As we reach day 86 of lockdown and having just finished reading Le Piège – Enquête sur la chute de Carlos Ghosn*, I can somewhat relate to the description of certain aspects of Carlos Ghosn’s house arrest. Carlos Ghosn is undeniable a mesmerising character. The book sets out to investigate the path to Carlos Ghosn’s fall and is most definitely a trigger for broader project considerations.

Having developed a passion, over the years, for all human aspects of project management, I can’t help but finding the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi an interesting case study. I also happened to have had a prime seat to some of the events of the days of his arrest. Yet another tale of an eternal traveller’s life!

Backtracking to 2018; which was an important year in terms of Franco-Japanese relations. 2018 marked the anniversary of 160 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and France as well as the centenary of the creation of the Franco-Japanese Chamber of Commerce. Many cultural, business and economic events took place over 2018 in celebration of these milestones. In late summer 2018, the Conseil National des Barreaux (French Law Society), in line with its efforts to be a catalyst for the international expansion of the French legal profession, organised a delegation of 100 French Lawyers to go to Tokyo in an exploratory voyage.  I was part of this delegation due. We headed off to Japan in November 2018. 

19th of November 2018, the day of Carlos Ghosn’s arrest coincides with the opening of the French Japanese Centenary Business Summit. The summit was attended by prestigious speakers including Louis Schweithzer (Honorary President of Renault), Agnes Pannier-Runacher (Minister of State attached to the Minister of Economy and Finance) and Hiroto Saikawa (President and CEO of Nissan Motors) to name but a few. 

I recall Hiroto Saikawa’s speech as praising the success of the Alliance and thanking its “people”; the Alliance’s “asset”. In Hiroto Saikawa’s words, the “Nissan/Renault Alliance represents 19 years” (then) of work to create “a solid technical and engineering base” whilst generating “economies of scale through Renault/Nissan Purchase Organisation and providing the scale to support efficiency for international growth”. On this morning of November, to the unenlightened, the future of the Alliance looked promising with  many more synergies to come in order to tackle “the future challenges facing the automotive industry” (“conversion to better energy systems” and providing “the mobility services of the future”). 

That in the hours following Hiroto Saikawa’s speech Carlos Ghosn be arrested upon landing in Tokyo must have come as a shock to many. Coincidence or pied de nez

Beyond the politics surrounding the story of Carlos Ghosn’s dispossession is also the story of an ambitious project. Would the end of Carlos Ghosn’s road have been different had the protagonists dedicated more focus to building commonality of soft skills?

If semantics speak for attitude and culture, then it seems characteristic of a mindset that in the numerous articles or books written in French or in English on the subject of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance the use of warlike language seems to be the norm on either side. One could rightly have the feeling of reading Napoleonic conquests led by officers deploying troops along far away battlefields of cross participations and double votes. Tactics are devised and arsenals of weapons paraded in an ultimate demonstration of force…. and

… some battles were won; certainly not the war! 

Lack of semantic alignment is a major cause of dysfunctional communities; if we consider teams as communities. The eventuality of cultural misalignment would have been identified as a key risk to this project. One can wonder whether the Master Agreement governing the Alliance could have included an obligation for the parties develop a semantic register! That is making soft skills a legal obligation in the same way as the modality of exercise of voting rights might be!

Beyond semantics, the cultural gap between the French and the Japanese seems to be abysmal in some respects; unsurprisingly. The generic appellation of French and Japanese in this document is used voluntarily to capture the breadth of stakeholders, corporate, Governments and shareholders; as they seem to all have a part to play in this saga. It is undeniable that cultural misunderstandings tend to foster fear with its correlated fight or flight reactions. 

Due to the breadth of the stakeholder base, cultural training would not suffice. It is perhaps where Carlos Ghosn was irreplaceable. Carlos Ghosn seems to belong nowhere in this tale, yet he appears to have the skill to melt into either side. More than a diplomat, akin to a chameleon. Was this sufficient in itself to absolve of all behaviour? It seems not.

What seems most disturbing in this tale is that behind this pharaonic project were many dedicated people. As such, the question of the impact of Carlos Ghosn’ fall on the legacy is of utmost importance?

Legacy is a concept I particularly cherish. Legacy is not to be confused with outcome. Legacy goes beyond outcome to encompass the long-lasting impact of a concept on all stakeholders; it is the vision. Legacy must be a key focus consideration from inception; it maintains focus and drives intentions. Governance, compliance, structured processes and succession planning will naturally flow from the will to leave a powerful legacy. A will for legacy ultimately fosters sustainability. Reading through many papers, I am unclear as to what the legacy of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance was meant to be. Perhaps this Alliance was only ever meant to be a set of outcomes – increased purchasing power, synergies, cost savings, footprint; rather than a transformative venture.