Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Business Lessons from France

A friend of mine once asked me to "explain how studying business in one of the world's slowest economies is going to make [me] a better business leader?". Good question.

In fact, I used to wonder why people love France so much. Strangers seem less friendly. Everything takes more time (opening a bank account, getting a phone, ordering a coffee). You have to pay to use the rundown public washrooms. Something is always on strike (especially when you need to get somewhere). Stores are closed most of the time (the 8-to-8 convenience store isn't even open from 8-to-8!). Internet access less reliable than in many developing countries. Traffic in Paris is enough to make one give up driving. And don't get me started on Charles De Gaulle airport. 

Despite its challenges, I enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to go to school in France. I was drawn here because i) I wanted to work on my french, ii) I love cycling, and iii) I wanted to test my theory that I could actually survive on a diet of wine and cheese. That I only succeeded in exploring that third point during the past five months does not mean my time here has been a waste. Quite the opposite. In fact, I have learned to find joy in all of the things that I thought I hated about France. And some real business lessons have come out of that.

Sometimes, old is good. I love that the french do not needlessly toss aside 'old' stuff when something 'better' comes along. Living in a 16th century castle, I learned to embrace the coldness of the stone floors (good for storing wine and escaping the summer heat). Though the lack of cell phone reception or wifi through the stone walls was frustrating at first, I learned to enjoy the freedom of living in whatever moment was passing. I learned to embrace the hand held shower head ('embrace' may be a poor choice of words; let's just say that it saved time and water). Without an appreciation for 'old', this place could have been dozed a long time ago. I say that 'old' is worth something.

Success in business is possible without sacrificing lifestyle. I love that french people are religious about lifestyle. Once I figured out which three hours of the day he was open, I learned to love the elusive old man baker (and his dough caked finger nails) down the street. The scarcity of his availability made me anticipate my visits to the bakery. The sound that the crust made when you tore off a piece of a warm baguette. He was a master of his craft and he knew it. He didn't need to wreck is life with 'normal working hours'. Once people (like me) got a taste of what he was cooking, they would plan their day around getting to his shop when it was open. 

Anything can be an art. I love the pride that french people take in their work. Even the jobs that we classify as 'unskilled' labour in Canada are turned into an art in France (servers being a fine example). It's not what you do that matters, but how you do it. What this means is that your good or service can be worth as much as you choose to make it worth. 

Defending one's values is worth the effort. I love that french people act on their values. When I was stranded in Barcelona because of the train strikes in france, I admit that I was not so enthusiastic about the propensity of the french to strike. But, seriously, wouldn't you prefer six weeks of vacation a year? Wouldn't you like to leave work in time to get some fresh ingredients on the way home and make a delicious dinner? Why are the french the only ones (in the developed world) who live for what they believe in? I totally respect that. I hear people complain about the North American rat race and, yet, we are all complicit in it. Good on the french for speaking up and preserving what is important to them. It's worth it.

My basic conclusion after five months in France is that how we measure the value of things in North America is off. I'm a finance and economics person. I like numbers. And, for much of my life, I was convinced that I could measure everything worth anything in terms of dollars. I'm not sure anymore. I cannot justify my MBA pursuit in traditional financial terms, but I wouldn't change what I have done. There are things in life and business that are worth a whole lot and that I can't measure in numbers. There is value in defending ideals, in taking pride in one's work, in a balanced lifestyle, and in the 'old' ways. Understanding this will make me a better business leader. 

And these are some of the best lessons that I learned studying business in one of the worlds slowest economies!


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