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Towards a European career path

On 13 March, French economic newspaper, Les Échos, published a short comparison of the career paths of a few French, German and UK CFOs.

In general terms, what the article seems to highlight is a predominance in Germany of Finanzvorstände who have climbed up the hierarchical ladder internally. Their Gallic counterparts are mostly graduates of the French Grandes Écoles, mandated to train the country’s elite, most having previously worked in government or the civil service. In the UK, obtaining chartered accountancy status and climbing the ladder through various successive (and successful) company moves seems the norm.

It would perhaps fit certain stereotypes too well to say that the German system rewards hard work and loyalty and that the French model does not leave much room for a fast renewal of the elites. The UK comes across quite positively, with an emphasis on professional qualifications and experience.

Yet, in an ever globalising world, where exchanges within the EU are at an all-time high, shouldn’t we be seeing a convergence of recruitment practices? Since the French INSEAD became the first European university to award MBA degrees in 1957, more and more high-flying executives throughout Europe feel the need to add three letters after their name and some prestige to their academic credentials. Spam from seemingly bogus universities, offering little more that a piece of paper, arrive almost daily nowadays.

Yet there are questions. The current UK banking sector crisis has led many to ask how the boards of the banks, whose members may have had impressive résumés, but little banking experience, were able to understand such a complex business.

In France, a furore erupted when François Pérol, former head of president Sarkozy’s cabinet, became head of the bank created after the merger of Caisse d’Épargne and Banques Populaires. This led to renewed accusations of pantouflage (a specifically French term designating a top civil servant given a ‘cosy’ position in a top private business – the term is related to the French word for slipper).

New species?

So will the career paths of top executives in European countries soon be interchangeable? Adam Piekarski, of ExecutiveSurf Poland predicts the arrival of a new breed of high-flyer, based on what he has seen in his country. Following the post-communist privatisations, two types of business leaders were apparent. On the

one hand, political connections were still vital for a top position in a state concern (or a recently privatised business). Private sector business’ recruitment practices, however, were in line with what could be seen in the UK and the US.

As the large companies merge, the various economic factors start working together, even more so in a contracting financial environment, he predicts that a new hybrid CFO’s time has come. The new kid on the block will have professional or technical training but understands that to succeed, this is no longer enough and you need to know how to network and be aware of the political aspects of a job.

The question remains, however, whether public demands for change will quicken evolution, or will any changes only become visible in the next generation of top executives?

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