FRANCE: Europe's hard way to the top - hautes etudes commerciales.

FRANCE: Europe's hard way to the top - hautes etudes commerciales. - Aspirant European managers will have to slot in to an elite network, writes Peter Wilsher.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Aspirant European managers will have to slot in to an elite network, writes Peter Wilsher.

Michael Wood reckons he has discovered the recipe for becoming a European manager (as opposed to the single-country, I-leave-that-sort-of-thing-to-the-export-department variety). In this case it requires that you graduate with a good first degree from the London School of Economics, spend most of your twenties building up a business of your own, sell it as you approach your 30th birthday, and then devote some £6,000 of the proceeds to signing yourself up for a tri-lingual MBA course where you will have the chance to work alongside a French nuclear submarine captain, a German theologian, a Portuguese engineer and, for good measure, a Chinese computer programmer. If you can complete a successful project in that sort of group, he calculates, you should be well on your way to acquiring the assorted skills needed to survive and prosper in the coming single market.

The institution he chose, after a lot of careful checking and comparison-making, as the place to polish up his internationalist credentials was France's (and indeed probably Europe's) oldest-established management school, the HEC. The initials stand for Hautes Etudes Commerciales and it dates back to 1881, when it was established by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry. That makes it almost three-quarters of a century younger than the Ecole des Mines, the Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, which traditionally train people for the top in French government and business. But there is no question it is in that same elite network. This year it expects to process no fewer than 70,000 applications to its undergraduate course. Around 17,000 of these will then embark on the demanding three-year preparation which is required just to get them up to speed for the entrance examination. Many will drop out along the way, Barely 4,000, on past form, will make it through to the rigorous week-long test that separates boardroom sheep from dilettante goats' and a mere 314 will actually win one of the coveted places on the 100-professor campus at Jouy-en-Josas to the south-east of Paris. Those who do, however, are virtually guaranteed an inside lane on the corporate fast track: more than half of those who graduated in 1974 or earlier have already made it to chairman, chief executive or MD, and another quarter are running large divisions or controlling major administrative functions.

Competition to get into the Institut Superieur des Affaires (ISA), which is HEC's post-graduate (and in most cases post-experience) school, is not quite so cut-throat, but it is no doddle either. Like Michael Wood, its average entrant has had at least five high-flying years of executive advancement, and is now ready to invest 16-months' worth of career potential (usually at his or her own expense - ISA very much prefers personal commitment to corporate secondment) in adding a European dimension to an already-impressive CV.

It is not, of course, the only management school to recognise the importance of EC developments - far from it. There are now 11 similar institutions, including, most recently, our own LSE, linked together to form CEMS, the Community of European Management Schools. This was launched in 1988 to build up a common body of knowledge in fields like economics, law, accounting and financial engineering and incorporate these in a Common European Business Degree, of which a steadily increasing number are now being awarded.

HEC can justifiably claim to have been one of the key pioneers. It was one of CEMS's four founder-members, and realised earlier than most of its rivals the need to develop a genuinely transnational style of management training. Its graduate programme director, Jean-Marc De Leersnyder, ruefully admits: "We were all late waking up to the contradiction between the market-without-frontiers we were all working so hard to develop, and the almost wholly parochial education we were providing for the people who would have to make it work." But now they are driving hard to catch up.

Currently two out of five ISA students are from outside France, with a gratifyingly high proportion from the UK. They are allowed to take the Masters course in either French or English, which helps to iron out any problems of technical vocabulary, but no-one gets accepted unless they are fluent in both, ("You could hardly function in Paris otherwise"). Before they leave they are required to add at least one additional language from the 10 on offer. The mini-computer is live in their room from the moment they arrive, linked up 24-hours a day with HEC's enormous data network which is now virtually capable of simulating the entire European Community without leaving the site, and they are expected to make full use of its resources. As one of them said, on a recent London visit for rest and recuperation, "I've been in banking, consultancy and international credit rating since I left Oxbridge, but it took HEC to teach me the meaning of workaholic."

Valuable as that may be, though, it is not HEC's unique selling proposition. That has to be the entree it offers to the inner circle of men and women who, Common Market or otherwise, will continue to run France's economy as they have for the past 100 years. Failure to understand that has brought defeat for a small army of would-be Europewide entrepreneurs: Agnelli, Benedetti, Berlusconi. But for Michael Wood, he hopes, there should be no problem.

Peter Wilsher is a freelance consultant and writer.

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