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Published: July 1, 1996


The Passionate Leader: An Interview With Jean Rene Fourtou

S&B: Why was that? A number of important studies suggest that if people have a stake in the enterprise, they will focus their work on pursuits that increase their rewards.

Jean-René Fourtou: Well, that is the case, I suspect, in some other countries. Perhaps in the Anglo-Saxon world. The reason it did not work here, I believe, is that the French are more sensitive to issues of status, while people in other countries might be more sensitive to issues of compensation.

But while people's attention to profit did not change, what was different was that there was a new sense of community, a feeling that it was worthwhile to work together, a search for synergies and so on. They did begin to feel like partners, and that was very good.

S&B: What else have you done to create that sense of community?

Jean-René Fourtou: Three times a year, the 65 most senior managers in the company meet for two days. That is the right frequency for a meeting like this, since if you meet more often, you take away people's power. You do their work for them. You make their decisions for them. That is something I do not want to do.

Now when we all meet, I try to leave enough free time for these people to get together so that they get to know each other informally. I want them to meet informally so that they will create linkages between them, so that they will feel they are part of something. I want to do this -- enhance these feelings -- rather than work them too hard at these meetings.

One of the ways I try to build these links is over meals, which we take together. During the meals, since I am from the Bordeaux region of France, I take time to educate these managers about the wines of that region. We do that at every meal. That enables me to create a time to share and to create a sense of conviviality among these people. We want them to consult with each other on their own. To ask questions -- on their own -- when they are making decisions.

S&B: What if some of the decisions they make are wrong. What are the consequences?

Jean-René Fourtou: Well, everybody makes errors. I mean, we don't want to make errors, we don't like to make errors, but everybody makes them. Within our company, people must be able to learn from their mistakes, which means they must be very determined not to make the same error the next time.

Let me give you an example. We have made some errors in some of our early acquisitions. We have had some huge and successful acquisitions, such as those in the United States from Union Carbide. We have also had some failures, e.g., in Germany, our business processes were not working properly. We have set about to analyze these errors and understand how we came to make them, so that we will not repeat them. But we understand that no one is immune from making mistakes.

S&B: Is this analysis formalized, as are analyses carried out after an airplane accident?

Jean-René Fourtou: They are systematic, but only up to a point. And we have learned a great deal from them. I think if these analyses were too formalized and too systematic, they would scare people.

S&B: What else did you do to create a sense of empowerment and community?

Jean-René Fourtou: One of the first things I did when I arrived was to create a small executive committee of the most senior managers. One of its functions is to conduct an ongoing assessment of the company. In that assessment, we ask: What is the state of the company, what are the opportunities, what should we be doing? The aim is to find out what people want to do and then to help them do it. The purpose of this committee is not to do things. That would take away initiative from other people. It would take away the ability of other people to act, which would take away their energy. So we assess the company and set priorities. That is all.

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