I’m “the woman who resists” claims former French nuclear group Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon on the cover of her autobiography. And resisted she did, against the anti-nuclear lobbies, the Greens, the CEOs who wanted to take her job and ultimately Nicolas Sarkozy. She tells of an exemplary career which took her from a working class family to leading nuclear expert thanks to a strong work ethic, a lot of hard work and an ability to meet the right people at the right time.
Never stop learning. Lauvergeon went to the best French schools, paid as much attention to humanities as she did to science. As a result, her autobiography is woven with literary references, her analyses of human behaviour based on philosophical concepts. When she criticises her peers, it’s often for their lack of knowledge in a field she’s expert in. Case in point: her arch ennemy Henri Proglio, EDF’s CEO who wanted to turn the electricity company into a nuclear leader without knowing much on the topic. Her culture and willingness to learn earned her mentors: Raymond Levy, who loved discussing La Fontaine’s Fables with her and got her her first job out of higher education looking after Paris’ quarries and underground network (a job she describes as a learning curve) and François Mitterrand, who took her for a walk in the park during a 1991 international summit to talk trees, 19th century literature and the French kings.
Don’t hesitate to refuse a big job if it’s wrong for you… In 2007, the newly elected Nicolas Sarkozy suggested Lauvergeon picked any government position she wanted. In 2011, he suggested she went for Air France CEO. She turned him down, explaining she had no experience in the field.
… But don’t hesitate to take a job that feels right against all odds and advice. In 1999, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin offered Lauvergeon the directorship of French nuclear company Cogema. The Greens had just totaled 10% of the votes in the European elections: nuclear was out whereas telecoms, where Lauvergeon was working, was in and rising. Yet she took the job and her first step in nuclear leadership.
Mentors matter. Lauvergeon learnt from the best from early on, writing her master’s thesis on the daily life of French CEOs, although she denies it inspired her to become one. Mitterrand, whom she (literally) bumped into while running in the Elysée palace corridors, supported her rise to deputy secretary general, Jacques Chirac supported her work at Areva and Sarkozy’s lack of support ultimately cost her her CEO job.
Show the same support to your peers and employees. “I knew this support, from time to time, made up for the harsh, hurting, unnecessary words you hear so often, and even more if you don’t fit in” (p.39).
Don’t make a fuss about being a woman but acknowledge it makes things different. Lauvergeon argues Prime Minister Edith Cresson, whom she worked with, was pilloried in a way no man would have been. When she first set foot on the factory floor at Usinor as an intern, Lauvergeon was something of a UFO: women were forbidden in the building. Cue a meeting with a manager working from a room papered with porn pictures. Many a Lauvergeon detractor and co-worked expected to take advantage of her pregnancies to move up at Areva.
Playing dumb can be the smartest move. As demonstrated during her first meeting with Francois de Grossouvre, a high ranking public servant who tried to impress her with his access to Miterrand, whom she’d just met; when reacting to Proglio swearing he hadn’t told national media dismantling Areva was the only way forward; when Sarkozy explained the Areva CEO, like the French President, was only allowed two mandates.
Be truthful. “I speak frankly, directly, without trying to stigmatise, break or mislead my interlocutor” (p.39). While deputy secretary general at the Elysée, she spoke against Prime Minister Pierre Bérégovoy and the entire government to encourage them to adopt a new policy on the CAP. Being supported by Mitterrand probably helped. Her first move at Cogema was to meet with the Green Environment minister, Dominique Voynet, to discuss the topics they agreed and disagreed on.
Time is the essence. “As a scientist, I used to be convinced a decision was the right decision. I learnt a decision was different whether taken at moment M or at moment M plus 24 hours. Not only do you need to find the right decision, you need to find the right time to apply it”. (p.96)
Anne Lauvergeon La Femme qui résiste(Plon, 2012). All translations my own