French grandes écoles are the elite professional schools that count most of France’s top leaders among their alumni. The widespread belief – reinforced in the two years of classes prépa that follow secondary school for most students on the grande école track – that admission to a top grande école guarantees professional success is woven into French cultural DNA. Unfortunately, it is also increasingly ill-suited to individual and organisational success in a dynamic global business and career environment.
What is at stake is the adaptability of young French graduates as they enter a world in which self-awareness, proactivity and the ability to self-direct are as essential as technical and business knowledge. In my conversations with leaders and corporate recruiters from major global employers (including those based in France), this is what I hear most frequently: “We need employees with learning agility and adaptability”. These competencies are not just poorly developed among grande école students; they are downright counter-cultural.
For the all the reverence with which grandes écoles are viewed in France, it is surprising how little known they are outside France. The world of the grandes écoles is like a fishbowl in the middle of an ocean. Inside the fishbowl, the fish see only their own reflections, while few outside the fishbowl even notice it, let alone understand it.
Radical change to the inwardly-focused grande école mindset is critical to the schools’ successful evolution. Until it occurs, their students will lag in developing the agility and adaptability that is essential for [individual and organisational] success in global business. What does performing well on mathematics exams at age 18 have to do with one’s capacity to lead a business 30 years later? In the grande école mindset, the former is a sound indicator of the latter. To the rest of the world, however, the notion is patently flawed. In French businesses, engineering is viewed as the best academic preparation for leadership careers because of its emphasis on logic. Yet engineers as a profession are known for their comparatively poor interpersonal skills, without which effective leadership is difficult if not impossible. Still, the interpersonal skills focus that is much more prominent in Anglo-Saxon countries is viewed with scepticism in France.
The view that one is essentially “complete” at the moment one has been accepted into and enrolled in a top grande école closes the minds of those students and diminishes their learning. Once admitted, many students lose interest in their studies and focus instead on social activities, a pattern that shocks international students and teaching faculty.
In French organisations, the belief that graduates of the très grandes écoles are those most well-qualified to lead is a powerful driver of homogeneity – not just of national and educational background, but also of thought. If grande école graduates are definitively the most qualified people, hiring someone who lacks this elite credential logically means taking second best. It is no surprise that the top management teams of French businesses include far fewer non-domestic managers than the top management teams of companies in other European countries. Grande école graduates hire other grande école graduates not only because they believe them to be the most qualified, but also because they think in the same way. This pattern may undermine company performance by limiting the divergent thinking that innovation thrives on. Research on top management teams shows that cognitive and national diversity helps teams perform better in multiple respects.
Most French business schools are making serious efforts to globalise by recruiting international teaching faculty and students, establishing partnerships with business schools outside France, and opening international campuses. This is an important first step. However, true globalisation will not occur until the boards and executive committees of grandes écoles are no longer filled by a majority of French nationals, until international students feel completely at home in the intellectual and extracurricular life of the schools and until teaching and learning methods prioritise deep reflection, the valuing of diverse perspectives, the identification of unstructured problems and use of a variety of problem-solving approaches and active student participation and engagement.
The author is professor of management at Edhec Business School.