Executives Unpacked – Episode 1: Career advice from Jean-Francois Pigeon 

This post was written by: John Clifton

On our first episode of the podcast ‘Executives Unpacked’, we sat down with Jean-Francois Pigeon, the EVP Global Sales and Marketing at Synamedia. With a career spanning over two decades, Jean-Francois has made a name for himself in being able to accurately understand and anticipate market developments and adapt business strategies accordingly. In his previous role in Nokia, he served as VP of sales, overseeing 200 million euros worth of global accounts spread across 20 countries in the Middle East and Africa, where he played a major role in the company’s expansion into broadband and fibre in the home space. Now at Synamedia, he leads their global sales and marketing function and is responsible for developing business and new customer segments throughout Asia, EMEA in the Americas. He’s a man who nearly decided to become a lawyer, would love to own his own winery, and wishes he still had the innocence of youth. We asked him our burning questions and gained valuable insights into his perspective as an expert in his field.  

What is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned during your career? 

Ignorance is bliss. It’s good to be young and naive, because you don’t know what’s not possible. You have no limits or constraints, and you don’t understand what’s not achievable, so you’re willing to try it anyway. I used to have a leader of mine, early in my career, who said, “Jeff, I have a great learning experience for you”, and that’s what he called ‘I’ve got a shitty job that I don’t want to do and I’ll hand it over to you’. I was naive so I willing to go for it. By the way, the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ goes all the way back to Publilius Syrus, who said in 8543 BC that ‘in knowing nothing, life is most delightful’. I think that’s the key to success; being able to approach life without fear, and without putting constraints on ourselves and holding ourselves back. Keep that youthful ignorance for as long as you can.  

Throughout your career, is there something that you wish that someone had told you earlier? 

Absolutely. One lesson I’ve learned is that it’s always important to assume positive intent when you interact with people. If you assume a positive intent it changes your whole demeanour to the situation, and it changes the outcome of the situation. If you take it negatively, you’re probably going to be angry and defensive so you’re not going to listen enough. When you assume positive intent instead, the message you’re sending is, ‘I’m trying to understand where you’re coming from. I’m listening to you, and maybe there’s something I’m not hearing in what you’re saying’. That’s a very powerful statement. I think I’ve found that in my life experience, having that attitude to engagement with different stakeholders changes everything. So, in some ways, the way you look at things influences the outcome of the situation, and I wish I had been told that earlier. 

I find that if you consciously walk into tough discussions and negotiations with that mindset it genuinely changes how that interaction will go. If you’re on a call, and as you’re talking, you’re walking and smiling, it changes the way you are perceived, even if the other people on the call don’t see you do it. If smiling or walking while you’re having a call can have an impact on someone who can’t see you, imagine the power of walking into a meeting with a positive mindset with people who can feel that energy. Given the nature of my role in sales, which is negotiation, in my experience having that mindset actually materialises in positive outcomes. 

Is there a single thing that you could highlight as the best bit of advice that you’ve ever been given? 

Yes, it came from the late Michiel Dutré who was with our mobile communications group in Alcatel. The thing he told me is ‘JF, you have to be authentic’. That was exactly the right thing for him to tell me at the time because I have to admit that I was a bit arrogant, pushy and persistent. I was really rough around the edges. I don’t think I always conveyed the right vibe in the context of my engagement with peers and colleagues. When Muriel came and said ‘be authentic in the way you work and the way you interact with others’, it really helped set me on a path to change the way I acted in the context of moving from an individual contributor to a people leader. 

When you’re young, you’re a bit insecure and you want to prove yourself to the rest of the world. You’re out there, you’re bold, you’re brash, you’re trying learn. It’s only later that you realise what’s acceptable when you’re young may not be as acceptable later in life, particularly when you start getting more executive engagements. 

What one bit of advice do you always give other people? 

Go for it! It’s in keeping with my motto, which is instead of striving for a predictable, safe lifestyle, have faith and trust that life is a glorious adventure and live it to the fullest. So passion, passion, passion! Get interested in what’s going on, try to understand the implications of what’s going on in the world, not just in your domain. Try to understand everything, try to have different grids to read the world. I’ll give you an anecdote which I applied to myself. I saw a lot of geopolitics playing out in Middle Eastern Africa, particularly after my Asian experience, and I was impacted by that and I was so frustrated by it that I said ‘I need to understand better’, so I went to the School of Economy and Warfare. Last year, I did my executive VP in economic warfare, and it was so stimulating because it showed me new ways of looking at things and a different understanding of what’s going on, what’s at play, what’s the undertone, what’s the history… I think it’s so important to be switched on to the world, because then in your conversations and the way you engage you’re having an impact.  

And so that leads me to thinking about a career. I think it’s important that you don’t look at it as a linear progression. Don’t be afraid to divert horizontal steps versus vertical steps. I think too often people are worried about promotions, etc. That doesn’t make you better, you just get elevated to your highest level of incompetence. Instead, you should focus on taking the road less travelled and not playing by the rules, because if you play by the rules, the path is very crowded. If you follow the pack, you’re a follower. Be a leader and take a different path.  

I’ll give you an example of that as well. When I started my career, I decided to go on a manufacturing floor first. Most people after the degree didn’t go there, they went into product management, but I said, ‘No, I want to start there, because I want to understand how products are made for manufacturability’. Then I went to product management. Then I decided to go to Hong Kong at a time where everybody was going to the US and I said you know what, ‘No, I’m going to go to Asia, because Asia is different’. From there my whole career was made. I was making conscious choices not to follow the herd. My best advice to others is, if you want to have fun, you have to differentiate yourself. You want to have a unique career. Don’t get stuck into the world’s definition of what success looks like. Get exposed to the world. Get out there, learn, look at different cultures, look at different ways of doing things, be interested in everything! I think you can only do that if you’re really passionate about what you do. 

Is there one thing that’s constantly kept you awake at night throughout your career? 

Yes, making sure I was doing the right thing, meeting my commitments and adding value, particularly because I’ve worked a lot of emerging markets. The legal system isn’t necessarily there to protect things in an impartial way as it would in other places, and as a result trust is very important in the relationship or the transaction. I need to know if you’re going to be there to ensure that you deliver on my expectations. In my previous experience, for the first year, I kept being beaten because we weren’t delivering on our expectations. But the fact that I kept on showing up every month, and getting beaten, ultimately mobilised the organisation to deliver. If someone keeps showing up, despite the fact that they’re being beaten, ultimately, whether you like it or not, that person earns your trust. So, if I commit to something or to somebody, my word is my bond. Making sure that we meet the commitments we’ve made, and we keep on constantly adding value is really what keeps me up at night. 

Is there a single thread that has run through your career that’s led to success? 

I think you might be able to guess what that might be. It goes back to my original statements about ignorance is bliss and living with passion. At the end of the day, going for it, being curious, doing something you’re passionate about, looking for long term outcomes, and acting with integrity are all essential behaviours. You have to understand that to win in today’s world requires you to be fully engaged, listening, and trying to add value. So, for me, being passionate about what you do is essential, because to compete today you need to put in a lot of effort, you need to be keeping abreast, you need to understand what’s going on, you need to be responsive, and all of that takes a lot of energy. That’s a lot of personal investment, so if you don’t love what you do, it’s going to be a real drudgery to just get through it. Unless you’re doing something you’re passionate about, life will be tough. If you really want to make a difference, to have fun, to have an impact and enjoy what you do, then find what you’re passionate about and go from there.  

To hear more insights from Jean-Francois’s career in communications marketing, listen to the full podcast here.  

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