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Crossing the Anglo-French divide

By Peter Walker for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- One of the most important parts of any business education program is teaching would-be executives how to conduct themselves in different commercial cultures.

This is true whether the geographical distance between the companies involved is many thousands of miles or -- in the case of Britain and France -- a mere 21 miles, this being the narrowest part of the English Channel (or, if you are French, La Manche).

In fact, Britain and France have a centuries-long traditional of mutual misunderstanding. While generally this is treated indulgently by "the frogs" and "les rosbifs," as they call each other, it is something businesspeople must take far more seriously.

It is a major issue given the size of the two countries' enormous mutual trade and one a leading UK business school has decided to tackle in a slightly quirky yet very illuminating way by looking at the two nations' contrasting approaches to leadership.

Sad Business School, part of the University of Oxford, has taken as its starting point the fact that both nations are about to get new leaders -- Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to announce his departure date within weeks, while France's population have just voted for a new president to replace Jacques Chirac.

The study, by Marshall Young, director of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Program at the Sad School, and Jo Owen of the Leadership Partnership interviewed several dozen senior leaders in both countries to compare their different approaches.

It found that while France has yet to mimic the rapid economic transformation Britain saw under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, its leaders remain in awe of the so-called Thatcher revolution.

"The scale and speed of change experienced in the UK in the Thatcher era is something they cannot imagine happening in France without extreme social unrest," the authors noted.

Public vs private

Much of Thatcher's doctrine involved replacing state intervention with the private sector, and this remains another major difference found by the researchers -- that the state is still seen as a highly prestigious employer in France while private companies tend to win the war for talent in the UK.

Another key difference they identified was French skepticism at what British leaders called "pragmatism" in decision-making, but which to their Gallic cousins -- who expect a severe level of intellectual rigor -- seems shambolic.

And while Britain is traditionally seen as the home of the old boy network, through elite private schools such as Eton and universities like Oxford, the research noted that this is even more the case in France.

Just 100 people a year graduate from France's ultra-elite Ecole nationale d'administration, which has provided a string of the country's leaders, and French people tend of value personal and professional networks more highly than the British, the study found.

There was some ambitious reasoning behind the study, said Owen. 'This may look like a light-hearted issue but a more serious question prompted the research," she said.

"Much of the leadership literature and research reflects a very Anglo-Saxon view of the world.

"We felt that this was increasingly inappropriate in a global context, and wanted to explore the different business and leadership models that exist in order to understand better what helps drive success in different economies.

"Global companies are working across a range of different implicit models in different cultures and may struggle to harmonize or work within them all. We believe these organizations would benefit from a map of the models in operation, and more guidance on how best to work within these contexts."


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Vive la France! But respect its different approach to leadership.

FACT BOX

FT MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Columbia, U.S.
3. Harvard, U.S.
4. Stanford GSB, U.S.
5. London Business School, UK
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Insead, France/Singapore
8. Stern, NYU, U.S.
9. Tuck, Dartmouth, U.S.
10. Yale, U.S.
Source: Financial Times 2007

FACT BOX

MBA BASICS

The classic MBA is a two-year full-time program. Accelerated and distance learning MBAs are increasingly popular.

A typical MBA student has several years' work experience and is in their late 20s.

Those who take an Executive MBA, or EMBA, tend to be older, more senior managers.

Courses are expensive, but the rewards are high -- some new MBAs now get a $100,000 basic salary, according to a survey.

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