Interview with Valérie Pierre, General Manager France & Belux at Nikon
Monday 07:13, Brussels-Midi. Valérie Pierre, 41 years old, gets on the Thalys train. It's heading for Paris. Another crazy week begins. Nikon's General Manager for France & Belux splits her weeks between Paris and Brussels. Three days in the French capital, two in the European capital. Valérie Pierre therefore has ‘French days’ and ‘Belgian days’. And these are definitely not the same!
In addition to the cultural differences between France and Belgium, her employer is Japanese. However, at Nikon, the atmosphere is very different from Amélie Nothomb's Fear and Trembling. At least in Europe. ‘I was hired while pregnant, which just goes to show how open-minded and accepting the Japanese giant really is!’ Valérie Pierre tells us, astonished.
So, as an enthusiast of leading by example, how does this mother of a little 6 year old girl always stay in the ‘driver's seat’ and maintain her reputation as a ‘very good conductor’? She embraces a famous Kennedy quote...
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." You like to repeat this quote by J.F. Kennedy to your teams and apply it to yourself, don't you?
Valérie Pierre: "It's true. When I left Sony for Nikon, my boss told me “You are the master of your own destiny”. For me, it was important to be true to myself, to find a balance, and to have things in my life that made me feel good. It is important for me to enjoy my job and also for things to work well on the family front. To maintain this, sometimes I stop and I ask myself again: “Am I happy with my lifestyle and does it work for me?” If that isn't the case, then it's up to me to find a solution. I'm not going to wait for Nikon, my husband, or my friends to find it for me. Nobody is the source of the problem, but I am the source of the solution.
It's the same for my teams, who I like to cite this Kennedy quote to. I tell them: “Don't ask what others can do for you; ask what you can do to make things better, for the business, and for yourselves.” For me, it's important to have this constructive mind-set."
Have you built your career around this mind-set?
"The position I have now is the result of a series of developments, all of which seemed logical to me. I had opportunities, and I was offered options that motivated me. I believed strongly in what I was doing. And when that's the case, you succeed. When you have that sort of momentum, you inevitably end up with a certain level of responsibility."
Was becoming General Manager your goal?
"Not at all. I do this job because I enjoy it, not because of the status or the level of hierarchy it represents. When I was asked about it in 2013, I said to myself that it was the right time. My daughter was at an age when it wouldn't have too much of an impact on her and my husband had just gone freelance so he no longer had to travel. I got on board, both literally and figuratively."
One of your old bosses described you as a ‘very good conductor’...
"I try to be quite democratic without having to reach full consensus with my teams. I give guidelines, but I like to see feedback. I believe in top down/down top management. But not indefinitely! I always set myself a limit so that I don't put the progress of the project at risk, for example."
Do you believe in more feminine management?
"Women are more conciliatory. It's very energy consuming. You have to put a part of yourself into it. It's more difficult than sending an email to your teams saying “this is how it is, and that's that!” A female manager often has less of an ego; she recognises and accepts her mistakes more quickly. That said, personally, I like to work in tandem with men because soft and hard qualities balance each other out."
What are your values in your work?
"Loyalty and freedom. I get my motivation from being dedicated and loyal to my company. You don't complete a project for yourself; you deliver what you've promised. You honour your commitments. Personally, that's what's helped me to progress. Whenever I've made progress in my career, I wasn't looking for a promotion. Working hard motivated me. And when you are motivated, you succeed, you gain more ground, more autonomy. In short, more freedom. And when that happens, you really feel like you are in the driver's seat. You have gained autonomy and freedom."
Is it not difficult to have freedom within a Japanese company, which is often very hierarchical and chauvinistic?
"Nikon is a very approachable company, at least in Europe. The proof of that is that I was hired while pregnant! Seeing this open and accepting mind-set was definitely a good introduction to the company. Equality between men and women is also part of Nikon's core beliefs in Europe. It's different in Japan; the top management there is exclusively male. But things change. The younger generation is more inclined to delegate and to give responsibility to women."
Would you be tempted by a position in Japan?
"That would be a true challenge! At the moment, only one Westerner works at the headquarters, and she speaks Japanese. That's not the case for me. I learnt Japanese culture by myself; I would have liked to have been offered Japanese classes. That should be part of internal training."
In the meantime, you split your time between Paris and Brussels. Is that not a bit crazy?
"Yes, absolutely. They have very different approaches to work. Demands are higher in France. You can't just be happy with the most logical solution. It's very time consuming. Even though it's not always necessary! There's also a greater complexity to French business. There's a lot more legislation in France, which makes everything more complicated than it is in Belgium."
Where does your energy come from?
"From my family, my friends, my inter-club tennis team. I also try to make sure I have three or four-day breaks, so I can rest, and assess things. I naturally allow myself time to ask: is this still what I want? What direction do I want to go in? As organisations change a lot, you need to ask yourself these questions more often. It's important to do that, instead of just following the motions. It's a way of staying in the driver's seat. It's important to return to moments when you've said to yourself “wow, I like this a lot”. I want to keep that passion alive."
Have you never wanted to give it all up?
"Yes, but at the same time, you give something up every time you make a choice. If it all ended overnight, there would be a lot of things I would miss. I believe in evolution more than sudden change. This allows me to be ready for any changes as they come, precisely without getting to the point of dropping everything."
What wish do you have for your future?
"To always stay this enthusiastic and optimistic?"