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Corsair or pirate?

BBénédicte Tilloy, co-founder of 10:32, is an amazing woman. Younger, taking the helm of a company like Transilien is his “holy grail” because these trains are part of the daily life of users and are essential for their mobility.

After 27 years at SNCF, as CEO of Transilien, Secretary General and HR Director of SNCF Réseau and a seat at Comex, the organization evolves at this railway giant. An opportunity for Bénédicte Tillloy to question her career and express her desire for change. If the need to reinvent yourself arises, how can you control the pleasure/liberty/panic trio that is expressed in the light of a change in professional trajectory? Through encounters and experiences, Bénédicte Tilloy then joined a start-up and was confronted with a world that was the opposite of the one in which she had been evolving until then.

Bénédicte Tilloy recounts this rare and humbling experience in her book The Team, released in February 2021. For RaiseLab, she looks back on her career and shares her vision of the differences between large and young companies and their relationship to innovation.

How, after a life as a manager in a large group, do you decide to join a start-up?

“After my multiple hats at SNCF, I had the feeling that I was a bit worn out, and I no longer felt that much in line with my beliefs. I wanted to learn something else, wanted to discover, to enjoy myself. Fun, freedom and panic are finally the ingredients of entrepreneurship!

I had heard a lot about the startup world, and I had been a big supporter of it as a manager. Moreover, for me, a manager is someone who must be obsessed with multiplying their impact!

His subject is not to ask himself how he can do +10% but how to do x10 when he does something. This is the whole challenge of “scale”, the transition to scale, in a young company.

I liked the need to start a new adventure, an obvious taste for innovation and the desire to immerse myself in a corporate culture that was very different from the one I was leaving, so I plunged in and joined a young company.”

As your background shows, you are well placed to know the challenges of innovation within established groups. How, between the need to innovate and traditional inertia, is this crest line articulated?

“In all organizations, there is a kind of antagonism between innovation and compliance. In large organizations, compliance is used to limit risks, and thankfully, because they could not be sustainably profitable without it. Each company has positioned the cursor between innovation and compliance in its own way! In terms of safety, SNCF could obviously not afford to endanger human life in order to benefit innovation. In banks or pharmaceutical laboratories, compliance has taken a major place in the innovation process, at the risk of sometimes stifling it. This careful balance between the two must regularly be the subject of internal questions.”

In your numerous interventions on the subject, you draw up an original metaphor, that of the Navy. Can you tell us more?

“The privateer is the one who is left to choose his own route, his ship and his crew. No matter how he goes about it, he is asked to come back with the treasure. He doesn't care about ranks or statuses, but he attaches importance to the quality of people. It could represent the innovator, the intrapreneur, or the startup. The royal one is the other way around. It is organized around major functions, it embodies the system, regardless of people. It could be the corporate services of a large company.

We need both. When you scale up a new project, it's like asking the Royale to help the privateers pass the compliance tests without giving up the treasure!

And be careful, when you do it wrong, privateers can become pirates!”

So what are the possible solutions to get these two worlds to get along, especially in a collaboration between start-ups and large groups?

“If we have to do a collaboration between a large group and a start-up, the time dedicated to setting up the framework will be very important. And the framework must be built in reciprocity because no one agrees to give up what it is in order to fully adopt the culture of the other, each entity needs to learn and transmit. The exchange should be symmetric.

More operationally, it is very important that the kick-offs are very well prepared to define the whole future. Our values, the common vision, what we want to learn from each other but also the rules and limits, the things that are forbidden.

You have to keep in mind that there is a very high risk of making mistakes due to clumsy behaviors on both sides.”

You are addressing the issue of behaviors. Talent management is addressed differently between these worlds, what would be the element that would bring them together?

“Install the frame well, again and again.

For its part, the start-up knows how to take advantage of short-term skills and to develop their full range of skills, because it requires all facets of its employees. We go back to do one mission but we do 1000 others. Teams are developed in an almost incandescent manner and the start-up atmosphere, where what “is not forbidden is allowed”, does not accept managers very well.

In large groups, there is a framework and a path drawn up by the employees who have occupied these positions previously. They prevent employees from attacking each other, which is not the case in start-ups where apprenticeships can sometimes expose them harshly.

The framework, both in start-ups and in large groups, makes it possible to structure the evolution of employees. Establishing a clear process makes it possible to give visibility to employees, so they can plan for the long term. The framework addresses complexity in terms of people but also in terms of risk and reputation management.”

Now let's switch to a news item that concerns us all. As a former leader and HR director, how did you deal with the unusual times we are living in today?

“During the first lockdown, we experienced a situation of astonishment where everything was exacerbated: long live teleworking, long live the world of tomorrow, it's great or it's too horrible and above all, we're not dying! Then came the new school year and the fall where we went into a kind of collective depression, including the exhaustion of everything digital.

A desire to reinvest in physical collaboration was born. It has become rare and will undoubtedly remain so, so we need to give it meaning and distinguish between the highlights of work where we must be effective together and the more festive times intended to strengthen the links between teams. We're going to need both.”

What was the impact of this period on the relationship between managers and their teams?

“With this period, we are seeing that managers are expected to be able to give their vision back on a regular basis. It's important to show the direction, because having to constantly adjust to balance all the risks that arise as a result of the crisis can make teams feel seasick. They have to tirelessly explain what they are doing.

This situation is beginning to bring out different psychological profiles, to highlight bosses who are willing to express doubts, to be vulnerable, to share their questions and to elicit the reactions of their employees.

If we continue with the image of the Navy, the boss was the captain on board but today he is nothing without his team who, in order to sail well, needs to know each other's talents to take advantage of them at every moment.

The posture of the hero boss who arrives to fix everything by himself is over. Now this behavior is even value-destroying, in my opinion.”

Let's end this interview with a few confidences, what is the worst piece of advice you have received during your career?

” I was often told to be careful, without telling me why and why. On the contrary, I think it encouraged me to put myself in danger personally, in order to solve difficult situations. I must say that I was well inspired to do this, because with my team, we sometimes found original solutions to solve problems — social for example — that were quite complicated.”

Can you share with us the failure you are most proud of? as well as your greatest accomplishment?

” We are rarely proud of a failure. You become one when you go beyond it because you have understood the reasons and you then succeed in another project based on it.

In my book, I cite the case of the program for organizing “à la carte” the working days of SNCF rolling stock (drivers and controllers) that I miserably failed.

My achievement was to have understood that the best way to do this was to allow a driver to take up the subject and then help him to multiply his solution throughout the company.”