“We educate girls to shape a changing world,” was the motto at the all-girl school Diane Nicolas, Senior Legal Counsel in Mergers and Acquisitions at Orange, attended in the United States. From girl power to acquisitions of promising companies and the importance of role models, read more of our interview with Diane Nicolas!
You started your career as a lawyer in the Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) Department of a leading French international law firm and have joined Orange five years ago. What lessons have you learnt along your professional career development and how do you expect they will help your career path?
I have been fortunate in my career to work on a wide variety of transactions, in terms of countries involved, business fields, and size of the deals—up to 12 billion pounds. Through these operations, I have learnt the importance of thorough preparation, teamwork and keeping an open mind.
When you enter negotiations, you must be prepared for surprises, whether good or bad! I remember a transaction in which after entering into a binding agreement for the purchase of a family-owned company, one of the selling family members sadly passed away before the deal was completed. We had to learn all about heritance rules in a foreign country and negotiate with the trustee of the Estate and ended up making the deal possible to the benefit of everyone involved.
There are also other setbacks to deal with like finalising contractual documents with Chinese counterparts in a hotel suite in Africa, with a deadline to sign everything before a press conference involving State dignitaries, in the midst of power outages!
Such kind of surprises and circumstances require you both to be very prepared and to be ready to work through the unexpected with your teammates while keeping the same level of requirement for excellence and quality and never losing sight of your end-game. Learning this has been crucial for every step in my career path.
Moreover, you have several experiences living abroad, including 3 years in the USA as a teenager, 1 year in the UK as a student, and 6 months in Hong Kong as a young professional. How did this international experience give your career a competitive advantage and why would you recommend experience abroad to others?
Living abroad widens your perspective. It is also an amazing opportunity to get out of your comfort zone and start from a blank page, all of which are key skills when working to reach a deal!
Getting out of my comfort zone and trying to understand the other person’s perspective has helped me in my career tremendously because I have had to negotiate with people from many nationalities (English, German, Greek, Chinese, American, or Senegalese amongst others), and with diverse cultural and professional backgrounds, both in-house and on the other side of the negotiations table.
In one transaction a few years back I worked on a deal with a group composed exclusively of men who would not shake a woman’s hand. Although it may have been unsettling, I could understand that and adapt my behaviour in order smoothen the process and bring the deal forward. After working together, they showed that they valued my expertise and input, and they contacted me afterwards for questions they had in other deals they contemplated. I hoped I contributed to change their mind on professional women!
More generally, it has been key for me to be able to understand different expectations and “languages” of all parties that may be involved in a transaction. Even when negotiating parties are from the same country, sometimes entrepreneurs who have put their heart and soul – and savings – into a company have different expectations than, say, corporate finance teams or managers of business units who have the challenge to integrate a new business, or yet again IT, brand, or legal experts. In turn, board members, investment bankers, or lawyers, also all speak slightly different languages. You have to be able to understand them all and take their perspective into your own work in order to strike a deal taking into account everyone’s input.
You have co-piloted strategic acquisitions and divestments for Orange alongside finance M&A and business development teams, and coordinated legal matters. What in your opinion is the key to successful negotiations?
To have a successful negotiation you must have a clear mandate and know your boundaries and core values. You must also be able to communicate your intentions and key drivers.
Negotiating is being able to find the common ground even though you do not have the same points of view or the same interests. If everybody is truthful as to where they come from and what they expect, then that can lead to a successful negotiation and make the best deal for everyone in the long run.
Negotiating is being able to find the common ground even though you do not have the same points of view or the same interests.
While in the USA, you attended an all-girl high school that gave you an early introduction to the concept of “girl power”. How did this introduction to female empowerment seen in the United States compare to what you have seen in France where you are now based as an experienced professional?
At the beginning, the notion of girl power was theoretical for me and it was a non-issue. In addition, in France, I had grown accustomed to mixed education, so I was circumspect of the promise that going to an all-girl school for a few years would be good for growth and self-assertion. Yet my school was nothing like I apprehended: it was open-minded and centred on girl empowerment. Their motto was: “We educate girls to shape a changing world.” I found that having small classes with only girls, as a self-conscious developing teen, freed everyone!
We learned to be strong, self-reliant, grow together, and to aim high and explore whatever opportunities were out there. This, in addition to the proverbial positive attitude in the US convinced me that girls and women in the professional world should aim for anything they want to. That was 20 years ago, when it was not as trendy as it is right now!
It taught me that as women we have a particular voice that is valuable and needs to be heard. We need to push for women equality, representation in boards, in top management, and in management executives. I have seen how powerful it is to have women visible in management positions in terms of example-setting. It is key to set the example of what is possible so that it will become natural!
I have seen how powerful it is to have women visible in management positions in terms of example-setting. It is key to set the example of what is possible so that it will to become natural!
You are a current Talent in the 5th edition of our Women in Talent Pool program (WTP). What motivated you to partake in this program and what is your vision of female leadership?
I am thrilled to be part of this program and excited to learn and grow from other women by sharing experiences. We have great women leaders at Orange. Our group, like many others, strives to have even more top women managers, which is a great positive evolution.
In my experience, women leaders are very agile and thorough. They tend to show grace under pressure. They are also pragmatic, meaning that they rarely let themselves be burdened by oversized egos. When I negotiate deals for and alongside strong women I am amazed by their ability to lead people, all the while being very flexible and hearing the team’s feedback and growing on that.
You have two young children and are an enthusiastic traveller. What advice do you have to share to our network on maintain a satisfying work life balance?
The answer is to know your values and set your priorities. If you find that your everyday life is not in line with them, then you need to reshuffle your cards. If somehow you lose your balance, then reset your priorities by asking yourself what you want and what is in line with your core values. A parent’s role may take precedence sometimes. For example, my son opened his forehead at school while I was in a big meeting recently. It was not even a question, I got out!
If you find that your everyday life is not in line with your values and priorities, then you need to reshuffle your cards.
Lastly, we would like to conclude our interview with a question from the Proust questionnaire: What do you value most in your colleagues? Why?
What I value most in my colleagues is how competent and trustworthy they are both from a professional and from a human perspective. In M&A we often find ourselves in high pressure situations with tough deadlines and high stakes. Under these circumstances, having reliable colleagues is key!
After five years at Orange, I am still amazed every day by the level of expertise, talent, engagement of the individuals working throughout the group. In many domains, I have found that even on very specific questions you will most certainly find someone in the group with high-level up-to-date answers.
In addition to that, the motto at Orange is “human inside” and you see it every day in the way people behave.
That makes me proud to be part of the company and team. It sets an example and inspires me to be better every day. As a plus, we do also know how to have fun and celebrate victories large and small!