Hierarchic Thinking and Strategic Planning

The most fascinating aspect living in France for so long was certainly the French culture and the French people. Much of my experience comes from business life. Not only business life in France, but also on foreign markets, because many of Essilor’s managers spent a certain time abroad. It was an essential characteristic  of Essilor’s Human Resources policy to develop an understanding for foreign markets and to improve international cooperation. For the management of international subsidiaries Essilor usually hired local executives knowing the specific character of the country and its people. But at the top of the regional zones management there always was a French native. At the head office for a long time the managers of the big resources departments Marketing, R&D, Operations were always French with one exception, when in 1995/1996 I was the head of the International Marketing department. Only during the last years Essilor changed this policy at the head office as well as in the zones.

 

Working at the head office with French people was a fascinating and due to the cultural difference sometimes demanding experience, for both sides, I think. The following appreciation is mainly based on my experience with Essilor people but in my encounters at various meetings of French industrial and standards organizations I came to the same conclusions. The French executives are extremely professional in their activity. After their graduation from High School the “cadres”, as they are called in French, were often educated at the Grandes Ecoles, which are specialized colleges, which have been created to educate the French elite in politics, economy, science and engineering. They pick their students after special preparation courses and are much more prestigious than the universities. Generally the education system in France is rather competitive, students are submitted to steady gradings and tests. Their training does not only focus on a special expertise, but takes particularly into account the “Formation Générale”, a broad general knowledge. A French manager should be able to solve all kind of problems. To this end he has to develop particularly systematic, well-structured and analytical thinking, following the tradition of the French philosopher Descartes, as well as good rhetorical skills and good argumentation. So the meetings were distinguished by the high level of exchanged ideas and arguments, but sometimes there was a certain passion for discussions, which made meetings last longer than needed. Many of these meetings had only preparatory character, because decisions were normally taken by the big bosses. Having gathered my first experiences in Germany, I was struck by the strictly hierarchic organization of the French companies. The decisions were very often taken only on the level of the chief executives of the big divisions, i.e. head office resources and market zones, based on the recommendations of the experts. The authority of the top executives was particularly distinct for the Président Directeur Général, the chairman. Generally his decisions and instructions were sacrosanct.

 

Though in France politics and the organization of enterprises show the same tendency to centralize authority, it is astonishing to see, that the attitude of the French is very different in these two domains. While authority in a company is normally well accepted by the employees, authority exerted by the government or politicians is observed with a high degree of distrust and in extreme situations lead to open resistance and opposition. The French society is not consensus oriented and the French are generally a people of individualists. I think this helped me a little bit, when I fought sometimes, particularly as Quality responsible, for certain orientations and convictions, which were not popular. Teamwork is also important in France, but less than in Germany, and individual fighters are tolerated.

 

When I left Rodenstock in 1984 the turnover of Rodenstock and Essilor was about the same and, as American Optical was already declining, both companies were the world market leader . But already in 1997 Essilor’s sales were 5 times bigger than Rodenstock’s. I have often asked myself, which were the reasons for such a development?