Found in Translation: Frenchman fêted for bringing American management to Chinese business
When Cyrille Breard (TMMBA 2010) was studying global strategy, cross-cultural management and how to lead organizational change at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, he had no idea just how far—and how fast—his education would take him.
In late September Breard found himself in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, where he received the National Friendship Award, China’s highest honor for a foreign national, from Premier Wen Jiabao.
Elapsed time? Just over two years out of Foster’s Technology Management MBA Program.
“This is a huge award in China,” says Xiao-Ping Chen, a professor of management at the Foster School who taught his cross-cultural management class. “It’s quite a remarkable honor that Cyrille has won, and won so soon.”
If the pace seems extreme, well, then, that’s China. Breard was recognized for his significant coordination and collaboration work with COMAC, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, a state-owned company that launched in 2008 with ambitions to join the global aerospace market almost overnight.
Technical bona fides
Breard has the cut of an absolute engineer: PhD in mechanics from the Université du Havre in France. Author of papers with titles such as “An Integrated time-domain model for the prediction of fan forced response due to inlet distortion.” Researcher at the Rolls-Royce Vibration University Technology Center at Imperial College London. Senior scientist/engineer at Redmond-based Analytical Methods. Acoustic scientist engineer at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
After proving himself a top technician during a decade in the United States, the French-born Breard aspired to manage innovation at a higher level. His time in Foster’s TMMBA Program proved pivotal.
“My outlook changed entirely,” he says. “As an engineer, you see a problem as something to fix. Now I see every problem as an opportunity. The Foster TMMBA experience made me more positive, more entrepreneurial, to view every situation as a way to improve something. That’s the philosophy I took with me to China.”
It would serve him well.
Breard was recruited under China’s Thousand Talents Program which imports international experts to help develop the nation’s industries. Aiding his decision was his wife Xuehong’s desire to return to her native China. With their two daughters, the family relocated to Shanghai in 2010. Xuehong went to work for a Chinese civil engineering firm. And Cyrille joined COMAC, at the time a two-year-old “startup” founded with $2.7 billion in capital. Its aim was unprecedented in the history of aviation.
“You don’t just create a company from scratch in the aerospace business,” Breard says. “I had to take this opportunity.”
He was initially hired for his acoustic engineering expertise. His charge was to bring the firm’s single-aisle commercial airplanes into compliance with strict international noise standards. But this proved to be a difficult challenge.
Like many Chinese enterprises, COMAC is organized into distinct departments with clear responsibilities. But acoustic engineering, by nature, must cut across every function of aircraft design. It requires enormous collaboration, something Breard knew well from his time in the US and at Foster.
So Breard took it upon himself to connect the dots. He amended his job description to become a kind of in-house organizational consultant. “I go into different departments and try to find a better way to do what they’re doing,” he says.
His tacit understanding of Guanxi, the powerful rule of relationships in China, enabled him to begin fostering a Western-style collaborative culture across the company. And he quickly proved himself an indispensable asset to COMAC—an engineer who knows how to manage organizations.
Famous in China
COMAC and the Chinese government formally recognized Breard’s contributions in September. Xuehong joined him in Beijing for the ceremony. And both attended, as special guests, the following day’s National Banquet, officiated by Premier Wen and then-President Hu Jintao.
In early December, Breard and a small group of foreign experts met with Xi Jinping, the newly elected General Secretary of China’s Communist Party and likely next president of China.
“There are not many people who get the chance to do these things in their lives,” Breard says.
All of this has been covered extensively by the Chinese press, bringing him a rapidly growing notoriety.
Breard says his first sensation of celebrity came a few weeks after the Friendship Award proceedings. A two-minute profile of his work at COMAC aired in prime time of the national news broadcast on CCTV1. The program was viewed by over 320 million people.
“After that,” Breard says, “people I didn’t even know where coming up to me and saying, ‘Now you’re famous in China.’ ”