Q&A: Clara Gaymard

Clara Gaymard is a woman of many talents. She is a published author, a senior European business leader and an advocate for women.

Clara Gaymard
President and Chief Executive Officer, G.E. France

Women in Business Create Opportunities

Clara Gaymard is a woman of many talents. She is a published author, a senior European business leader and an advocate for women. She has worked in government as the head of an agency promoting France as a place for foreign direct investment. In her government role, Gaymard held the rank of ambassador. Clara Gaymard has nine children, a husband whose job and life are every bit as demanding as hers, and she proudly rides her bicycle to work.

Despite the enormous demands on her time, Gaymard has a large, well-connected group of friends, many of whom are at the top of French society. And yet, as she explains, it is not that she “networks.” Rather, Gaymard likes developing friendships with people who are real and deep. To do that, Gaymard refrains from everything written in those “how to network” books. As a result, Gaymard’s friends are real friends, not props or “contacts” or people “in her network.” Still, even with those self-imposed constraints, Clara Gaymard is said to know “everyone.”

Working with people from diverse backgrounds has been important in Gaymard’s professional and personal growth. She believes that “working with people who are different helps you grow faster, especially when you also share values,” she said. But despite working hard on behalf of women for most of her career, Gaymard admits progress has been slow and more must be done.

Last summer, Gaymard spoke with Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of Korn Ferry’s Briefings On Talent & Leadership. Dominique Virchaux, managing director for France and Spain and its regional market leader for consumer products in Europe, the Middle East and Africa also took part in the interview. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

New rules in Europe set goals to increase the percentage of board seats held by women from where they are now, the low single digits, to the mid-double digits. There are also new national goals to increase the number of female executives at the top of all business organizations. Though these goals are laudable, not much has changed. The glass ceiling is as real as ever for French women. Why haven’t things changed?

The rules are good, but not good enough. Take the example of the quota for boards, which has already been implemented in France and in other countries. It works. More women are now joining boards. But the numbers are still much too low. In France, just 6 percent of board members are female. The law requires 40 percent female. That is a law, and because it is the law we will have to reach the goal. There are many talented women who will become excellent members of boards of directors.

Before the law, skeptics said Europe did not have enough qualified women to join boards at the rate and numbers required. What do you make of that comment?

When you start with an obligation, the process is always the same. You start by checking the women who are close to you. They are not necessarily the best in class. So you start panicking, and you realize you have a problem, and you ask: “What can I do?” Some companies started to organize around the goal, and they created pipelines of good female director-level candidates for boards. They discovered talent where they didn’t expect it.

What did they find? They saw there is actually a huge pipeline of talented women. But of course, these women are not CEOs of companies or board members. Not yet. They are not heading business units. In Europe, there are almost no women doing that. The talent is not always where you expect it. You have to find it, which means you have to look. The woman you need for a board seat may not be standing in line next to you. She may be younger than you expect or look different than you expect. But I can assure you, she is here.

Is that what happened?

Yes. I would say that the push of the regulation is important, but it’s not enough. And there are obstacles.


The first obstacle is you need to educate men. You have to explain to them that if a woman takes a job, it doesn’t mean a man is going to lose his job. There is room for everyone, and the competition is not “she is going to take my seat.” I would say men have to have the same spirit toward women on this issue that they have in Silicon Valley. When you go to Silicon Valley, and I think it’s something that is typical in the U.S. as a whole, but especially in Silicon Valley, you can see almost anyone. And the person you are with is likely to help you. He or she will meet with you because they understand your success will help their success. It’s the kind of success that brings new opportunities, new paths you haven’t discovered yet on your own. It gives you a window where you can win behind someone else or beside someone else. It can open up new ideas and opportunities. Bringing women into business brings new opportunities, new creativity, new ways of thinking, new businesses. It’s not taking a limited number of seats and giving them to women. It’s opening the company to new arenas of development and new arenas of growth. Ultimately, when new groups come into the work force, it adds seats.

Have you seen it happen in practice?

Yes. If you look at the statistics of all the companies, and if you take S.M.E.’s — small and mid-sized enterprises — you see it quite clearly. A lot of S.M.E.’s are run by women. And they are performing better than the S.M.E.’s run by men. If you take investment forums—and you know finance and investment are very masculine, macho environments—it turns out that investment forums run by women perform better than those run by men, and I‘m not talking about during the crisis alone. I’m talking about every year. You could say it’s because there are fewer women in that world, so the ones that are there must be very, very talented and self-assured. But my view is that these women simply have different points of view. It’s not that they choose opportunities that men are not choosing; it’s that they are the only ones taking those opportunities, the only ones seeing them. That’s why they make more money.

What are some examples?

I was having discussions at Sodexo — which is a global services company. It operates in, like, 130 countries. They conducted a survey and discovered that among their employees, the teams that were balanced evenly between men and women performed better than the ones that were only women or only men. They discovered balance is very important. It’s not that women are better than men; it’s that having balanced teams creates a very strong kind of creativity and respect and way of understanding each other. It makes it so everyone is able to capture opportunities for growth.

I’m the mother of a very big family. My husband and I have nine children. When our children were young, people would often remark, how “well-educated” and how “well-behaved” our children were.

The question could have been prompted by feelings of admiration, condescension, annoyance, jealousy or even fear. It could have been uttered after the person sucked it in to have enough courage to speak. Or, it could have been rudeness. How did that make you feel?

I don’t think it is as complicated as that. I never thought it was because of me. I thought it was because my kids were together, and being the mother in a big family, like ours, forces respect, listening, empowering and sharing. Many values in the business world are the same. The point is that you grow faster when you share values. Differences are good to help you see and understand things, but sharing values is important.

There are studies showing that diverse groups are more innovative. Do you agree with that?

Absolutely. Putting diversity into a company improves success and innovation. It ensures that the truth gets a seat at the table, and everybody can see it and has to deal with it. But as I said earlier, you have to explain to men that diversity is not being done against them.

Isn’t it true that, if people are comfortable, they do not to want to change?

It’s complicated. At G.E., we try to be very careful about the health of our employees. We have people responsible for health policies. As part of that, I recently met with a professor who is an expert on well-being and longevity. This is what he said as a result of taking scientific surveys inside companies. He said, “Change is good for health.”

We always believe change will create fear, that people won’t like it, and so on. The truth is, the professor said, it’s not change that makes people fearful; it’s the way you implement change. If you implement change in a positive way saying, “We are going to bring in new businesses, and we want everyone who works in these new businesses to be happy,” that’s good. But if change comes down from the top, and your people don’t understand it, and they don’t know where they’ll be going, where their place is, and if they are afraid they won’t have a job or a place tomorrow—things like that—then, yes, people will be afraid of change. Change is not the problem; change is good for people’s health when it is done correctly. Change imposed from the top and executed poorly is the problem.


What about change in general?

The survey also asked other questions. For instance, “Does the company give you confidence in yourself?” Only 40 percent of the men’s responses were positive. Then the question was asked of the men, “Does your company give confidence to women?” And the answer was something like 80 percent positive. The men surveyed thought their companies did a much better job helping women build up their confidence….

We asked women the same questions, “Do you think your company gives you confidence?” Only 20 percent of women answered that question in a positive way. And then we asked them, “Does the company give men confidence?” And the women answered 80 percent yes regarding men.

Of course, we know confidence is difficult to evaluate and measure, especially in a world where everything is changing. But we also know confidence comes from promoting diversity, because if you see someone who is different from you sitting in an office in front of yours, or next to yours, you know that it’s not because you are black or red or yellow, or because you are old or young and so on, that you sit where you do. It’s because you bring expertise, just like the other people do. It makes you feel you have something important to offer.

Which is more difficult, managing a diverse group or a homogenous one?

No question managing a diverse team requires more effort. Think about it. It’s easy to manage an army. Your people obey you, and they are like you. They even wear the same clothes you wear, the same shoes, carry the same weapons, and they are required to do what their bosses tell them to do or face punishments. In an army, everyone is on the same page.

But when you have a diverse team, you see that when you say something, not everyone understands it the same way. They do so because of their culture, their personal backgrounds, because not everyone understands or speaks English on the same level, or in the same way, because people are from different generations and locations and ethnic backgrounds. You need to be sure everyone understands what you want to do when you are the leader of a diverse group. And you need to know everyone understands each other. You need to take time to be sure everyone is on board. This means you have to be more sophisticated and adaptable in the market. There are benefits too. Instead of having only two eyes, in a geo-diverse team you have 10 or maybe 20 eyes, and you are able to look at the behaviors of your customers and colleagues differently because of that. The relationships you have with your customer can be different, and your appreciation of the market can be different.

Most of your career has been in government, not business. How did you feel coming to work at G.E. with a background and set of experiences so different from the other people you were going to work with?

At G.E., we recruit people we know will bring something different to the company. We don’t necessarily know precisely what that difference is before they join us, but we know we want it, so we seek it out.

You could say G.E. is built on curiosity and on capturing everything that is happening. We are a very big company. We have a lot of expertise. We especially have a lot of domain expertise. We are focused. We’re also a high-process company. When they recruited me, I went to the first meeting, and I said, “What do you expect of me?” My boss said, “Look at what was done by your predecessor and build on it. Bring in more opportunities for the business. Make the business grow.” And I said to him, “Yes, but how do I do that?” And he said, “Bring us your own way of thinking.”

I thought about that, and I went back home and said to my husband, “I don’t know what this job is all about, but I know it is full of opportunities.” My husband knew I wasn’t going to try and do the job that the business’s leaders were already doing. They have been doing their jobs for 20 years, sometimes more. They became experts long ago. I bring something else, something new. I had the freedom to come not only with my expertise, but with my own way of thinking. Jeff Immelt, G.E.’s chairman and CEO, says quite often, he prefers someone who might say “no” 9 times out of 10, than someone who only says “yes” all the time. He says he needs creative people who want to cross the boundaries without going out of the frame. So of course you follow the rules of the game, but you are always trying to improve the game, too.

How do you describe G.E. culture?

It is a culture in which we are all good friends. You will never send an e-mail to someone at G.E. without receiving an answer. And if someone can’t give you the ideal, correct answer, he will put you in contact with someone who can.

People at G.E. are respectful of one another. Also like good friends. Close relationships are very important at G.E. But it was my responsibility to work inside G.E. and learn the behavior and to be humble, to ask questions, to learn, and so on. We are not fixed or ossified. We change. When I arrived at G.E., we had the health care business, and we wanted to sell our [magnetic resonance imaging machines] and our scanners. We did it one way. We argued France had fewer scanners and M.R.I.’s per capita than Germany, the U.K. and so on. Because of that, in France, to get an M.R.I. reading, the average queue was about 45 days. That’s a long time to wait for such important information. So objectively, we knew France needed to buy more scanners and M.R.I.’s to give the French people the same quality health care as the British and Germans. However, it turns out that argument doesn’t work. The reason it doesn’t work is that when you talk to the [French government health officials], that’s not their issue. It’s not what they care about. Their issue is cost. They want to know, “How do I cut health care costs?”

As a result, we changed our approach. We started to look at it and think about it differently. As we did, we realized we needed people from medical schools and people with deeper experience in the health care sector to explain to us how to address the needs of the [health officials].

So we worked with a health care team, and I said, “We have to help with the money, the costs.” And our argument became “How can we help the [health] ministers reorganize themselves in different ways to save money?”

We knew we had a lot of M.R.I.’s that were used only six hours a day. We also knew that [if] some were used 12 hours a day, and 18 hours a day, it would spread the costs across more people, procedures and over more time. So, we put ourselves in the shoes of the people making the decisions – the ministers. We wanted to understand the way they saw the world and how they thought. We wanted to be able to give them the kind of answers they were searching for. My point is that we looked around the world and then we changed our approach. We changed ourselves and our processes.

Did you change it on a company-wide basis or was it a local change?

On a countrywide basis, because that’s where we had the problem that had to be addressed.

Is that how you addressed France’s issues with regard to women in business? Is that how you set your own career goals?

I live in a country that is still very macho. If you take the 150 biggest companies in France, there are no women CEOs. So, in my own case, I would say I have taken any opportunity that came to me—and I didn’t have that many. I didn’t have a career where I thought, or could think, “I’m doing this job now because in three years I will be able to do that job.” Never. And it’s not because I didn’t think I could do the job. It’s that I didn’t know the opportunity existed for me or would ever exist for me. I was ignorant about the extent of the opportunity I would be presented with. Thankfully, because of the hard work we have all done, a lot has changed in France, and a lot more opportunities now exist. But it has taken time. Real change always does.

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