It is impossible to know everything, especially when change is a constant. Thierry Villotte, president of the Confédération des Arts de la Table and a former business leader in the tableware industry, has never been afraid to ask for help. To him, it’s a simple question of survival.
The tableware industry has changed drastically over the past 15 years. The reasons are numerous: diminished use of traditional marriage registries; rise in competition from Chinese manufacturers; fragmentation of industrial processes; and the advent of the digital age. Growing complexity has pushed the sector’s decision-makers towards humility.
“Today, no one can pretend they know everything about everything,” says Thierry Villotte. “And yet, the heads of family firms are still in a fairly omniscient position – their specific context means they have less incentive to seek help. Salaried leaders, by contrast, are keen to seek advice from their peers, so they can broaden their understanding of disruptive developments such as digital technology.”
Nobody is expected to know everything…
Villotte belongs to the second category: he is a leader keen to seek help. “I’ve never thought of myself as superman. Asking for help comes naturally to me. I always went looking for insight into subjects I didn’t feel comfortable with, especially since it is rewarding for the person you approach. Everyone likes to help.”
This open-minded attitude probably comes from a memorable baptism by fire. When Thierry was only 35 years-old, he was appointed president of a champagne company by the shareholders. “I didn’t have any experience at that level or in that industry,” he says. At his first board meeting, Villotte addressed his new team as follows: “You are the people in the know and who know how to do the job. Explain things to me and set out your problems; my role will be to arbitrate.” His words were well-received, inspiring trust and a positive spirit of collaboration.
“The fact that there was no power struggle made it easier for me to integrate into the team. I was surrounded by benevolent experts, each of whom was a specialist in their field. Nobody wanted to take the place of the leader, but they did need someone to take the important decisions. The boss of a company doesn’t have to know everything but they be able to listen, synthesize information and make choices. Nowadays, as president of Arts de la Table, my role is different. I am no longer a decision-maker. I’m geared towards the group actions of the sector. My mission is to pool our energies, and I spend my time asking for advice on every kind of topic.”
… but everyone needs to know how to ask for help
Although it is essential to ask for help, you should not place the entire burden on the shoulders of the individuals you approach. If you do, people may be less cooperative. Thierry has a proven and proactive method for soliciting help. When he was chairman of Guy Degrenne’s executive board, he always proceeded in the same manner when taking advice from his point of contact, the chairman of the supervisory board. “I would describe my problem, then the various solutions I had thought about. I would finish by opening up the debate so that what I had just said didn’t fence in the other person. Why? Because there might well have been alternative approaches that I hadn’t discovered at the time. If you present your problems in this way, in the end the other person will either back up your suggestions – and you win yourself an ally – or will give you new ideas that you wouldn’t have come up with by yourself.” In short, it is a win-win method.