the rounds in the morning I can sum up the team. I can see how the staff are feeling and how far they have got with their work. I can ask personal questions e.g. if I know someone in the family had been ill, or I hear whether the right football team won, etc. Anyone can put questions to me and we can discuss these in the course of the day, or I can follow up a point if something is not clear or is too slow. I have often been able to deal with several things during one of these rounds. After that, I can begin to structure my day and in addition to the things which were planned, I can also include direct talks if the topics have priority.‹

You could call it ›managing by greeting‹! The thing which the employees pick up during these daily rounds is that the manager is interested in them and their work, that he is prepared to spend time on them. The staff can communicate their topics, their problems and successes to him directly. Then French employees feel that they are being well-led.

In addition to this, people-orientation is another important aspect regarding what is expected of French managers: the directeur should state clearly which direction is to be followed. The word responsable is often used to describe a manager. In other words, he or she shows the staff which direction to take and bears the responsibility.

Leading And Deciding

In France, discussions are not the best place for reaching decisions, which is different from many countries in northern Europe. A manager who always calls a meeting in order to reach a decision together with the team is considered to be a weak manager. It is the wish of the employees that the person responsible makes the decisions.

However, this does not mean that the manager makes these decisions on his own and how he pleases. He will normally consult the team, but he does not need a meeting with the whole team for this, he will either talk to people individually or have informal gatherings with small groups where the various opinions will be discussed. The manager will then make his decision on the basis of these talks and announce this to everyone. The lines of communication can also be very varied, depending on the scope of the decision. The decision may be announced during a round of talks but it is not important that everyone is present. Making decisions is the manager’s responsibility. The employees contribute to reaching this decision and are ultimately asked to implement the decision.

This understanding of leadership is rooted in the idea of centralism which has developed over the centuries and which is a distinctive part of French society. Many outsiders consider the star-like concentration of decision-making power to be authoritarian. Seen from a French point of view it can be described as follows: those who bear responsibility enjoy recognition if they show that they are prepared to take on the risks connected with responsibility. The differences in salary are therefore justified. In most French companies it is not possible to hide behind the group.

One of the advantages of this centralised, personified way of reaching decisions is that it can be implemented quickly. However, this is usually no longer the case in large companies because in recent years the need internationally to secure processes has increased. There is a tendency among managers to have decisions confirmed by the next superior. That surely does not contribute to speeding up the process.

Rebellion Against Decisions

No boss in France will be surprised if his decisions are controversially discussed or even challenged by the team. Nor will he be surprised if individual employees come to his office to discuss the consequences of his decision and maybe try to negotiate a special solution for their sector or their assignment. It is understandable that everyone will be motivated to fight for his own interests.

The acceptance of rebellion and opposition explains why the French do not feel that their structures are authoritarian (in a negative sense). As long as you can discuss things with the boss and disagree with him you are being taken seriously as an employee. The balance within the structure of power is respected. This type of opposition and disagreement, which has strong cultural roots, is called dissent and in intercultural studies is set against either consensus orientation or harmony orientation.

If a manager has to reckon with frequent potential rebellion or at least protest, his management position is not very comfortable. Indeed, French managers‘ authority stems both from their willingness to take risks and make decisions, and their readiness to face the objections and controversial discussions of their colleagues and superiors.

In everything he does, a manager is well-advised to strike a balance between showing the direction of action, taking notice of his employees and accepting controversy.

Strategic Leadership

Something which is very important in French companies is the strategic side of management – depending, of course, on the level of hierarchy with different characteristics and effects. A Frenchman who was on the board of a German company told me that he had not been able to believe his ears when he asked his senior heads of department about their strategies for their respective areas and received the following answer: ›we’ve got a department in the company which deals with strategies.‹

Anyone in France who does not see strategic links which he can use for his own topics discredits himself. It is not enough to perform the tasks set or to accomplish objectives. The result is that managers exchange thoughts among themselves and with their superiors, and hinge their plans and topics on contexts that are not within their areas of responsibility. It is precisely these elements that can play havoc for example with decisions within a project group. Foreign project team members can often not understand how some upheavals or delays, which appear to have happened very suddenly, were caused. The inner logic out of the French understanding of responsibility is that influence for strategic reasons may partly be exerted beyond boundaries and closed units.

Emphasis is also placed on superiors maintaining direct contact with their staff and they are expected to follow exactly the employees’ progress in performing tasks set. Work is assigned, but not the entire responsibility because the strategic level, dependent on the context, is always in the hands of the manager. It is, therefore, customary for managers and employees to frequently discuss how things are progressing. It is the duty of the manager to keep up to date with progress so that adjustments can continually be made. The manager interacts between the levels of hierarchy and coordinates topics and tasks so that he can intervene if necessary and this, in the eyes of the French, is one of the justifications for the higher salary managers in executive positions receive.

If you experience a French manager who continually asks how far you have got with project X or work Y, do not interpret this as checking up on you, but as true interest and as an offer to back you up. Then you have arrived in today‘s cultural reality.

Boundaries Between The Manager And The Team

Managers bear the risks of having more power. That means they are respected. Normally the team members acknowledge the special position of their superior, even though they might protest, as mentioned above. The different distribution of power is accepted as part of working life. Respect is shown in day-to-day contact by restraint and politeness.

As in all people-orientated cultures, it is commonplace in France for employees to open up a little within the company. This also applies to the managers. However, there is an invisible boundary between ›personal‹ and ›private‹. There is a slight difference between the way colleagues treat each other and the way employees treat their superiors. It is possible to talk about personal matters when the boss is present and it is nice to see that he too is a ›normal‹ human being, but there will be a little more politeness and discretion when different levels of hierarchy are in the room. The tone of voice and conduct will be slightly different, but this is not always immediately apparent to outsiders.

Motivation Of Employees

France is a country where the people are usually happy to be French and where they can enjoy varied landscapes, regional specialities, many technological successes and intellectual prosperity. At the same time, however, France is also one of those countries where people complain the most! As far as work motivation is concerned the attitude of the French is equally contradictory: on the one hand, work is a powerful means of personal fulfilment and on the other, it is the main reason for complaints. It would appear that life is boring without grumbling. How then can the French be motivated?

The Community

Something which greatly motivates the French is to feel at home in a group. However, the French version of feeling at home includes the fact that they can be completely different from everyone else in that group. You could say that individualism in a community is the key factor. For the French, a good team is a social group that distinguishes itself by the fact that everyone sticks together even though, or maybe because, they are all different and represent differing opinions and interests. That is motivation because it generates a feeling of freedom (individualism) and at the same time a feeling of belonging. In a group like that, you can make jokes, you can have fun while you work and you can be yourself.

If the human setting is right, French employees will be more enthusiastic. If it is apparent that this is due to the leadership expertise of their superior, their loyalty to their boss will be clearly felt.

Performance-orientated Recognition

If the boss finds a word (or even a whole sentence) of praise for extremely good work, this is well-received by employees in France – as long as it is not done in front of the others, but always in private. Justified criticism, which again should only be voiced in private, can also be understood as motivation because it shows that the higher level of hierarchy has an interest in the performance of the individual.

Financial incentives should not be ruled out, but the theory of motivation has already shown that they do not last very long. However, this does not apply so much to sales-orientated activities where monetary bonuses make up a normal part of the salary. Salespeople or advisers who are very good at their job are very pleased if they are rewarded with an exciting trip or an invitation to an event (partner is always included). These incentives, which are often provided in France, motivate even the most dedicated salesperson more than the corresponding sum of money in his bank account.

The subject of company cars is, as everywhere, a critical point in France. A car is less of a status symbol than it might be the case in some other countries but seen more from a practical point of view. It should be convenient and nice to look at, serve the family’s needs and provide a few comforts. A car with such features can be an incentive if it is presented as a company car. The important thing is, however, not to distance oneself too far from the group so as not to run the risk of ›showing off‹.


French employees feel they are being taken seriously if they are supported beyond their normal limits. It may be surprising that targets are often set unrealistically high in France. Everyone is satisfied, though, if 80 or 90 per cent is achieved. Targets that are too easy to reach do not motivate the employees. However, in referring to a target, the word ›realistic‹ as defined in the SMART rule (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely), which is paramount in Management by Objectives, has to be put into perspective for France. Do not, therefore, be surprised if your French colleagues are pleased about attaining 85 per cent of what they set out to achieve.

Special Situations

Identification with the company is increased if work is carried out on projects or topics in special situations e.g. because of the prestige, the advanced technology or the significance for the good reputation of the company. The employees like to commit themselves to something that is noble and like to invest in it. People are proud to work for this aim. Admiration for the products rubs off on them too! Many examples have shown that the positive feelings remain even if the project does not turn out to be cost-effective.

In French companies, the motivation curve is not an even one. A typical motivation curve for a project starts high, especially if the team can discover something noble, something exciting in it. Then the curve plummets and is characterised by ups and downs. Just before the deadline, however, it will rise again steeply under the magical influence of the pressure of time. This last rush of adrenalin will drive managers from other countries, who are used to precise planning, to despair, which then again surprises their French colleagues!

Choosing Personnel

The opportunities for attracting new employees in France are similar to those in other European countries. If anything, there are differences mainly at the base of the personnel pyramid where agency workers (intérimaires) are often recruited because this means better flexibility. Head-hunters are used mainly for higher managerial posts.

Application procedure The thing which is different in France is the application documents. A foreign personnel manager who wanted to fill one of the higher posts in the French branch of her firm started to wonder why the personnel consultant passed on applications to her which did not describe the work the candidates had been doing and did not include an assessment of their qualifications and their conduct. As in other European countries including Austria, French work certificates (certificats de travail) contain only the length of employment and a specification of the position the candidate occupied. The personnel manager was not only surprised but was also afraid that the candidates were not as qualified as the personnel consultant maintained.

How do you acquire qualified information on an applicant? Via the personal references which are always included in applications: name, position and contact details of those people who can answer the questions a potential employer might want to ask.

French companies with more than 50 employees have been legally required only to accept applications with an anonymous CV in order to prevent discrimination. However, this obligation exists only in theory because the government at the time never signed the last decree which would have brought the bill into force. You may, therefore, come across both versions: the conventional CV with a photograph, name and other details about the person in question or an anonymous CV.

From an American point of view, the significant characteristics of a good manager are creativity, courage and high motivation. A manager’s bearing should be strong and clear. Superiors should inspire their staff – usually under time pressure – to achieve top performance. In so doing, one always assumes that the best is still to come and the fastest will reach this goal. For this reason mistakes are tolerated and excused for the sake of innovation. American bosses are fair and tolerant. If a conflict arises, they are often not aggressive but friendly. Everyone is given a second chance.

The Job Of A Manager

If you are new to a particular role as a leader, you will be given the chance to prove yourself in an American company. By communicating politely, giving clear instructions and distinctly acknowledging good results, you will gain the respect of your staff.

Define precisely the scope for decision-making and taking action. You can be sure that everyone will keep to your guidelines. The best policy is to document work procedures exactly so that matters are quite clear for both sides.

Your employees will expect regular feedback talks, in order to learn where they stand and what they need to change if anything. Feedback is given in private, whereby negative comments are made according to specific rules. First, the person is praised for who he is and for his performance; appreciation is expressed. Then an explanation is given as to what went wrong. The next step is to suggest how the assignment could be handled better in future. Offer your support. Above all do not forget the first step. Always show sufficient approval!

Boundaries Between Manager And Team

In many American companies with a low-profile hierarchy, everybody can speak to everyone. The boss wants to be seen as a friend, a regular guy. Nevertheless, American managers definitely have the last say in a matter. Especially in owner-operated firms, the boss confers with his team but he alone is the one who makes the decisions. The broad agreement is not an issue.

The boundaries between work and personal life are different in the USA than in many other countries. First names are used which reduces the distance. The boss might well invite his staff to his home for a BBQ. There they will get to know his family. However, such events are very superficial affairs and rarely lead to a closer friendship.

As a manager from abroad, you will doubtless be observed closely. You will be given all the information you need and all your questions will be answered. In return, show some interest in your staff. Invite them to a garden party, but not to a sit-down meal. That would be too formal and the employees would wonder what you were trying to achieve. Whether you meet your colleagues after work for a drink depends entirely on the team. You should not expect it as a matter of course. There are a lot of companies where the employees go straight home after work and where there is little private contact between them.

Political Correctness

Comments which are not politically correct (Not PC) in the USA, have the potential to cause conflict. You should not make remarks or tell jokes which are aimed at a particular group even if you think your listeners would find the remark equally amusing. This could very easily damage your reputation. If you hear someone speaking in a politically incorrect manner, perhaps making racist comments, just pretend you do not understand.

You should definitely learn the type of language which is considered to be politically correct in your area of work. That is sometimes a little inconvenient but you will be respected for doing this. It is best to only mention appearances if they are relevant for information. Here are a few examples which refer to the background or appearance of a person: in[1]stead of ›Chinese‹ say ›Chinese American‹, instead of ›Black‹ use ›African American‹, instead of ›immigrant‹ speak of ›newcomer‹. Do not address female colleagues with ›Miss‹ or ›Mrs.‹, use the neutral form ›Ms.‹ – unless the person in question tells you how she wishes to be addressed. Do not use any words to describe someone unless you are sure that it sounds positive. Did you know that ›big‹ means corpulent? If you want to refer to someone’s height you should use the word ›tall‹. Weight is a taboo subject.

Employee Motivation

American employees are mainly motivated by being given interesting assignments. In addition, they expect a bonus for good results. This might be a share of the turnover, shares in the company, a short trip away or an upgrade to a company car, mobile telephone or other electronic gadgets.

Employees’ loyalty and their bond with a company depend greatly on the economic situation and the success of each branch of industry. If you work with High Potentials or Talents, it is very important that you create sufficient incentives. What these may be, depends on the branch you work in and on the personal targets of your staff. Speak to them directly. Find out what motivates them and what their career ambitions are.

Choosing Your Staff

Job applications in the United States are expected to be without a photo[1]graph and often without an address so that everyone has exactly the same chance in the selection procedure. This prevents someone from being judged by his sex, appearance or background – the address could be an indication – and the associated prejudice.

Americans present themselves and their achievements very enthusiastically – and they like to exaggerate. It is, therefore, worth scrutinising what they maintain in their applications and contacting the reference providers (referent). Your American applicants will not bring any work certificates with them, but in their CV you will find the name and contact details of one or more people who are willing to supply information on the applicant. The standard of qualification depends a lot on where the applicant took his exams. You should therefore collect some information on the reputation of the schools, colleges and universities involved. Check to see what the applicant’s responsibilities were in his last post and let someone explain what successes he had. This will enable you to gain a better picture of his capabilities.

Americans are more all-rounders than specialists. It is assumed that someone who has obtained a university degree will be able to familiarise himself with the work in different specialist areas. Furthermore, there is no job training as such in the USA, e.g. a three-year apprenticeship, as in some other countries. People learn on the job, which means they often do not have the whole picture.

If employees or business partners recommend friends or relatives for a job that is advertised, these people undergo the same application procedure as all other candidates. You have no obligation to anyone. If the person meets the criteria, no one can accuse you of favouritism.

You draw up a work contract with your new employee ›at will‹. This means that, apart from a few exceptions, both sides can terminate the employment contract without notice.

Isabelle Demangeat
Extract from Business Culture France, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag  

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