The Glory and Loneliness of the Self-Made Professional

    The Glory and Loneliness of the Self-Made Professional

    By Philippe Castagnac (Chairman of the Mazars Group Executive Board)

    What’s a self-made person? Basically speaking, it’s someone who has been professionally successful without having either a higher education degree or a well-connected family.

    You know what? Looking at that description, I’m nothing like a self-made man. I have studied hard to get a good diploma. As most graduates do, I wanted to become a “high flyer” (as the human resources lingo goes). Thanks to this initial training at a well-known business school (and some personal taste for crunching numbers, I have to admit), I was able to kick-start my professional career and rapidly become a professional in my field, then a manager, then a member of the top management in the firm that I’ve been working with for now more than 30 years.

    In that way I am quite the epitome of the school-based meritocratic system, whose products run most of our mid-tier or big corporations. Don’t get me wrong – I won’t complain. I’m quite grateful to the community I grew up in, to have had this opportunity (although I’d often indulge in believing that my workaholism – I’m not in denial anymore – and whatever meek qualities I may have, did the rest of the job). Generally speaking, let’s face it: diplomas command the station you can reach in life. It’s even more important in fields such as mine, where professionals have to be registered and are under a legal obligation to have a diploma in order to be allowed to work at all.

    On the other hand, many people have no such initial background and yet, become successful entrepreneurs and business people. Let’s call them self-made professionals. Thanks to my career in auditing and advising businesses, I have had the opportunity to get to know quite a number of them, not only creators of small and medium companies, but also impressive individuals who have managed to build large and high-performing corporations.

    I’ve often discussed this issue with fellow auditors and advisors and the same words come back again and again: self-made professionals are hardworking and know the meaning of effort. They are creative and natural innovators; they’re not afraid to think out of the box and use their intuition as a powerful engine for their business decisions. They are usually simple and pragmatistic. They show audacity, boldness; they do not fear taking chances. Finally they know what team spirit means and how trust is essential for success.

    I know what you’re thinking now. “Hardworking? Big deal. There are hardworking people everywhere. Same goes for the other qualities you mentioned.” True. But think of this: how many times have you noticed all these traits rolled into the same individual? See? And there’s a simple explanation to that: it takes a lot of skills and qualities to overcome the kind of obstacles these people have had to face, whereas an educated, yet more specialised professional, can more easily find their way as an employee.

    How can you, without (formal) higher education, without capital, become a successful entrepreneur? Now that’s a daunting challenge. Think about the loneliness of the individual who has no personal network of decision-making people, no ingrained knowledge of how the economy works, and little cultural background. Say nothing about manners, nuance and the untold code of the elite that so often commands success in high-level business negotiations. Nothing is granted; everything is to be fought for, and won after hard battles. You’ve got to prove yourself when the success of others is considered more natural. This legitimacy issue may well be at the core of the self-made person psychological profile. One of these leaders, told me once: “As self-made people, we have nothing to lose, everything to win. We are naturally less afraid of the unknown.”

    Of course, given the increasing proportion of diploma-holders, the high rate of unemployment (which hasn’t abated much in 30 years in the West) and the ever more specialised and technical nature of our economies (and societies as well, by the way), the probability for a self-made person to succeed in a corporation (or public body) is not only low, but decreasing. After the Second World War and before the first oil crisis of 1973, the so-called “social lift” worked well: young people without higher education could start at the bottom of the ladder and could well hope to work their way up to the top level at the end of their career. I could name a host of examples of this journey, and so could you, if you look at your father’s generation. That era has gone. Most companies, because of the context, feel insecure, less inclined to take risks, and their expectations tend to be ridiculous. If I were to exaggerate, a junior at 22, just after graduation, would be asked not only to have a top-level diploma, but also several years of specialised experience, with an array of personal relationship qualities, and possibly speak Mandarin and Sanskrit; a previous experience in the Foreign Legion could also come in handy as character reference…!

    There is space enough for everyone in our society

    Philippe Castagnac

    Given that context, examples of self-made people reaching the top executive level in pre-existing corporations are scarce. In France, only 3% of big corporations’ CEOs lack a diploma, and some of those were born into their business. On the other hand, two thirds of the general entrepreneur population are self-made professionals.

    There is space enough for everyone in our society, and we do need everyone to succeed as a whole: highly-trained people of course, but also self-made people whose own brand of tenacity and energy allow for unrelenting pursuit of success. That is where I find hope for the future. As you may have noticed in my previous post, I’m an optimistic through and through, and the fact that so many entrepreneurs are self-made people is just encouraging. Their successes, their way of overcoming obstacles, their unique array of qualities must inspire us all. That leaves governments and companies with the immense responsibility to give more recognition to self-made people in society, and with the duty to start thinking about their own workforce not only in terms of formal competence checks, but also in terms of personal qualities. There is an immense leeway for progression here, and that could only benefit to our economies and societies.