Lead with humility. In my experience, if you do the right thing (and, importantly, you don’t expect anything in return), it ends up being very beneficial. For instance, when I respected the seniority of my colleague at Booz Allen and he later facilitated my entry into Google in 2002, it was like winning the lottery. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, but later I realized why I had been rewarded — because I stayed humble and did what I knew was just. He respected that and didn’t forget it.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive. As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephane Panier. A native of France, Stephane is the Founder and CEO of BetterManager, a global leadership development platform that provides scalable, executive-quality coaching and personalized training for people managers and leaders at all levels. Established in 2016, BetterManager has coached and trained over 3,000 people managers and leaders across hundreds of enterprise and rapid-growth companies alike. Prior to BetterManager, Stephane served as an executive at several tech startups and early-stage companies, most notably including a successful seven-year tenure at Google. Stephane joined the search giant in 2002, two years before its IPO, and played an instrumental role in building its financial planning teams during a period where the company grew from a few hundred to more than 25,000 employees. Stephane holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, and an MME from Arts et Métiers Paris-Tech.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a working class town outside of Paris, where the prospects for upward mobility were bleak. Though my family’s financial situation was precarious and unstable, our love for one another was a constant and a source of strength. As the only child, I never experienced a shortage of attention. Even then, I was aware of how hard my parents worked and how much they sacrificed for me to have a better future than them. I promised myself early on that I would do whatever it took to make their sacrifices worthwhile.
My mom was a doctor, but in France, being a doctor doesn’t equate to being wealthy. She could have made more money if she saw more patients, but she wasn’t willing to sacrifice quality for quantity. She believed passionately that her role as a doctor was to serve the public, and she held true to that conviction. She practiced Servant Leadership before the term existed, and that ethos governed my outlook from an early age.
My dad’s unemployment situation was unstable, and as a result, he was unfairly stigmatized. It was difficult for him. At the time, gender norms were even more entrenched than they are today. His wife being the primary breadwinner and a respected professional created tension. He wanted more for me, so he began encouraging me to learn English. He was so adamant that he found a way to send me to the U.S. to enhance my English speaking skills.
Beginning at age twelve, I spent every summer in the U.S. with a different American family willing to open their arms to a French youngster. I had the privilege of being welcomed in, observing their unique family dynamics, and enhancing my EQ along the way. The process forced me to quickly develop situational awareness and adaptability. I learned by listening and approaching each new experience with humility. I knew nothing about American culture, and I didn’t pretend to. I was a sponge. I stayed open to learning anything and everything I could, knowing that few people, if anyone, from back home had gotten this kind of opportunity.
My parents never faltered in their support for me or my education. They sacrificed so much to give me a chance at a better life, and I wouldn’t be who I am today without their hard work and encouragement. Merci à vous tous les deux.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
Emigrating to the U.S. was a lifelong dream, something I planned meticulously from early on. My goal was to position myself to attend a prestigious American university for an MBA and to one day become a business person in the U.S. Since I didn’t come from wealth and was born on a different continent, I had to be resourceful, focused and determined to even have a shot at making it.
In France, there’s something called classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles, consisting of two-three years of intense cramming for admission to a select number of elite universities. Here in the U.S., it would be the equivalent of the Ivy League requiring a separate exam to apply for admission.It was a challenging and all-encompassing pursuit, and I had to make a choice: which discipline of study would consume the next several years of my life? So, I took stock of myself. I always had a way with numbers and math was clearly my strongest subject. I went with it and followed the academically rigorous path of becoming a nuclear engineer. It was around then that I also decided I wanted to shoot for the stars and apply to Harvard’s MBA program, when the time was right.
Actually, I found out about Harvard’s MBA program by skipping school and taking the train into Paris one day to visit the French-American Chamber of Commerce. In the pre-internet era, books and pamphlets were the way you Googled things, so I went to the Chamber, perused the literature on American graduate schools and physically bookmarked the relevant pages of the Harvard MBA program pamphlet. This became my North Star. It propelled me forward, especially when things got really tough.
For instance, I lived out of my car for five years while working as a test engineer, running to and from nuclear power plants in the dead of night to assess their safety systems and avoid a potentially catastrophic nuclear accident. I don’t just mean that I was always in my car. I mean that I actually lived in it. I had no home, no apartment, no nothing. I lived as spartanly as possible. It was certainly a sacrifice, but I knew that it was the only way I could ever save enough money for tuition and living expenses at Harvard. Often, I parked my car at a campsite and on rare occasions (when I was feeling lavish), I’d get a hotel room to reconnect with the feel of modern amenities.
All this to say that there were multiple and longstanding “triggers” for my decision to pursue a life abroad in America. I wanted to make my parents proud; I wanted all their sacrifice and hard work to be worthwhile; I wanted to outgrow the small town I was raised in; I wanted to make a mark on the biggest world stage possible; I wanted to prove to myself that I could accomplish my goal — especially on those nights looking up at the sky from the backseat of my car. I had to keep that goal in the forefront of my mind, always.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I came to the USA to pursue my MBA at Harvard and, like many who are accepted there, I was sure it was a fluke. When I received my acceptance, I rushed to Boston as soon as possible, just in case they had made a mistake and wanted to retract the offer.
Once there, I found an international community of like-minded people interested in how the world worked and how to improve its functioning. To be honest, my coursework at Harvard wasn’t nearly as difficult as my three years of classes prépas or the subsequent period I spent studying for France’s five day long version of the ACT/SAT called le bac. Don’t get me wrong, business school is hard, just not as hard as becoming an elite nuclear engineer.
As to the actual immigration process, it was stressful and very painful. There were so many hurdles to jump through. It’s actually a big blur, probably because I’ve tried to forget about it. Let’s just say I would rather take le bac a hundred times over rather than go through the immigration process again.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
There is someone I’m grateful towards, a colleague of mine from Booz Allen Hamilton named Jason. Booz Allen was the first place I worked after finishing my MBA. Jason had been hired a few months prior to me, and as such, I suggested he lead the team. Even though there were only a few months of difference between us and I’d been elected President of the largest non-political student organization in France, I respected his seniority. We worked well together and I was happy to follow his lead.
Then, 9/11 happened, and the economy went bust. As a result, Booz Allen told us they would have to let a lot of people go, including me. I was really stressed out. I had to maintain employment in order to stay in the US, and I was riddled with tuition debt. I couldn’t even afford to be deported; I had no money for a plane ticket back to France!
Soon, I got a call from Jason. He had taken a job with a start-up called Google and wanted to know whether I’d be interested in interviewing there. I used Google’s search engine regularly, but never really gave much thought to the company or its operations. It didn’t matter, though. I was excited about the prospect and jumped at the opportunity. Literally fourteen interviews later, I got the job. As the company grew, I went from being an individual contributor to financial director and growing the company from a few hundred employees to 25,000 in six years.
So how are things going today?
Well, I’m no longer living at a campsite, so I would say things are going well. In fact, I’m incredibly grateful and humbled to have had the privilege of helping to build Google during its most formative years. When I started there, I actually maxed out my stock options by using prepaid checks from my credit card company — something I would probably advise against for others.
Today, I’m a proud husband and father, and the CEO of BetterManager, a global leadership development platform that brings personalized training and 1-on-1 coaching to help people managers make a positive impact within their teams and organizations. In short, we teach managers at all levels how to lead like a Googler. One of the keys to Google’s rapid development and monumental success has always been its workplace culture and the efficacy and humanity of its people managers.
Obviously, Google has created game-changing technologies that have fundamentally altered the course of history, but its workplace culture and management techniques are replicable for any industry, anywhere in the world.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I founded BetterManager to share Project Oxygen’s insights with the rest of the world. Google’s Project Oxygen famously stemmed from our incorrect hypothesis that managers don’t really matter. It may sound silly, but in order to innovate, you need the ability to take risks on unconventional ideas. Actually, we are seeing that decentralized, non-hierarchical models of leadership can be very effective. For instance with social movements like Black Lives Matter, who are working successfully in a decentralized way to create cultural and systemic level change, not only in the U.S., but across the globe.
Through a company slack channel called Communities Cultivating Change, our coaches coordinate with one another across continents to support individual social change leaders in need of coaching or people manager training. That’s the thing about Project Oxygen’s principles and practices — they can translate to any industry or organization trying to harness the power of their people.
Several of BetterManager’s co-founders are also former Googlers, and we feel that our time there was truly a gift. Now we’re using what we learned at Google and throughout our career journeys to improve the way other organizations cultivate and manage their people. Our purpose is to position organizations for people-led growth and innovation. Whether you are working at the techiest-tech company in the world or a human rights organization, everything happens with and through people.
BetterManager’s clients and partners include established enterprises, growth-stage scale-ups, high-growth startups, government agencies, universities, and nonprofits. Our clients, including CapitalOne, Chegg, SurveyMonkey, and Harvard Business School (among many others), are committed to creating healthy and effective team environments that foster innovation and growth. In order for organizations to push the envelope, their people must be properly supported and their talents cultivated. It’s the right way to lead, and the only way to lead responsibly into the future.
At BetterManager, we’re hoping to make it the norm.
You have firsthand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
The immigration system has changed significantly since 2002, so I’m not sure I have any specific suggestions that would be relevant today. However, I will say that before getting a green card, I was constantly stressed about my immigration status.
If I had one piece of advice for the United States immigration system, it would be to realize that America’s political power, cultural influence, and economic strength stem from both its diversity and its numbers.
Though the US is currently the #1 economic power in the world, China is quickly catching up, and India is not far behind. In 20–30 years, that #1 status might be gone if we don’t get more qualified, productive future-citizens through the door, and fast. This isn’t just an opinion, it’s a quantitative certainty.
Without staying true to its stated ideal of being a welcoming nation to all peoples, the United States will not remain the world’s #1 superpower. It’s essential to remember that talent knows no bounds and the best ideas can come from anywhere in the world where there is a supportive ecosystem for innovation. These days, supportive ecosystems for innovation exist across the globe and other nations have been quicker to adopt new technologies and paradigmatic shifts.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- You need to have a goal. Otherwise, you’ll let life push you around. When you reach that goal, you need to create another one. Make sure your goal is true to who you are and attainable. Having said that, make sure you don’t sell yourself short, either. Make your goal a big one, so you don’t have to create another one right away. 😉
- Lead with humility. In my experience, if you do the right thing (and, importantly, you don’t expect anything in return), it ends up being very beneficial. For instance, when I respected the seniority of my colleague at Booz Allen and he later facilitated my entry into Google in 2002, it was like winning the lottery. I couldn’t believe my good fortune, but later I realized why I had been rewarded — because I stayed humble and did what I knew was just. He respected that and didn’t forget it.
- Reverse engineer your dream. Especially if you’re analytical, use your strengths to methodically break down your path forward. As I mentioned, math has always been my strongest subject, so I leveraged my understanding of data and risk to determine a life path that would get me where I wanted to land. Figure out the concrete steps needed to achieve your goal and make a plan. Then execute on it with passion and intensity.
- Champion and showcase your team. Whenever my team was asked to present in front of Larry (Page) and Sergey (Brin), I would make sure that those who actually did the work presented it. I wanted individual team members to receive recognition for their contributions. I think this is critically important to building a strong community that will support and lift each other up when needed. Champion others and they will return the favor when you need it most.
- Don’t be too serious all the time. If you’re too serious all the time, people won’t relate to you, and they probably won’t want to work with you either. Case in point, during my 14th and final interview as part of the screening process at Google, I was asked a question — just one — and ended up cracking a smile while delivering my answer. I was surprised when the interviewer (also an immigrant and Google’s head of worldwide sales), told me that if I hadn’t smiled, I would not have gotten the job. That’s a true story! It’s not enough to be good at what you do. If you’re not good to work with, you will never achieve your fullest potential. So, be authentic during interviews and in your daily life. No one will think less of you for being yourself, and if they do, you don’t want to work with them anyway.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
Right now, I’m really optimistic about Kamala Harris. To me, her election signals a shift towards greater inclusivity and a long-overdue willingness to acknowledge that women and people from traditionally marginalized groups should be in the highest leadership positions available. It sends a strong message of hope to women across the globe who are still considered unequal to their male counterparts.
Relatedly, you can’t fight demographics, and it’s unquestionable that a shift is on the horizon. As the Latino voting bloc gets larger and more powerful and the U.S. population continues to become more diverse, I think we will see politicians realize that they need to start voting like they truly care about women, people of color, immigrants, and the issues that affect them.
What’s more, the younger generation is loudly expressing their resolve against racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry of all kinds. We’re seeing the youth in this country stand up for what they believe in, not just by tweeting about it, but also protesting and seeking long-term policy solutions. As a native Frenchman, I love to see young people out in the streets protesting. It makes me feel patriotic.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Andre Agassi is the first person who comes to mind for me. As a very goal oriented person, I’m interested in how people continue to grow and develop after they achieve the success they’ve always dreamed of. Agassi is a legendary tennis player who sparked a cultural shift at a very young age, inspiring fans and other athletes across the globe. Some people who achieve early success of that magnitude become lost after their goal is accomplished, but Agassi seems more active than ever. He has launched numerous business ventures, invested in other people’s companies, and continues to advance his philanthropic work. I respect and admire his dedication to expanding educational opportunities for children across the globe, and I’d love to learn more about what makes him tick.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
The easiest way to follow my work online is to visit BetterManager.us. If podcasts are your thing, I encourage you to give a listen to the Building Better Managers podcast led by one of my fellow co-founders, the terrific Wendy Hanson. Personally, I am most accessible via LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!