As the only woman at the helm of a major French company listed on the Paris cac-40 stock exchange, Isabelle Kocher is one of the country’s most recognisable business leaders. The towering one-time competitive swimmer is today ceo of Engie, the world’s largest non-state-owned electric-utility company and an employer of more than 150,000 staff globally.
Exuding an aura of calm, Kocher welcomes monocle into her neutral-hued office, situated in the La Défense business district on the edge of Paris. She has a reputation for being a highly efficient operator and this meeting is no exception, beginning and ending precisely at the agreed times. She gets straight to the point, explaining that she believes there is an essential difference between being a leader and a manager – and that she aspires to be the former. “A leader says, ‘We need to go over there’ and explains why. All employees need to be convinced of the need because it will then be up to them to put the plan into action.”
Kocher has wasted no time in making her mark on Engie since taking over in May 2016. One of the first things she did was to embark on an ambitious three-year transformation plan, which affected all business units in all 70 countries where the group is present. “Structurally we had to change, we needed to become more agile. So we stripped back some of the layers of management to make our staff more autonomous.” These were changes which, she says, challenged traditional pyramid-shaped management models.
Getting all employees to buy into the restructuring plan was vitally important, especially in a country such as France, where no fewer than 88 different union groups needed to be consulted. “The rules of the game were carefully defined and agreed in advance,” she says. “Yes, some jobs were going to go during the restructuring but new jobs were being created as well.” She points out that in parallel with the restructuring, Engie has decided to invest €300m in employee training.
Although she has been ceo for less than two years, Kocher has also held the roles of COO and CFO during her 15 years at Engie (which, until 2015, was called gdf Suez). In the process she has become known not only for her strict timekeeping but also her open managerial style. Both are in evidence when she assembles her executive committee for their Monday meeting, which begins with lunch in the boardroom and then continues until 18.00. During that weekly rendezvous she encourages everyone to speak up. “The spirit at this level sets the tone for the whole organisation. We have to enjoy our time together, not just during a one-off away day but every single day that we are at the office.”
Leaning forward in a cream leather armchair, Kocher is amused by a question about her office decor, explaining that she has left the furnishings exactly as she found them. Although she doesn’t think that there is a correlation between results and office design (perhaps thankfully in this case), she does point to a bronze statue of French engineer and chemist Philippe Lebon standing behind her desk. “This piece combines two of my great passions: science and sculpture,” she says, smiling down at it. Another objet d’art that she is visibly proud of is a large ornamental bunch of keys that occupies a side table. They were presented to her by her predecessor, Gérard Mestrallet, when she took over as ceo – a symbol of the responsibilities now in her hands.
One element of the role that Kocher appears to relish is visiting Engie’s various plants, in France and further afield, and talking to the teams. “I am not a micromanager; I delegate as much as possible,” she says. “But I do like to talk to the teams and ask them: ‘What can we do better?’”
When it comes to bringing new people on board, Kocher believes that diversity is essential. “We must mirror our customers in order to be relevant,” she says. “We need that same diversity, including age diversity,” she adds, pointing out that Engie has a digital reverse-mentoring programme in place, whereby younger employees keep more senior colleagues up to speed on the latest industry trends and technology. With a view to preparing Engie for the decades ahead, the company plans to have invested €1.5bn in new technology and digital before the end of 2018. This is, after all, a sector that is undergoing rapid change and moving ever further in the direction of renewables. Kocher points out that investing in the right technology will make the difference between success or failure. It is therefore at the core of the company’s three-point, slightly faddishly named “3D” strategy: namely making Engie decarbonised, digitalised and decentralised.
Gas, geothermal and solar energy are areas in which Engie is increasingly focusing its efforts and on average the company installs about 2,000 solar panels every day. “Thanks to renewables, you can put in smarter energy systems,” says Kocher. “There is still a lot to do to prepare for the future – and we want to be pioneers.”
When the working day finishes Kocher is keen to return home to spend time with her five children, the youngest of whom is 11. She also maintains plenty of interests outside the workplace, notably keeping fit and swimming. Does she find herself going over work issues in her mind in the pool? Her answer comes back without the slightest hesitation: “No.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
I get up at 05.00 so I have time to go over my schedule and see my children. I am at my desk by 08.30.
Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: MBA school or on the job?
There is not one single route. I am increasingly convinced that what matters most is personality and the drive to succeed.
What is your management style?
I aim to promote a vision that gives each employee a sense of empowerment and a feeling that they are part of that vision.
What technology do you carry on a trip?
A tablet that keeps me up to date with the news and emails.
Do you read management books?
Yes, notably Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, Lou Gerstner’s memoir about ibm’s historic turnaround.
What is your key piece of advice?
Stay abreast of major developments and be ready to adapt; in an age of rapidly changing technology you cannot afford to stay still.
To whom do you go for advice and guidance?
For personal matters I turn to family and friends. For professional advice I listen to the members of the executive committee.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
Making people aware of the urgent need for energy transition. Everyone is talking about it but at Engie we are actually doing something.
Is it OK for employees to disagree with you?
I’m keen that all employees offer their opinions on projects because it prevents the onset of inertia.
If you could fix one thing about your company, what would it be?
A lot of work still needs to be done to promote diversity. That includes the promotion of women – a company should be a reflection of society.