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 / Third Quarter 1996 / Issue 4(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Passionate Leader: An Interview With Jean Rene Fourtou

But Mr. Fourtou, who was educated at France's prestigious -- and traditional -- L'École Polytechnique, is anything but a conventional leader. He believes in people over systems, in the acceptance of tension within a company and in individual initiative. Mr. Fourtou -- who reads philosophy and once had a philosopher on the staff of his consulting firm -- was creating an "empowered'' work force at Rhône-Poulenc long before the term became popular.

What follows are excerpts from a conversation with Strategy & Business that took place recently in Mr. Fourtou's office in Paris.

S&B: A few years ago, you co-authored a book about business called "La passion d'entreprendre" -- the passion of enterprise or entrepreneurship. It is unusual to use the word passion in a book about business, at least in the English-speaking world, where business is thought of as analytical, precise and managerial. For the benefit of us stodgy English speakers, why the word passion?

Jean-René Fourtou: To explain, let me first provide a bit of background. Before becoming chairman of Rhône-Poulenc, I was head of the largest consultancy in France. I was only 32 years old, and I was running the firm. Now most people thought the reason I was so successful was that I was a very good salesman. But that was not really the reason. In the entire time, I never lost a client. I kept relationships going.

Now it is true that as a consultant, I was always selling -- new processes, new ideas, new strategies, new approaches, new management methods, new vocabularies, new re-engineering ideas and so on. This is what we were paid to do. But I knew that my clients were not really keeping me because of that. They were keeping me because of something else -- something additional -- that I was bringing them. Something of which I was not even aware at the time.

S&B: What were you bringing them?

Jean-René Fourtou: I was making the people I worked with happier, which made them much more active. You know, not all of my implementations were big successes. I remember once, when computers were first coming on the scene, there was an assignment with many problems. The computers did not work. But in spite of that, the client kept me. Why? Because even though we had an initial setback, they were happy and as a result, they were more active, more competitive, more energized.

You see, I have always put a lot of pressure on people not simply to obey, but instead to be active, to make decisions, to be empowered, to have life. So, as a result, as a consultant I got some really enormous results. And afterward, the clients would say, "My goodness, how this guy works!" So I realized that as a consultant, what I was really bringing to a company was a new sense of vitality -- a sense of passion -- and that this was what was changing people. I believe very strongly that good management cannot compensate for a lack of vitality.

S&B: How do you create that passion?

Jean-René Fourtou: First, you have to empower people and you do that by sharing. You have to share vision, share values and share objectives. You have to bring people together, which I would do. For example, I used to go to football or rugby games with my clients and I used to succeed in bringing both the chairman and the workers to the games. We would sit together and eat together. I mean, I would just go up to them and say, "Are you coming with me to see Scotland versus France?"

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