Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense & Sensibility

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9781416589204: Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire: Business Sense & Sensibility

From the #1 New York Times bestselling “high priestess of French lady wisdom” (USA Today) comes every woman’s guide to navigating the world of work, living the good life, and savoring every minute of it.

Mireille Guiliano, internationally bestselling author of French Women Don’t Get Fat and former senior executive for Veuve Clicquot, uses her distinctive French woman’s philosophy and style to share lively lessons, stories, and helpful hints from her experiences at the front lines and highest echelons of the business world. Guiliano offers every reader the practical advice she needs to make the most of work without ever losing sight of what is most important: feeling good, facing challenges, getting ahead, and maximizing pleasure at every opportunity.

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About the Author:

Mireille Guiliano is the bestselling author of French Women Don't Get Fat, French Women For All Seasons, and Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire.  Born and raised in France, she is married to an American and lives most of the year in New York and Paris.  She is the former President and CEO of Clicquot, Inc.   

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
LIFE IS LIVED IN EPISODES AND STAGES


In just over two months’ time, I was going to start my dream job: translator at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. Then chance or fate intervened.

Six months earlier, my first serious position after college as a translator-interpreter and small-projects manager in the Paris office of a Swedish company had ended abruptly when the office was closed during one of those periodic tough economic times that leads to downsizing. I had worked there more than a year and was given a bit of severance pay. Quite a bonanza for a girl in her twenties. And it got better.

I needed a job, of course, and that led me to set my sights on the Council of Europe, which for young and innocent moi was the ultimate employer on my radar screen. I aced the qualifying exam and was offered a position as a translator starting the next session, in the fall. So, in the meantime, I used my severance pay to travel to America and Greece and on the spur of the moment took a last-minute discounted American Express weekend to Istanbul.

On a bus from the airport to the hotel there, a handsome fellow with longish curly hair, blue eyes, and a deep tan said to me in French, “Vous êtes très intelligente de voyager avec un p’tit sac....” (You are very smart to travel so light).

I always travel light, but in this case it was because I had left my suitcase back in Athens.

I figured he was Turkish. He wasn’t.

He was an American from New York who had seen the same discounted trip from Athens to Istanbul.

He became my companion for the next few days, and then for another few days back in Athens, and then for another few days, and then I was hopelessly in love.

We wanted to continue our relationship, but he had to return to America, where he was completing his Ph.D. I went back to France. For the next weeks I faced what turned out to be the most important decision of my life. A classic: the job, the man, the city, the country?

Familiar with it? The country, the city, the man, the job. The man or the job...the job or the man?

Forget all my previous planning and dreaming, I chose the man and New York, my husband and home now for more than thirty years. I never took up my early dream of working at the Council of Europe.

So much for planning, in business or in life. Lesson learned. Things happen. Opportunities are often unpredictable.

Life is lived in episodes and stages. Episodes because they are roughly self-contained and somewhat arbitrary, at least as they relate to time and place. Stages because they evolve out of one another and are linear and in many cases inevitable, like adolescence or one’s first professional position. Business, too, is lived in episodes and stages, and it has a sometimes cruel way of disarming our passions and shrugging off some of our most prized abilities as commonplace or irrelevant.

PURSUING ONE’S GIFTS

One stage in my life began when I was a teenager in Eastern France and discovered a passion for languages—my native French, increasingly important English, and old-world German, then the preeminent first language in Europe (though no one outside Germany wanted to admit it). When we are good at something—and I was very good at the study of languages—aren’t we proud and motivated to pursue it and encouraged to do so by others? Sure. People who are good at music, dance, or athletics, for instance, fill their early years pursuing their gifts and pleasures, perhaps even becoming world-class performers or nearly so, and some even turn professional. But generally not for long.

My interest in language and culture led me to become a high school exchange student outside Boston, then a college student in Paris, and eventually helped bring me to America to be with my soon-to-be husband, Edward, where I worked in the proverbial fields. Early on I was a translator, including for the UN, then, following my passion, I toiled in the lowest of the low positions at the New York office of Food and Wine from France. Then I moved on to a New York PR-advertising firm where I leveraged my French heritage and a bit of knowledge to become a director of the Champagne Bureau, a trade organization and U.S. division of the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), promoting the entire Champagne industry. That’s when—college internships and entry-level jobs included—I truly learned business and benefited from the fatherly teachings of the American owner of the agency.

It seemed like a risk to me to take that first professional job in PR. As I’ve noted, I had no training. I feared I would be unemployed in no time. Even sitting in my own office on Fifth Avenue with a secretary outside my door—Fifth Avenue in New York City!—gave me the willies at first. But then I discovered something about myself and about overcoming fears and anxieties.

Maybe you, like me, can remember walking into your first real job or a new position after a promotion and wondering whether you could live up to your employer’s expectations, whatever those were. For me, it turned out that some of my first tasks would involve public speaking and giving radio interviews, activities that rank right up there among people’s most common dreads and anxieties. I’d not connected being on the radio with the job before and had never imagined doing it. But my boss explained that I had an opportunity at hand and that handling the media was a responsibility that went with my new position.

Champagne is the traditional drink of New Year’s Eve, and a large percentage of annual consumption takes place from late November through January 1. Therefore, those are also the prime weeks for articles and interviews about Champagne. Over the years I have delivered the “how to open a bottle” talk countless times, usually during the last few days of December. Well, the first opportunity I ever had to give that little speech came my way just after I started this new job. I was told that I should pitch to radio stations the opportunity to conduct interviews about Champagne—and then I was to be the one interviewed, mostly live!

Let’s say (entre nous) I was “anxious” over the charge. I can still remember my hand feeling weak as a I picked up the phone to call the first radio station and pitch them a story about Champagne. I needn’t have worried, they wouldn’t take my call anyway!

I found dusty old pitch letters in the file. Now, I could have just blown off the cobwebs and sent those out to the same people who had been ignoring them since Prohibition was lifted. But I realized I had an advantage: I had an authentic French accent that people in New York frequently told me they found charming. I needed to have the chance to speak directly with someone who could actually make a decision. Just as a job application letter is designed to get you an interview, the pitch letter needs to be designed to get read and remembered—and by the right person—in order to secure you a spot. (And there are oral versions of pitch letters, too, that need to be polished for use on the phone or in person.) Also, I had to recognize that lots of pitches get tossed out unread (Don’t we now do that constantly with emails?). So, first I called to get the name of the current booking manager. That proved to be extremely important. (Never misspell a name or send a letter to someone no longer in a position.) Then I recast the pitch letters to that person, always adding a little distinctive French phrasing at the beginning of the letter. Then the real work began. Knowing in advance that the success rate would not be high, I called and called stations across the country. Then I called some more.

Sometimes people were busy or simply did not want to speak with me (part of the skill set for selling is the ability to accept rejection). Sometimes I got lucky, and people remembered me from the pitch letter. Sometimes I got very lucky and they called me after they got the pitch letter (obviously, in those cases my pitch aligned perfectly with helping them do their job and fill their slots). But mostly I called and called. When I did get through and spoke with a decision maker, including a preliminary one, I enjoyed remarkable success. “Oh, is that a French accent?” That’s when I knew I had them and that I had a good voice for radio. We’d talk over the phone about whatever they wanted—from information about their trip to Paris or my recommendations for a French restaurant in New York. As we laughed and built a connection—a key element in successful business—interview after interview got scheduled. And with each interview that took place—from sixty-second spots to sixty-minute programs with call-ins—I not only overcame my fears but discovered that I enjoyed being interviewed and had a talent for it. I learned the importance of doing more than is expected and that there are lots of good ideas in business, but execution is what matters. And you can be most effective when you align your special talents to the task at hand. (What is it that you have your predecessors didn’t or your colleagues don’t? Perhaps just a better work ethic or simply a distinctive and attractive accent.) Plus there are new approaches to good, old ideas, like the ones I managed to find with the pitch letters. To the astonishment of my boss, I did fifty-three interviews that first season, compared with three the previous one. It was a year’s worth of results in a few weeks, and it built my business confidence enormously. And it helped build a stage in my life and career. C’était le bon temps.

I could still be doing that today—promoting Champagne across America—what a great job. I progressed quickly to the head of the line to take over the PR firm with its various accounts when the owner retired, but instead I took a chance and moved down one of those roads less traveled, and it made all the difference. So, life and careers are lived in episodes and stages, but taking some calculated chances (read: risks) also makes all the difference. And you cannot always time your opportunities. Controlling one’s fears and anxieties by not letting them dictate premature decisions is part of a solid professional skill set. And especially in tough economic times, fear has the tendency to try to pull us by the nose, something that’s hard to fight, but being aware of it helps.

STARTING OUT WITHOUT PISTON

Gaining my career-launching position at the Champagne Bureau in New York was a combination of luck and skill. Certainly it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. But it did not come through any networking or connections. In France and elsewhere, having some “pull” often gets you that first or second job. In French it is called piston, and I did not have any...something I was painfully aware of when I walked the streets of Paris and then New York searching for a suitable position. No father or uncle, sister or brother to make a call to a colleague for me. In America, meritocracy, college placement offices, and sometimes a mentoring professor-advisor play a larger role than in Europe in helping one get started professionally. Not that networking and some personal pull are not useful, especially as one advances, but in America you can get an interview largely on your own.

In France, it is still much more of a club atmosphere, and I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been asked by someone in France to help a friend or colleague’s son or daughter, niece or nephew to get a job or internship in New York. I generally do everything I can to help, remembering what it was like to be young and full of dreams as well as confusion and sometimes even hopelessness at that stage in life. I did not always like it when the young aspirant was connected to a top LVMH executive, because then the cultural expectation was that you’d create a position if you did not already have one with his or her name divinely affixed to it, yet that is the way of the world. Still, it is easy to understand parents and relatives who want to do everything they can to help their family members.

I was reminded of how tough it can be to get ahead without a little coaching and piston when I met Maria, a European in her late twenties, who was stuck in her entry-level position, living in a faded third-tier European city, and desperate to move to a new stage in life. (Remember that just because you are stuck in a stage now does not mean you cannot move out of it...preferably sooner, but it might have to be later.) Her world reminded me of the old European style and customs that I had known but had become distanced from while living in the electricity and culture of New York.

MARIA’S NEXT STAGE

Maria is a tall, attractive woman gifted in both science and languages. A top student, she earned a master’s degree in biology and took a job at a not-for-profit cancer research center in a small city an hour and a half from where her parents live. And there she stayed in a poorly paid job for two, three, four years, and then into a fifth year. She was more than poised for the next stage in her personal and professional life, but she could not see her way out. Her boss was awful, her work no longer a challenge, and she was chained to her cubicle, so she had little opportunity to explore jobs in another city. Plus, she had no money, less than no money. She had to count on help from her parents, who have modest means, to help her live extremely modestly. Not a pretty picture or rosy future. I am sure many people know or can relate to someone like Maria.

Our paths crossed when she was doing some freelance writing on health and nutrition and I was impressed by her knowledge and eventually by her personality, not to mention her ability to communicate in German, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. “I was so bored at work and at nights, I would listen to and sing songs in those languages and read news and articles on the Internet to learn and improve my languages,” she explained to me, as if it were nothing.

I met her in person for the first time in New York when a publishing company paid for her to come on the cheap for two days for a job interview. She was incredibly excited by this singular opportunity, but was quickly devastated with disappointment when a visa snafu shot down her dreams.

The episode and her situation moved me, so I told her to be patient and that I’d try to help her. I knew I could do that eventually but did not want to give her false hopes of a magic-wand solution. I invited her to spend some time with us in France, where I got to know her better and probed to find out what she really wanted to do. She started out saying she’d do anything, she was so desperate to get out of her job and city, where being single and young was a signal to get married or move.

Through many discussions of her likes, dislikes, passions and fears, talents, skills, and dreams, we narrowed down the realistic possibilities, starting with the fact that the job should be in Europe, where she could work with proper papers and also not be too far from her family. She likes publishing, but we kept the fields open and focused on positions where she could use her str...

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