Jean-Paul Agon: L’Oréal has a “ culture that does not please everyone ”

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While Jean-Paul Agon was preparing to leave his post as CEO of L’Oréal after 15 years, he knew he wanted the search for his successor to be “exemplary, transparent and rigorous”.

However, October’s decision to appoint Nicholas hieronimus, the deputy managing director in first place has disappointed some observers, who wonder why the world’s largest cosmetics company – which caters to women in more than 150 countries – will not have a woman as its CEO.

Mr. Agon, 64, wishes to explain the reflection on the selection process. It’s simplistic, he says, to think that it’s only because L’Oréal brands such as Lancôme, Maybelline and Garnier make products for women that women are better at marketing them. He then returned to his real argument: the board of directors of L’Oréal was guided in its choice of successor by “the principle of meritocracy”.

“Today a man has been chosen. It’s quite possible that next time it’s a woman, ”he said. “But it won’t be a woman just for fun. It will be a woman because she is the best and most deserving person in the role at that time.

Not only were there women on the shortlist this time around, he points out, but they keep moving up through the ranks of society. For the first time in the group’s 111-year history, L’Oréal has appointed a woman, Barbara lavernos, as deputy managing director, a position that has cared for the former CEOs.

“Today, women make up half of our board of directors, more than a third of top management and more than half of brand managers,” says Mr. Agon. “Their rise is irresistible. One day or another, a woman will run L’Oréal.

Barbara Lavernos is the first woman to become Deputy Managing Director of L’Oréal’s 111-year history © Pierre-Olivier / Capa Pictures / L’Oréal

Mr. Agon’s approach to leadership is patient but demanding. Under his tenure, the company nearly doubled its global revenue to nearly € 30 billion, mainly through its expansion in Asia. These qualities underpin the corporate culture of L’Oréal.

Behind the chic image of the brands represented by celebrities such as Penélope Cruz and Beyoncé, L’Oréal is known to have a harsh corporate culture. In internal company jargon, managers must cultivate same agitation, or “healthy worry,” among their teams, to see who is up to it – and who is sinking. The approach may lead some to burnout and exit – the company has earned the sobriquet “The Orehell” – but others thrive under competition.

While the reproduction of “worry” may seem out of step with the softer, more inclusive management styles in many other large companies, Mr. Agon defends his methods.

“We have a saying at L’Oréal that people stay three months, three years or 30 years,” he says. “L’Oréal has a very distinctive culture which not everyone likes it, but those who love it are really going to invest and prosper here.

L’Oréal’s culture has helped it cope with the shock of the pandemic. Although sales and profits are expected to contract this year for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis, the group has contained the damage thanks to its strong e-commerce activity. Its shares are up 16% this year, trailing a 19% increase for rival Estée Lauder.

Mr. Agon has certainly adopted the ways of L’Oréal. Growing up in Paris, his father worked in the pharmaceutical industry while his mother was an architect. But the young Mr. Agon wanted to travel, which partly motivated his decision to join L’Oréal as a salesperson in 1978 straight out of HEC, one of the best business schools in France. The other factor was his affinity for marketing.

“I thought beauty marketing was very interesting and rich because it’s not only analytical and strategic, but also sensitive, creative and very much in tune with emotion, image and culture,” he says. “It is the supreme art of marketing.”

Two years after joining L’Oréal, the company sent him to run its operation in Greece, which at the time had around 50 employees. It taught the 24-year-old executive how to deal with people from different cultures and adapt to new environments – and also how to grow a business in a healthy and steady way.

Penélope Cruz in a Lancôme campaign © Lancôme

At one of their first team meetings, he promised his new staff that he would learn Greek within a year. “They thought it was funny, but I was serious about it and put a lot of pressure on myself to learn,” he says. “When you’re the only French person leading a team of Greeks who don’t speak English very well, learning the language is a must.”

Mr Agon’s biggest mistakes as a manager in Greece have proven to be formative. His second year there was the best year for Greek business. But then the third was the worst. “I had been too enthusiastic and aggressive, pushing the sales team too hard, which led to a build-up of inventory in the channel,” he says.

But he kept his promise to learn the language and came to speak Greek fluently. “I love the country and still visit it often,” he says.

From Greece, Mr. Agon was in the fast lane at L’Oréal, changing jobs every five years or so, including periods to establish a presence in China in the late 1990s and lead North America. Paintings and memories of his various displays – visible during a video call – decorate his office in the north of Paris.

Living and working in different countries, Mr. Agon has never been bored despite having spent over 40 years in the same company. Before Covid-19, he spent a third of the year traveling.

Aggressive promotion of the most promising employees is a key part of the company’s culture. “Unlike many companies, L’Oréal does not give people jobs based on their past experience but rather with the aim of helping them discover and express new talent,” he says. “It can be risky, but for me it was a great way to keep my enthusiasm going.”

Mr. Agon sees employees as part of a “tribe” that shares specific customs and codes, no matter where they are in the world. They are “GoldIt isextraterrestrial»- a term that is not openly defined but rather taken up on the job by discussing and working with managers and teams.

“When you visit teams in China, Argentina, Finland, the United States or Russia, you can recognize a similar energy,” he says. “L’Oréal’s culture has been transposed in all countries.”

An advertisement for Lancôme, owned by L’Oréal in 1978, year in which Jean-Paul Agon joined as a seller © L’Oréal Archives

Mr. Agon’s last big mission within the company is to let go of power – although he will remain chairman after Mr. Hieronimus mobilizes. Mr Agon has vowed not to micromanage his successor, explaining that when he took over he followed the company’s transfer governance model and therefore has experience. “I’m actually very happy to pass the baton on to someone I respect and who will do this job very, very well,” he says.

When asked if he can’t wait to retire, he smiles. “I don’t see this as an end. It’s a transition to a new mission that I have to invent myself – as I have done all those in the past.

Three questions for Jean-Paul Agon

Who is your leadership hero?

Certainly Winston Churchill for the many things he has done and said. I have great admiration for leaders who never give up in battle. My favorite phrase from him is: “Where there is a will, there is a way.” I use it very often, especially in difficult times in my career and in my life.

If you weren’t CEO / leader, what would you be?

I would have been an entrepreneur. When I was young, I hesitated between joining a large company or starting my own business. In the end, working at L’Oréal turned out to be quite entrepreneurial, quite paradoxically even though it is a large company. We will see, maybe in the future!

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

After my first overseas assignment in Greece, I returned to Paris at the age of 29 to run L’Oréal France, which was a very large company. It was difficult at first to gain the recognition and respect of my colleagues and employees. Some of them thought I was too green. But I’ve learned to let my actions speak for themselves. There is a proverb that I love that says: Dogs bark but the caravan moves, which roughly translates to “the dogs bark but the caravan continues to cross the desert”. Essentially, this means that when an individual is confident, even the loudest protests won’t stop them. I’m sure Churchill would have loved this one.

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