Leadership, culture and getting things done – The TPCL Belgium and France stories


To celebrate TPCL’s 20th anniversary, we are chatting with colleagues from around the world. In this blog post, we hear more about how TPCL was started in Brussels and Paris. A term that has been Google searched, defined, argued and extensively written about through the ages, leadership has increasingly meant a letting go of the reins (to some extent). The old leadership paradigm of the ‘boss who knows it all’ and those hierarchical constructs of yesteryear are challenged even more today.

In a recent chat, two TPCL partners, Tom Van Dyck and Frédéric Lhospied, talked at length about leadership, communication and culture. While both work out of Belgium, Fred brought the richness of his French heritage and background to the discussion, shedding light on leadership within the French context.
Both leverage the idea that there are a few models of leadership out there but it is clear that far more needs to be done within the local context in order for leadership ideas to gain greater impact and relevance. Tom highlighted a systemic shift in how leadership is perceived today. Perhaps it has something to do with the digitalisation of many aspects of our lives and the fact that access to information has opened up. It has not gone unnoticed that people have become more vocal. They are self-directed about the information they need and how best to obtain and make sense of it. Therefore, in the light of the pandemic, it becomes ever more critical for leaders to ensure that employees (who need the ‘what’ and ‘when’ behind their projects) are also inspired, called to dream big and be motivated by a sense of purpose. All of which indicates a refuting of the idea that the person in charge knows the most. “There’s a lot more, bottom-up, challenging of the structures in power and hierarchy, and for good reason. I personally believe that the old constructs worked well than at a time when there were plants and production workers but not anymore,“ Tom clarified.

Culture and diplomacy
Leadership does not sit in a vacuum. When other elements are added to the mix – culture, language, individual preferences and communication styles – there are bound to be complexities and subtleties in how leadership is perceived and enacted. This calls to mind an interesting story on diplomacy that Tom shared during the call. Although perhaps considered a smaller nation, Tom who hails from Belgium, is keenly aware of the melting pot impact of historical European influences. Within a particularly Belgian context, he shared how modesty and humility (which could be easily translated into diplomacy) could, from a negative context, be seen as liberal with the truth. “This is something I’ve noticed often enough here”, Tom explained, “and I don’t mean “lying” but being very skilled at knowing what to disclose and when. Whereas when I speak with people from different nationalities, they come across as more outspoken, even direct, at times. With Belgians, it’s more about trying to make things work”.

He shared an example of a leadership program that he ran for a client which comprised a three-step programme. Step one involved working with the senior leadership team. Step two involved the middle management and finally, step three brought it back to the senior leadership where key learning and feedback from step two would be fed back into the coaching exercise. Enthusiasm for this plan from the beginning ensured that the plan was locked in. But strangely enough, things began to shift subtly midway through step two. Tom began to encounter resistance. “Maybe we shouldn’t call it coaching because it’s delicate.” “These leaders don’t really need coaching, they are above it”. “Maybe we should call it feedback or management consulting conversations or something else”. So this is an example of how diplomacy is put into effect simply to get things done. As Tom explained, “It seems totally acceptable to bend the truth a little. It’s not lying. It’s making things more digestible in a way so that things can move forward”.

The French context

Fred brought a different perspective to the discussion, as he shared his journey establishing the French office. He was clear about the distinction between how leadership was a far more mature concept in the Anglo-Saxon world as compared to Latin countries including France. He asserted the need for unique models of leadership at a national level. The French are a proud people, as is expected of many nations. They talk about the French way, there’s national pride and culture. But as in many other countries, there is still very much a top-down approach to leadership. In fact, in France, discussions around leadership
tend to focus on managing people. Like in many other countries, the generational shifts in perception, attitude and mindset are noticeable. Fred shared how he can see younger talent pushing for meaning in everything they do today.
“Let me share this story”, Fred elaborated. “10 years ago, there was an intern working for LVMH. They wanted to retain the intern and so, he had an appointment with one of the directors. The young intern went into the office of this senior executive and said, “ I would like to know my contributions towards LVMH. I would like to know what I’m going to bring”. Fred said that he put it across nicely, there was no arrogance but instead, a very real question and this occurred 10 years ago.

Leadership in a pandemic

Perhaps these issues come to light clearly and become even more compelling in the pandemic environment we face. We feel this need for leadership. We understand that leadership is about doing the right thing and not doing things right. This is especially so now as we face overwhelm – in the work we do, with the deluge of information we need to digest, with the sheer weight of the decisions we are called to make daily.
This is real and present for us. Everywhere and every day. As Fred shared, “It’s a topic for every level in the organisation but especially so, at middle management where they face so much pressure. And with the culture in France being so hierarchical, these middle managers are missing out on much-needed training and support.
They are under intense pressure and they simply haven’t been trained enough to cope with this.”
You could hear the intensity in the words uttered. These cannot be just words. There has to be something stronger, a bigger meaning to what we do and a higher purpose that we are called towards. Is this leadership?
This is what pulls the younger generation today. This is what they have come to realise and what drives them. Digital transformation across almost every aspect of our lives and access to information is only creating more urgency around this. “I’ve observed that, with COVID-19, this has only been accelerating,” Fred commented.
“There’s a big shift in many markets, at least in Europe and there is a definite need for French leadership. We’ve tried to copy and paste what has been in the Anglo-Saxon world into France. It doesn’t work, let’s be honest. And there’s a reaction because we are French.
We are proud of who we are. There are necessary differences between how the UK and France embrace leadership principles, of course. We need to find a way to make it concrete and tangible.”
Tom built on Fred’s points but what was particularly interesting for Tom was the shift in how they both relate to their clients.

Having been in business for the last two decades, there has been a maturing of the TPCL as an organisation. But those shifts have also brought about internal changes in how they relate to clients. Tom elaborated, “I’m not sure if it’s cyclical but let’s say it’s evolved. Thinking back to how I first interacted with clients eight years ago, I think I was a lot more accepting of their paradigms about leadership, structure, culture and more. But nowadays, we are having different conversations. I see that we’re in a lot more conversations with our clients but also we’ve been building on our own experience and letting them imagine, letting them discover their own leadership of the future. And then we will support them in getting to where they want to go. In short, we’ve become a lot more leading (rather than following ) in our leadership conversations with our clients. That’s what has emerged now listening to Fred speak.”
Perhaps even more so, there is increased pressure for pulling together high performing virtual teams.

How can leaders bridge the gap between leading and inspiring such teams?
Both Fred and Tom agreed that COVID-19 has created massive shifts at the workplace. Some sectors such as automotive and travel, for example, have been devastated with unimaginable disruption. Regardless, for many, it has been an eye-opening experience to reconsider remote work and now embrace hybrid work.
For many multinational and blue-chip organisations, it may have been considered and then put aside, regarded as impossible or not desired. But to then discover that these environments can indeed work out has created surprise. It has also brought relief and a sense of direction in navigating these unusual and uncertain times.

Virtual work in France and Belgium
Tom shared that, many expect, in a post-COVID-19 environment, for offices to shift. Offices will not disappear or be done away with but may likely be downsized. Further, the purpose of the office would shift more towards supporting meetings and learning and development
needs. Alongside increased freedoms that come with remote work, there would be increased levels of personal accountability expected.
Interestingly enough, both Tom and Fred can speak to these points about remote work. Although they saw clients experience a huge shift having to manage remote work and the virtual experience, remote work has been the nature of TPC Leadership for a long time, for both.

As Fred shared, “Remote and virtual create a magnifying glass effect, bringing to the forefront and making what is small, even bigger. It can be a wonderful way to view this experience we face. An opportunity to improve, to become a better leader, to connect to a purpose bigger than ourselves. I think that’s the opportunity of our current situation”.

The distinction between remote and virtual
With the conversation shifting to online meetings, remote work and virtual teams, Tom made a point that some of us may not have realised before: teams are never really virtual. “Yesterday, I was in a car and speaking to my nine-year-old daughter. We were talking about what I had been doing work-wise last Friday and I told her about a meeting that I attended physically. This was actually outside the Belgian borders which today may seem quite sensational,” Tom shared. Tom was surprised at his daughter’s suggestion.
She said,” Why did you go there? Why didn’t you just take it online?”
This was cause for reflection for Tom because the fact is that we do need meetings from time to time. There’s something to be said for the face to face interaction, the body language and being able to look people in the eye.
This is a thing that perhaps we might have taken for granted in the past. Clearly, as we move to a new normal in our lives, it is critical to understand that it is only the interaction between people that occurs online or can be remote.
As Tom put it, “… but remote is not virtual in that sense. We are talking and we are having a very real conversation that just happens to be taking place online. So I think we need to be careful not to reduce or diminish it through our choice of words because the term ‘virtual’ came about largely due to the world of artificial intelligence and gaming (which, in some ways, is not real. It’s a second life or a parallel universe)”.
Our focus in today’s world is not on the purely remote or the virtual team. It’s a hybrid world that we need to prepare for which viewing through a purely virtual lens does not help. After all, teams still need to deliver results.

Diversity may be necessary but so is the need for a shared vision
It was good that in the final part of the interview, both were able to share their story about how these offices were established and how they came together.
Meeting with Tom over a long-planned lunch meeting seven years ago, Fred discovered shared interests and common ground. One thing led to another and 18 months later, the French office was born with Fred at the helm.
They speak with mutual deference and yet, enough camaraderie and warmth to indicate a long friendship. Often collaborating on key consulting projects, Tom pointed out that clients who are meeting both of them for the first time see both as distinct from each other. “But we’ve only made our differences work for the greater good. We have different ways of operating, of thinking. We practise what we preach and it’s been a pleasure to discover that we bring a lot more together. You know, we can seek diversity but all the talk about this makes no difference if there is no common ground. And we’ve honed this well. We understand deeply the shared vision about the work we do,” Tom shared.

As Tom put it, “Diversity may be a given but inclusion is a choice”.
The brutal truth is that being a great leader is so much harder than it looks. But it need not be this way. If you would like to learn more about how we can help you strengthen your team, please reach out. Together, we can make things happen. Together, we can make a difference.

Tom Van Dyck, who has been with TPC Leadership since 2013 is the Managing Partner TPCL for Belgium. It was his time managing teams for close to 10 years in large multinational corporations that sparked his interest in coaching. He brings 15+ years of industry experience, as a top-tier MBA and strategy consultant.

Frédéric Lhospied joined TPC Leadership in 2015 and is the Managing Partner TPCL for France. Experienced in leading different types of teams, Frédéric has multi-faceted roles as consultant, coach and headhunter. Collaborating at the international level primarily with private sector organisations, he works with C-level executives, directors and managers from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds.

@copyright TPCL (2021)

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