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On women, work and savoir faire

MEETING the author of French Women Don&rsquo;t Get Fat, the bestselling diet book, is a rather daunting prospect for someone who is neither particularly thin nor&nbsp; remotely French &ndash; certainly not when it comes to Gallic standards of stylishness. I expected Mireille Guiliano to be scary &ndash; judgmental, fearfully immaculate and devastatingly tiny.<br /><br />I was right about the last two &ndash; very wrong about the first. A tiny (yes), immaculate (yes) but tranquil, kindly lady meets me in the cafe of the Charlotte Street Hotel. <br />Her wide eyes regard me steadily, she speaks quietly, and immediately gives off a maternal vibe. She buys us a cup of tea each and we sip. <br /><br />We are meeting to discuss her latest book, Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire, which, although it&rsquo;s labelled as a business book, is nothing like what other business books look like. It&rsquo;s got a turquoise pastel cover, raised red lettering and a jaunty illustration of a skirted, jacketed and &ndash; naturellement &ndash; stilettoed woman talking on her mobile and swinging a purse. <br /><br />Seems fluffy? Do not be deceived &ndash; Guiliano knows plenty about business and corporate culture. From a background in translation, then PR for the Champagne Bureau in New York, she joined Veuve Clicquot&rsquo;s US division in 1985 and became responsible for turning a three-person operation with 1 per cent market share into a brand commanding 25 per cent of the champagne market in America, which would eventually be bought by luxury giant LVMH. <br /><br />Born in France, Guiliano &ndash; daughter of a factory clerk and grocer &ndash; was adept at languages and determined to join the Council of Europe as a translator. She got the job, went travelling to celebrate and met a dreamy American stranger that she fell for immediately. That was when her life plan went out the window and she found herself, after prioritising her now-husband, moving to New York to start all over again. This change of gear was formative in her life &ndash; and business &ndash; philosophy: one must be aware of, and open to, different routes that one never foresaw. &ldquo;I never planned to write books &ndash; and certainly not a business book,&rdquo; she says, to prove the point. <br /><strong><br />ENLIGHTENED SELF INTEREST</strong><br />Yet it was by popular demand from the women she lectured at business schools that she wrote one and it&rsquo;s just what they wanted &ndash; a mentor in book form. Always with a soft touch, she tackles many areas of career progression, from office politics&nbsp; to the importance of an ironed shirt. But the crux of it is a concept Guiliano calls &ldquo;acting with enlightened self interest&rdquo; &ndash;&nbsp; the decisions you make once you &ldquo;know thyself&rdquo;. This is not selfishness &ndash; it is playing to your strengths whether it be in choosing a career or progressing in an existing one. And when you know yourself enough to know what makes you happy outside work, your demeanor in the office becomes infinitely more appealing. <br /><br />Men might enjoy the book, but Guiliano has written it as an affirmation of female potential. &ldquo;Women will rule the world,&rdquo; she says. &ldquo;But we need to break out into engineering and science. I&rsquo;m optimistic, though &ndash; in 20 years there&rsquo;s been big improvements for women in business. I had treatment when I was 25 that no woman would put up with today.&rdquo;<br /><br />Guiliano&rsquo;s success is the by-product of a quiet self-confidence, not feminist rage. She doesn&rsquo;t see a stark &ldquo;men v women&rdquo; set-up &ndash; rather a difference in approach that can evolve to be more woman-friendly and therefore better for everyone. &ldquo;The way men approach business is not fundamentally different to the way we do, but it&rsquo;s the lack of flexibility in the business world that&rsquo;s holding us back. Businesses lose these passionate, excellent women through being inflexible about children. To enact change, we should not be aggressive and screaming &ndash; we can teach men by remaining calm but firm.&rdquo;<br /><br />The future of business that Guiliano &ndash; and an increasing number of executives &ndash; are seeing&nbsp; is one with lots of women at the top. &ldquo;When we rule, we&rsquo;ll have our own rules,&rdquo; she says simply, with that quiet assurance. I feel like punching the air, but that would be gauche before such a composed woman. So I just say &ldquo;amen to that&rdquo; and go on my way with a spring in my step.<br />&nbsp; <br />Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire is out now (Simon and Schuster, &pound;12.99).<br /><br /><strong>CV MIREILLE GUILIANO<br /></strong>Born in eastern France, Guiliano was educated in Paris, where she studied French and English literature at Paris-Sorbonne University and languages at the Institut Superieur d'Interpretariat et de Traduction. <br /><br />Joining Champagne Veuve Clicquot in 1984, she spent 20 years as the spokesperson for Clicquot Inc (US), becoming CEO and a senior executive at LVMH. <br />Her first book, French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, became a global best seller in 2005. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and has no children. <br /><strong>WISE WORDS SEE YOURSELF AS A VITAL UNIT<br /></strong>&ldquo;To act with enlightened self interest, you have &lsquo;to know thyself&rsquo; and step out of your immediate body full of instant passions, including anger, love, jealousy, and perhaps even hate. (The failure to know oneself is, of course, at the core of all classic Greek tragedies). You need to make a cold analysis of your situation in context. You need, for instance, to see, understand and weigh your company&rsquo;s plans and interests alongside your own unit&rsquo;s or supervisor&rsquo;s and then see yourself as a third and more vital unit. Then run the behavioural options for all three &ndash; the what ifs, from multiple perspectives. Often, what you want to do in your gut is, upon reflection, not in your true best interest. So much self-help guidance is based on the notion of following one&rsquo;s heart, but again, reality is usually more complicated than that.&rdquo; Extract from Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire.