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Leadership a la Francaise: How GE’s Clara Gaymard Does It

March 2, 2015
Borderless Leadership

Clara Gaymard is not dressing like the executive who engineered GE’s purchase of French industrial company Alstom in 2014 when she comes to meet me in the lobby of GE’s Paris headquarters in the city’s “noble” seventh arrondissement. The flowered dress, leather jacket and matching knee-high riding boots is a fashion statement you wouldn’t expect from one of the world’s most powerful women: President of GE France, Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in France, President of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, a Board Member of the French-American Foundation, a member of the Trilateral Commission, and mother of nine children: six girls and three boys, aged 17-28. “Nine” is not a typ-o. Clara Gaymard has always been a thinking woman who does things her way.

She inhabits a rarified atmosphere. In France there are no women heading CAC 40 companies, despite strong national laws supporting equal opportunity. “I am quite sure no French company would have given me this job,” she confides. “Women in France have ‘responsibility,’ but not the power; they don’t have the keys to the house. The French law is good, the regulations are good, but the behavior (by companies) is not there.”

More Women at the Top

What would she do to promote more women to the top? “I would make a deal with companies”, she replies. “I would give them 3, 4, 5 years to involve at least 1/3 women at the executive committee level, and agree with them that if they do not comply with this goal, we would pass a law.”

In fact, there is a law in France, and in several other European countries, mandating a quota of women on corporate boards. Clara supports this because “All of a sudden companies are beginning to realize there are talented women out there who can do things.”

She is one of those women. Before joining GE, she had been part of the Mayor’s cabinet when Jacques Chirac inhabited Paris’s Hotel de Ville; she then had several overseas posts for the French economics ministry and in 2003 was appointed head of the Invest in France Agency.

It was when she ascended to this post that I first encountered Clara, as I had interviewed her on CNBC, and was later asked to serve on the Invest in France advisory board. I watched her begin to make her mark as a skilled international leader.

By 2006, she was visible enough and respected enough to be tapped by GE to head the French company. Today she reports directly to GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

“I was hired because of my experience in government affairs; I was bringing something they were somehow missing” she opines. That missing “something” first came to light when former GE CEO Jack Welsh’s plans to merge with Honeywell went down in flames at the hands of the European Union’s monopolies commission which refused to approve the deal. That led to GE’s opening a bureau in Brussels and dispatching long-time GE Europe executive Francis Bailly to be close to the EU powers-that-be. It also heralded a shift from  GE’s being a supplier to being a business partner.

“I had a lot of freedom when I started,” Clara remembers. “I was able to develop relationships with big companies, and France is a country of big companies – Total , Areva , Air France, Alstom. I was able to strengthen our relations. Not just along commercial lines but along real business lines, so we can develop together digital disruption, or green products or other kinds of innovation.” One such project involves an imaging device for use during surgery which can, by its maneuverability and “seeing” ability, shorten the time in an operating room for major procedures by several hours. Developed by GE with the French state, the machine will be made in France and available next year.

The Historic Deal

In GE’s purchase of troubled Alstrom’s Power, Grid and Nuclear equipment units, she says “Jeff (Immelt) did the deal. I just aligned the stars” – a too modest appraisal of her role in the first major takeover ever by an American company of a French “national champion.” That move has silenced detractors who initially scorned her lack of technical background. “It bothers me when I hear people say I’m not operational,” she complains. “Do you have to be able to do everything yourself, or is it just as important to make things happen? Everyone who can do something better then me, let them do it!”

She is not without her supporters. Aside from Francis Bailly at the beginning, she relies on communications agency Publicis CEO Maurice Levy and Francois Roussely VP of Credit Suisse in Europe. “When I have something I need to solve and need to discuss it, I call them. And of course within GE itself, there was Nani Beccalli (former President & CEO of GE in Europe), and now John Rice (Vice Chairman of GE’s global operations), Steve Bolze (President & CEO of GE Power & Water) for example…”

She keeps 10% of her own schedule free to be available for her staff, to take time to listen to them and to clarify the issues they might be facing. “I can’t tell people what to do,” she reflects, “but I can ask the right questions so they can find the answers themselves, because the answers are in all of us.”

Looming large in the context of our conversation are those nine children of hers – two of whom (boys) interrupt our interview, calling from the supermarket for advice on what to buy for the evening’s dinner. “My children are always kidding me – how did you get to be CEO Mom? You are always losing your keys,” she laughs. “Being a mother gives you a lot of tools for being a good leader. You have to empower your kids, which is an important tool for being a manager for instance. People look at you – your kids, your staff – wondering how you will react in a crisis or what you will do.”

Leadership Begins at Home

The combination of leading a team at home and one at work for some dozen years has accustomed her to making choices and setting priorities. “When my children were small, I never accepted dinner invitations,” she claims. “Ever. Even if was from the Elysee (French White House). Having cocktails and waving at people across the room may make you feel important, but it’s not as important as deep personal relationships. “

Her father – geneticist Dr Jerome LeJeune, who discovered the Downs Syndrome chromosome – was an important figure in her young life. She wrote a book about him in 1997 after graduating from two of France’s most prestigious financial and government academic institutions.

Then there’s her husband, Herve Gaymard. Clara frowns when asked if he supports her career. “I don’t want people to think ‘he supported me.’ My husband and I are the same age, we were at school together; we are partners, like two fingers of the same hand – we act separately but we are connected. Yes, the road can be bumpy; but we grow together.”

Clara keeps two axioms in mind which she says have been helpful in her personal and professional lives:
“First, I knew I couldn’t be perfect, so it was never a catastrophe if things didn’t always work out;
And second, life is always bigger than you can imagine or anticipate; you have to accept uncertainty and not be afraid of it because that’s life.”

So she suffers no foolishness about the current adage of “having it all.” “I wanted to be a Mom. It was my choice, and I wanted to be with my children,” she says. “I don’t expect an easy life.”

By Shellie Karabell

Source: Forbes

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