The Wall Street Journal Europe

by A. Craig Copetas

La Rentree

French Executives Head Back to School For American Training

Economic Troubles Prompt Elite Managers to Doubt Old Abstract Approach

Some Walk Over Hot Coals

(Special to the Wall Street Journal Europe) PARIS-Brian Van der Horst stands before a dozen French executives in a sun-soaked classroom near the Bastille, fomenting a corporate revolution. “The global market wants results first and reasons second, “the American management consultant asserts. “And French managers still want explanations first and results second.” He chides his pupils, suggesting that they have been brainwashed into thinking that a business theory must be “intellectually complex.” Nothing, he suggests, could be further from the truth.

Adjusting his glasses, Mr. Van der Horst pauses. He scans the men and women seated around the horseshoe-shaped table waiting for someone to defend France’s philosophical approach to problem solving. No one does. Mr. Van der Horst nods and continues: ” The French tendency to fall in love with abstractions makes them bad managers, ” he says. “It is why the entrepreneurial revolutions that took place in America and Britain during the 1980s passed France by.”

Fighting Words

Those are usually fighting words in France, where most of the levers of corporate power are still pulled by an elite cadre of professionals who were taught at top French schools to apply the same set of abstract management principles to any enterprise – be it a computer company or a sewage system. But instead of quarreling with Mr. Van der Horst, thousands of French executives have happily forked over 29,000 francs ($5,030) apiece to hear two weeks’ worth of heresy at Mr. Van der Horst’s management school, Reperé SA.

The success of Reperé says much about the state of French business today. Mr. Van der Horst is one of at least a dozen American management consultants who are suddenly in hot demand here, as the country struggles through massive economic problems and jarring restructuring. With their unemployment rate stuck at 12.8% and globalization putting their business under severe pressure, the French yearn for panaceas.

And the Americans are offering plenty of corporate cure-alls, from Total Quality Management to Situational Management, each with its own jargon. There are “motivational messages” and “benchmarks for products and personnel.” There are even classes that aim to hone executives’ awareness by training them to walk barefoot on hot coals.

Hollywood vs. Ena

Not all the American techniques border on the bizarre, of course. But they certainly are popular: U.S. firms today control 82% of the $53 billion international management consulting market, according to a report recently issued by Alpha Publications U.K., a management research group. “Their achievements are comparable to Hollywood’s in its own sphere,” it says.

The report is based largely on the stunning international growth of big US consulting firms such as Anderson Consulting and McKinsey and Co., both of which have sizable operations here in Paris. But it took time for these Yankee notions, both mainstream and outre, to catch on in France, where “Anglo-Saxon” methods generally have been anathema to the management techniques expounded at the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

Charles de Gaulle established the Ena in the wake of World War II to receive the country’s civil service after Nazi occupation and the Vichy government had ravaged the French bureaucracy. Ever since, Ena and its older sister schools, the Ecole Normale Superieure and the Ecole polytechnique, have selected and groomed the best and the brightest to manage French interests at home and abroad. Their training is rigorous, technocratic, and highly French.

The schools hand down principles that are at odds with the free-market theory Adam Smith set out in the 18th century – and can be traced back even further, to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a 17th century French minister whose name is still synonymous with state central planning. That schooling paid off handsomely in helping to rebuild the country after World War II. But along the way, many management consultants say, it created a high caste of leaders bent on control and unprepared for the rigors of a multicultural global marketplace that doesn’t conform to French assumptions.

The French “management style is a factor for the high unemployment rate,” argues Gerry Welker, and independent financial management consultant who works with large French brokerage houses such as Cesar SA. “It’s very clear that inflexible, hierarchical systems don’t allow companies or individuals the space needed for growth.”

To be sure, more French managers these days talk like their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, calling for layoffs and restructurings that could unlock shareholder value. Some French companies over the past few years have recast their corporate hierarchies to accommodate the rapid-fire temperament of the global market: Restructuring at tire maker Michelin SA and the car-parts giant Valeo SA, for example, have paid off with savvy new management teams and successful moves into fresh markets, including Asia and North America. And the French luxury business thrives on quirky personalities and quick decision making: The sector today employs some 192,000 workers, is racking up average annual growth rates of at least 25% and sells more than $21 billion worth of goods each year, rivaling the annual sales of the French industry, the Finance Ministry reports.

But silk ties and Dior dresses “do not an economy make,” Michel Castera, a former president of Pechiney Aluminum France SA. A polytechnician, Mr. Castera now serves as an advisor on French management issues at both Coopers and Lybrand and the Harvard Business School. “French managers are too monocultural in that they’re unable to visualize what’s happening outside of this country,” he says. “France’s success in the luxury-goods business is the icing on top of a cake that’s not really there.”

Besides, many French executives still tend to hand down decisions in fiats that alienate workers: witness Renault SA’s decision last spring to close its Belgian operation without a word of warning to the factory workers. That kind of decision, French executives say, is the result of French education, which has created a management corps that’s unable to express itself. “The first thing you’re taught at school in France is how to shut up;” says Marie Annick Flambard-Guy, a partner in the French executive-search firm Rossignol, Tod & Associates. “The second thing you’re taught is how to deal with theories, when you should be taught how to speak your mind and deal with personalities.”

Analytical Bridge

Enter Mr. Van der Horst’s specialty, Neuro Linguistic Programming. The French have taken to NLP, as it’s called, the way they took to Jerry Lewis: Both fill a curious niche in the French psyche.

NLP provides a handy bridge between the theoretical and the practical. “The structure of NLP is analytical,” says NLP booster Linda Baker, training manager at Kodak-Pathe SA, the French marketing division of Eastman-Kodak Inc. “And the French are very enthusiastic about analysis. So NLP is by design a ready-made system that allows the French to clearly focus on an objective and what needs to be done to reach it.”

Since 1985, some 6,500 executives from more than 330 companies – including Michelin, Sodexo SA, Castorama SA and Glaxo Pharmaceutical SA – have signed up for Repere’s intensive, two-week-long NLP training program. The goal, says Mr. Van der Horst, 53 years old, is to create a new generation of French managers with the skills to improve corporate communication, enhance productivity and generate customer satisfaction.

‘Generation Gap’

NLP came out of southern California in the early 1970s, back when upheaval in American society led to a breakdown in communications. The Vietnam War was winding down, psychedelic drugs were the thing and computers were radically changing the workplace. Talk of a chasm-like “generation-gap” filled the media. “People were unable to talk to each other because the radical change in culture prevented communication,” Mr. Van der Horst says.

So along came two professors from the University of California at Santa Cruz, linguist John Grinder and psychologist Richard Bandler. Combining theories about human behavior and speech, they taught managers how to read body language and voice intonations to find out what their employees were really saying. They told corporate executives that they would get better results if they set clear, easy-to-verify targets written in plain, no-nonsense prose. They urged them to build a rapport with their workers, instead of handing down decisions through a chain of command. Over the years, NLP has evolved into a well-accepted management technique with more than 250 books and 400 Ph.D. dissertations devoted to it.

Similar vs. Different

NLP studies indicate that people fall into one of two groups: Those who thrive on making choices, and those who find comfort in day-to-day routines. The two groups are further subdivided into five categories based on how workers relate to their jobs, how long they are likely to remain with a company and what portion of the population they represent.

In one such category, for instance, you find the “similar” worker, who loves routine, accounts for 5% of the population and will remain with the company for 15 to 20 years. “Different” workers flourish with constant change and, if improperly handled, will remain only six to 18 months. They make up 10% of the population. Most workers fall into the “Comparison” category, a mixture of Similar and Different that accounts for 65% of the population.

These categories of workers will strike different chords in different corporate cultures. French managers, according to NLP studies, enjoy philosophy and abstraction, and therefore nurture a commercial culture that demands standardized processes. US managers, by contrast, prefer a standardization of results that encourages individual initiative, within limits. And British companies, says Mr. Van der Horst, often go to the extreme: They value non-conformist “different” types so much that it’s difficult for managers to build successful teams.

The goal of NLP is to get people to understand these diverse personalities – and to make them work together productively within a corporation. NLP seeks a corporate balance between the grind of process and the spark of originality.

“The international nature of business demands that companies seek workers whose personalities don’t fit into the classic definition of institutional culture,” Mr. Van der Horst says. “At the same time, no company wants to hire someone who is anti-institutional. So how do you blend what appear to be two different character types into traditional European corporate cultures?”

In the Interview

That, NLP advocates say, is the key to corporate prosperity and worker contentment in France and elsewhere on the Continent. “This is really the reason French companies keep coming back to NLP,” says Mr. Van der Horst.

But does NLP really boost productivity and shore up the bottom line? That depends, it seems, on whether you’re hiring a young recruit or trying to teach an old manager new tricks.

According to Mr. Van der Horst, NLPs most visible effect on productivity occurs during the recruitment process. Reperé claims that French companies that have used NLP models during the interview process have reduced the turnover of new employees anywhere from 10% to 37%.

That was certainly the case for French hardware chain Castorama, which has sent more than 50 of its managers to courses at Reperé. Rene Dupre, a Castorama store manager in Eragny, outside Paris, says NLP methods have helped Castorama to “keep the shooting stars who would otherwise want to leave the company after a few years.”

Just as important, he says, the management technique has helped the company to avoid hiring managers who lack the skills needed in modern commercial situations: “NLP helps eliminate the sheep with five feet.”