Colleagues at the IMF say Lagarde has already delivered a change of tone; whereas Strauss-Kahn used to issue orders and rely on a narrow coterie of advisers, Lagarde has taken pains to consult a wide group of people. “My management style is more inclusive. Perhaps you can say that is because I am a woman – I do think that women tend to be more inclusive. I am very decisive when it comes to organising the team, but I do consult widely and hear many ideas before rushing in,” she explains.
This approach may have drawbacks, she admits. Some observers fear that she is going to be excessively orthodox in her approach, either because she is seeking consensus, or because her unconventional background might – perversely – make her less willing to be unconventional in policy. This worries some critics, who argue that the current crisis requires bold economic strategies. To add to the concern, Lagarde does not have a degree in economics, forcing her to rely on advisers.
However, she has already displayed some willingness to be a little bold: soon after assuming the role, she infuriated eurozone leaders by pointing out that European banks were urgently in need of more capital. And, she argues, an inclusive approach is now a strength, not a weakness; the days when anybody – or any single power – could dominate the agenda are long gone. Economists alone cannot solve disasters.
As part of that “inclusion” drive, Lagarde continues to try to get more women involved in senior positions. These days, she is trying to put the Strauss-Kahn scandal behind the IMF. “There was a healing process in the first couple of weeks [when I arrived] and a sense that we needed to turn the page with purpose. I think it was helpful being a woman for that,” she says. However, she is now more focused on pushing the IMF to meet its target of 30 per cent women in management positions. “My board doesn’t look good in terms of female participation, but my senior executive level does,” she says. “Boards can be very deceptive – you see many companies today that have some women on the board, but the senior management is very male.”
She also continues to promote the wider cause of women. Last year, Lagarde declared that she backed the controversial idea of introducing female quotas into the boards of European companies. “This is good for companies too. When I look what happens when you have more women on boards, there is a difference – the general tendency of women is to adopt a different risk profile, in terms of portfolio management, say.” After all, she adds, most women tend to have a more holistic view of life, partly because they – like she – have spent so many years trying to manoeuvre family and work.
These days her own “juggle” remains challenging. Lagarde has been with her partner Xavier Giocanti, an entrepreneur, for the past five years. However, he is currently shuttling between France and the US. And while Lagarde lists her hobbies as scuba diving, yoga and gardening, she laments that this summer she did not have an opportunity to pick the fruit in her house in Rouen, Normandy. Yet, as she travels about, she continues to exhibit an enviably serene, authoritative air, clad in a classic suit.
“A strong influence on me was the first boss I ever had – she was a woman, from Belgium, and very strong and elegant,” she recalls. “She was always very attentive to how she looked, and it taught me to dress properly. When I came to America and saw a lot of working women in the 1980s and 1990s who always dressed like men, that had an influence on me too – to not do that.” Her favorite clothing labels, she admits, include Chanel and Ventilo. “I am lucky because I had parents who were tall and slim, and my own size has not changed, so I have been wearing things for 20 years.” Discipline, presumably, also helps maintain her slender shape: Lagarde exercises a great deal and never drinks alcohol.
So, I ask, does she now have a stylist? For a second, she sounds completely baffled; it is the first occasion I have ever heard her lost for words. “A stylist? For my hair, yes! But for my clothes? No! Why? It is my style.” Perhaps this is the most encouraging thing of all.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.