MEDEF 2009: Ethical Capitalism – A call for transparency?

MEDEF UNIVERSITE D’ETE PLENARY SESSION – 3 September, 2009

“Will capitalism become ethical or not?”
Plenary Session animated by Jean-Pierre Elkabach

Below I will highlight a few points that I took away from the two hour plenary session, brilliantly managed by JP Elkabach, on Ethical Capitalism at the MEDEF Summer University 2009.

As with the other subjects discussed in all the sessions at the Medef UE 2009, the US clearly remains a nevralgic centre for business leaders in France. To be sure, I was not the only American in the audience to be fingered. The newly assigned US Ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, was on hand to hear a number of rather broad criticisms of the US in the current crisis. Not too surprisingly, a large part of the ‘debate’ was focused on America, the originator of today’s world crisis.

With a few broad strokes, Pierre Bellon, President of Sodexho, ranted (since he feels he has earned the right), “the fault [of the current crisis] lies with bankers…credit agencies…and politicians…” As if that were not enough, he also felt the need to state that “the citizen and the small companies cannot be held responsible.” Mr Bellon called for, among other things, greater transparency, the cleaning up of conflicting interests, and the end of the eternal optimisation of corporate profits… What irked me about his tirade was the feeling that there was little accountability in his words There were no corresponding concessions understood in the propositions and there was no ripost from the stage or floor…

Laurent Fabius, former PM of France, explained that the US will have to rebalance its budget. ‘It is an enormous “black cloud” that looms over the world’ said Fabius about the US budget deficit. Regarding France and the system of ‘privileges‘ (defined as that which is “read in private“), Fabius suggested that the MEDEF should review that which should be allowed to be transparent as he believes that the trend toward total transparency is dangerous. Fabius grandly called for a Social and Ecological Economy, whatever that means.

Christine Lagarde, France’s Minister of Economic Affairs, also did not like too much transparency either. However, in a play on words, if not shadows, she prefers to shed “light”… shone on the shadier, darker areas, including the Swiss banking traditions (2/3 of the world’s transactions occur in the ignorance of, or outside the realm of the world’s governing agencies). However, unfortunately, she did not have the opportunity to elaborate on which transparency she did not want to have…

What struck me about the intervention of the three people I cite above was the recurring issue of transparency. To be transparent or not to be… and about what? This was certainly a topic that came up again and again in the various sessions. In certain regards, on an emotional level, total transparency is an unlikely objective, even dangerous. In any event, is there such a thing as total truth? Unlikely. The issue of total transparency is that one may risk removing all the mystery of life (as one might appreciate in surprises, love and luxury … ). Secondly, there are certainly some things better left unsaid in terms of avoiding unnecessary heartache…e.g. white lies. Whether personal or political, some secrets are better kept that way. But, how and when to know to stop the transparency tap? Aside from state secrets, there is the case of some ‘sensitive’ subjects being put into the wrong hands (notably the media), and these do indeed need to be treated with great care. But, shrouding facts behind the veil of secrecy is a tricky business. And, for the cynical, if everything is transparent, there is no more wiggle room for propaganda?

Nonetheless, notwithstanding the philosophical nature of total disclosure (cf Rousseau’s Confessions), I truly believe that, in the field of business, there is a need for much greater transparency and I would be worried to believe that Mme Lagarde would not agree. Transparency is, in this case, an issue of strategic communication. This does not mean that one need be saying everything about every subject; too much information is one of today’s major curses. Yet, there is much to gain in terms of employee ‘buy-in’ by being transparent about a corporation’s its financials, challenges and ambitions. Such transparency helps galvanize what is sometimes termed as ‘psychic ownership‘ whereby, without needing recourse to stock options, an employee comes to ‘own’ the vision and the problems and, along the way, becomes part of the solutions, too. Even in the case of brands and their relationship with the customer, transparency is more desirable. The myth of “mystique = value added” has worn thin. The brands need to regain the [lost] trust of the customer which is why there is so much being attention paid to authenticity and transparency. Surely, it is not too strong a leap to suggest ethical capitalism should include transparent values and justifiable value? Would be glad to have your feedback on this topic!

I finish with what, for me, was one of the more poignant phrases of the conference. Philippe Lemoine, President of LaSer said, “[t]he French need to have confidence in themselves…” He encouraged the MEDEF business leaders: “You need to listen better…” and you will find your way better.

#MEDEFUE09

Lech Walesa at the MEDEF Universite d’Ete 2009

Lech Walesa, ex-President of Poland and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, gave a resounding speech at the MEDEF Universite d’Ete 2009. Walesa retraced the history behind the Solidarnosc movement he led in Poland and then presented his case for progressing the European cause. Here are a few sound bytes (translated from the Polish into French and again into English by me).

Lech Walesa, ex-President of Poland, 2009

Walesa spoke about the extraordinarily peaceful times we live in, saying that “no generation has ever had as great a period of peace and we have a great chance to make a unified Europe, without the use of force.”
–Commentary: Of course, the ‘peaceful era’ doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case for the Americans.

He continued by asking whether today’s generation will be capable of taking advantage of this worldwide truce? Walesa called for more action to create a unified Europe. “I believe that this generation, via democratic debate, will understand what is missing… what is needed…”

“If the individual’s wishes continue to be privileged, we cannot do much … we will continue to have the crises…. such as the economic crisis we are experiencing today” — meaning that there needs to be more solidarity…

“I am just a revolutionary, and I don’t have all the answers…” including to the question “what economy, what economic system is needed for a unified Europe?” A second question: “Which Democracy, which liberty [for Europe]?”

“If I could tell my [dead] father that there are no frontiers in Europe and that there are no soldiers between Germany & Poland, he’d have a heart attack.”

I’d like to be the world’s last revolutionary. I would like to have lots of monuments, but with due reason because I would have succeeded and you would have succeeded…” i.e. that there would be no more need to revolt.

I enjoyed his speech and his passion. I also believe that the questions he raised for Europe and the clear risks that are poised in not unifying Europe are indeed critical for today’s generation. Of course, on a few other points, I considered his thoughts unlikely to gain traction (especially that the way to avoid all crises lies in finding solutions to create general solidarity…). Nonetheless, if he’s not the most appreciated person in Poland, he certainly gathered a few [more] fans in France with this speech.

Here’s the video of his speech on MEDEF TV (translated into French only) and featuring Laurence Parisot’s introduction and a question from the floor.

Cherie Blair delivers opening speech at MEDEF Universite d’Ete 2009

Cherie Blair at MEDEF UE 2009If the plight of children and the role of women is the key issue for the  MEDEF Summer University [Universite d'Ete] 2009, Ms. Cherie Blair was a wonderful choice to open the conference. If her speech felt a little long, there were many interesting points raised in her 30 minute speech.  I captured below a few sound bytes that resonated for me:

The men among the 3000 people in attendance in the room (and in positions of power in general) will need to be, not only interested in, but, to play a critical role in solving the challenges of the 21st century facing our children.  As Ms. Blair suggested, most of the women in the room are probably already attuned to the issues… However, it is only when men and women work together as equals that “we can make a difference.”

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, a universally agreed set of non-negotiable standards and obligations, is signed by all countries of the United Nations but two: Somalia and the United States.  Maybe President Obama will sign up the US?

There are 1 billion children in the world lacking proper sanitation.

All the research and studies show that an investment in educating a girl [in third world countries] is a better investment than investing in a boy.  Educated women have healthier, fewer and more educated children.  And, educated women are likely to have a stronger voice in their family and their economy….

“Educate a man, you educate an individual.
Educate a woman and you educate a family and a nation.”

Tony Blair was told by a patriarch of the backbench, back when he was serving as an opposition MP, that if he kept leaving the House of Commons promptly after the 7pm o’clock session (to take care of his children) without spending some time fraternising with “the boys” that he would never get anywhere in politics….

Ms. Blair described being a working mother as being an experiment in organized chaos… There is so much to do in managing and finding work-life balance.  In order for the concept of “flexible work” to get to the next level it will take concrete actions — not words — led by the top [and visible] executives.  On this point, I fully subscribe to the need to have role models, role models who can succeed to find that equilibrium all the while replying adequately to the pressures and needs of the company’s stakeholders.

France has a system that suits a society where fewer women work… i.e. Ms. Blair suggested that serious change needs to come to France.  She did not elaborate on this point, but one must assume she is referring, among other things, to the midweek break at schools in particular.  On the other side, France has an amazing crèche system that starts at the age of 3 years old…

As opposed to believing that the youth of today are aimless, shallow and uncultivated, Ms Blair insisted that today’s young people have incredible compassion, energy and depth.  Plus, they have a connectivity across the world…  It would seem that we, the parents, should be learning from our kids.

To a question from the floor about a good model to follow (outside of France) in terms of treating women and children, per Cherie Blair, there is no one best solution, but there is a range of models.  If she did not specify which countries were in that range, Ms Blair referred to the World Economic Forum which scales the countries of the world in terms of the gender gap across a number of criteria.  It’s true that the Nordic countries dominate the top 5, she said and that Europe has the best record among the regions.   However, “the Scandinavian model is too prescriptive in terms of childcare,” meaning that women may not even have the choice to stay at home with their children.  [I have written about the WEF Study previously on my blog .]

A woman who has taken a gap out of her career to have a child and take care of that child should be able to return to work under truly normal conditions.  Ms Blair said, “[T]here is too much subtle culture in business that says ‘we know we have to [give a woman maternity leave, etc]‘… but, if you are going to do that, we know you are not really serious about your career…”  This is a problem for women, and an even bigger problem for men who are interested in parental leave and a share on the home front because of the persistent prejudice on the career.

Overall, a well presented case… Hopefully, it did not fall on deaf — largely male — ears.

MEDEF Universite d’Ete 2009 – Live Blogging To Come

MEDEF Universite d'Ete 2009I have been invited to participate as a Live Blogger [Journalist] at the MEDEF Université d’Eté 2009 (“Summer University 2009″) which takes place next week from 2-4 September. The MEDEF is essentially a union for French business people. It is the leading network of businessmen and women in France, boasting 700,000 member firms (90% with less than 50 employees) and is run by the enterprising CEO, Mrs. Laurence Parisot. As Mrs. Parisot says, “ Enterprise is life… and life should be wonderful!”

The theme for this Summer University is perfect for anyone wanting to look forward, to a constructive new way of doing business: “In Search of the New Times.”

The MEDEF Summer University Conference takes place at the HEC campus (Jouy-en-Josas) just outside of Paris, and consists of four half-day sessions. There are no less than 15 members of the current French Cabinet on stage at one time or another, including the Minister of the Economy, Christine Lagarde and the ever charming and dynamic Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who is in charge of the Digital Economy. There are also numerous CEOs (eg Maurice Levy – Publicis, Louis Gallois – EADS, Didier Lombard – Orange, Christophe de Margerie – Total), several ex-Prime Ministers (Juppé, Rocard…), some ‘celebrities’ (Alain Prost, Yann-Arthus Bertrand, Eva Joly) and a couple of foreign dignitaries (esp Mrs. Cherie Blair whose site is designed to help show “how women all around the world can work together to improve their lives”).

If the programme is entirely in French, I intend to provide an international report in English! So, watch this space.