Monday, December 04, 2006

A Faux Pas as Pas de Deux

Reuters has a story about the incoming CEO of the newly merged combination of Lucent and Alcatel, Patricia Russo. The story is not about business tactics or the likely impact on the companies. The story is about the announced lack of interest of Ms Russo, an American, in learning French, despite the fact that she will be living in Paris.

Ms. Russo argues that since English is the language of international business, and it's a little (according to the article) already the language of Alcatel anyway, there is no practical need for her to learn French. This is an eminently American sort of response – emphasizing the practical and not worrying so much about the symbolic. Still, let us stipulate that there is a certain rudeness in moving to a foreign land for an extended period and having no interest in learning the language. Out of courtesy, she ought to learn the language. As a matter of maximizing shareholder value, does she need to?

Alas, probably not. As I have written elsewhere, the benefits of a common standard in language are at least as high as the benefits of a common standard in, for example, measurement. Having all business be done in one language is at least as useful as knowing that a meter or aa second is measured the same everywhere. And the dynamics of globalization – of science, of commerce, of news, of popular culture – are such that that common standard will be English. But what is most striking in the article is the quote below from a French management-recruiting executive:
"Foreign executives who suceed in France are those who show they can adapt to the culture," said Catherine Euvrard, head of French headhunting firm Euvrard Consultants.

"If they don't, they risk being marginalised and will never penetrate the country's closely knit business circles."

This is, I think, almost exactly wrong. Not because you need to know French to penetrate “the country's closely knit business circles” (I have no view on that one way or the other), but the unexamined assumption by Ms Euvrard that the key to business success for the new company will require them to penetrate these circles to begin with. If the merged company is to achieve anything, it must break the old French model that defines competitiveness as gigantic national champions lumbering along under the leaden guiding hand of dirigisme. The future of Lucent/Alcatel will be made or lost in a world that is not confined to the inward-looking Old Continent, but in a world full of hard-charging Indians, Chinese, Singaporeans, Americans, Emiratis and others. A world where the commerce minister of India can say just before the arrival of President Chirac for a state visit that "[w]e find the Europeans fighting for a 35-hour week, and we in India are fighting for a 35-hour day." That is the kind of world that prompted this merger – a world powered by English, and by a far brasher way of doing business.

Uncommented upon by the Reuters writer is that the American Ms. Russo will be the only female head of a leading French company, that women are far more liberated in business in the US than in Europe, and that these two facts are probably related. That is the world she brings. Ms Russo's admittedly impolite announcement is an acknowledgment of this, and the symbolism – of a hard-charging outsider trying to shake up a cloistered, hobbled Europe – is unmistakable.


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