As I read Maureen Dowd’s column about Christine Lagarde in The New York Times (“For Office Civility, Cherchez La Femme,” Sunday, May, 29, 2011), I was reminded of a conversation years ago during a reception in Washington (DC) honoring the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James. One of his aides observed that diplomacy is “letting others have it your way.” France’s current as well as first female finance minister, Christine Lagarde, includes that strategy among her options but leaves no doubt that she is an independent thinker who refuses to play “little boys’ games.”
Consider these brief excerpts from Dowd’s column and what they reveal about Madame Minister.
On her love of the sea: “I think I must have been a dolphin in a previous life.”
She was “born independent.”
When suggesting in a speech that her countrymen abandon “their old national habit” of overintellectualizing: “Enough thinking, already! Roll up your sleeves.”
Her initial response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers: “Holy cow!”
After she “elbowed her way to the top tier of the “City of Broad Shoulders” in the Baker & McKenzie law firm, she once warned “the boys” on her legal team of the dangers of “hairy chested” testosterone.
She believes that women in the career mix – “If they accept to be themselves and not play boys’ games” – can “make it a bit more civilized, bring it back to normality.”
As to whether or not she has ever been sexually harassed, “No. I’m too tall [i.e. 5’10’]. I’ve been in sports too long,” she says, flexing the muscle under her black Ann Taylor jacket. “They know that I could punch them.”
Alas, Christine Lagarde was not born in the United States and thus is ineligible to seek a party nomination to run for president of the United States.
However, she may well be the next managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Liz Elting, president and C.E.O. of TransPerfect, a translation service. “I look for people who have a very strong work ethic,” she says, “and I think a big indicator of that is whether somebody has worked from a very young age.”
To read the complete interview and Bryant’s interviews of other executives, please click here.
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Bryant: What were some important lessons for you early on?
Elting: I worked from an extremely young age — everything from babysitting to newspaper deliveries to walking a child to school to working in a dry cleaner to telemarketing. And now when we hire, that’s one of the key qualities I look for. I look for people who have a very strong work ethic, and I think a big indicator of that is whether somebody has worked from a very young age, and ideally has never stopped.
Bryant: Were your parents pushing you to take these jobs?
Elting: Absolutely. My parents encouraged me to work from the day anyone would hire me. They said, “You need to be a hard worker. We want you to have experience, and you should be able to be self-sufficient financially when you’re older.” And I was in a situation where I had a lot of advantages. I was able to travel. I lived and studied abroad a number of times. But they made clear I needed to work.
When people have that kind of upbringing, either out of necessity or because their parents chose to bring them up that way, they’re likely to be the best employees. And it’s not only a strong work ethic. Adversity is important, too. And people who play competitive sports also have that desire to win that’s so crucial in employees. It’s also a good sign when people come from entrepreneurial families — where the mother or father ran a business.
Bryant: When you started the company with your partner, did you have discussions about the culture you wanted to create?
Elting: Meritocracy was always a big concept to us — making sure that the best people were promoted and rewarded, and that is very much how we run our company now. Virtually all of the senior people at our company were promoted from within. Most of them started at entry-level positions. And so it’s very much a meritocracy. We also believe in holding people accountable. We’re also big believers in being completely open and transparent.
Bryant: Make that real for me. How do you do that?
Elting: We share with our people what’s going on in the company. We’re open with our financials because it’s better if they understand what’s going on. We make sure they’re clear on the vision and that they understand it. We also let them know our accomplishments and our challenges as well as our shared goals.
Here’s another example of being open: If we have a manager who says one thing, and another employee who says something else, and they come to us independently, we’ll put them together in a room with one of us and have a three-way conversation. There’s no reason to have side conversations. We simply bring everyone together, we talk about the issue, and we resolve it.
And when we have other meetings, we really encourage people to talk and let us know what’s on their minds so we can address it. We don’t want meetings to be a couple of people talking and everyone else listening. I do think people need to contribute. Some people are more executers, some people are more innovators, and some people are a combination but we need ideas. People often have them, and they don’t share them, so we need to encourage them.
Bryant: Is it awkward resolving those side conversations you mentioned earlier?
Elting: You know, it’s not really, because I think people just know it’s not right. We have a very open culture, so when two people are disagreeing, bringing them together in a room to resolve it doesn’t seem like an awkward situation to me. It just makes the most sense.
Bryant: How else do you find out what’s going on?
Elting: We encourage people to speak up. Whenever we see people, we talk to them. We ask them questions. We ask them how they’re doing, and we ask them a number of times so that we really get to the issues. “How are you feeling about things? What do you think?”
We also encourage managers to meet with all of their direct reports at least once a week to talk, to give feedback and to get feedback. These once-a-week meetings with direct reports, for each leader at every level in the organization, are something we do, and they’re very important.
Bryant: Have you always done that?
Elting: We implemented that after a few years in business, from seeing that people often had things on their minds, that perhaps they would discuss with one another. They might talk about what they’re not happy with, and then they’d walk out the door. And it happens often, particularly when you have a lot of employees and everybody’s busy. But we encourage managers to have these conversations because we need to keep a good, open dialogue with our people and not have them leave the company and make us wonder, “O.K., what went wrong?”
Bryant: And you schedule them as half-hour meetings?
Elting: It’s not really a set time, because I think sometimes people can talk about what they want to talk about in five minutes, and sometimes they need an hour. It’s as much or as little as people think is appropriate or necessary at the moment.
Bryant: Do you coach the managers on how to get feedback, not just give it?
Elting: We ask them to ask people for it. “What would you do if you were in my position? What should I be doing differently?” And we ask that question a lot of our employees. We ask our people: “What would you do if you were the C.E.O. of the company? If you were a senior manager, what would you do?”
We look for people, and we like people, who aren’t worried about stepping on toes, who aren’t worried about saying the wrong thing — who just take a risk and say it, because what do they have to lose? That’s what’s going to make us a better company, that’s what’s going to make our people happier, and that’s what’s going to make us at least as competitive as we need to be in the industry. So we really encourage that. And when people do that, it’s incredibly valuable.
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To read the complete interview, please click here.
Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times‘ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his new book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.