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Flying without a map: Nicole France on charting her course as an analyst

By Kate Crane

Published March 17, 2020
Last updated March 17, 2020

As we did last year, we’re extending International Women’s Day throughout the month of March to celebrate female leaders within customer experience.

A VP and principal analyst at Silicon Valley-based Constellation Research, Nicole France jokes that she has a past life as an analyst—because it’s true. Her first role out of college was at G2 Research, a small analyst firm in Mountain View, California, that Gartner acquired not long after she joined. After nine years with Gartner, primarily based in Europe, France decided she wanted to “flee the gilded cage.” Eager to “get in on the inside” and learn as much as she could, she went to several different companies, spending a long time at Fujitsu in the UK and bouncing between London and Paris.

Ultimately, this winding road led her back to the analyst world a little over a year ago. She and her partner returned to their native Southern California, to Catalina Island, where they are currently renovating a very old house. On the side she’s also earned her pilot’s license,

In my book, this makes Nicole France an international woman of mystery who lives on an island and flies planes. But she’s also well-grounded in the realms of digital marketing, sales effectiveness, and customer experience. Read on for insights into the world of analysts, for France’s take on the benefits of networking and collaboration, and the role of intention in living a fulfilling life.

How much of your trajectory has been by design versus by accident?

Significant parts of it were by design and a whole lot has also been by accident. For a long time, even before I graduated from college, I had a very clear objective in my mind that I wanted to live and work abroad. I wasn't interested in dabbling—I wanted it to be serious, a really important part of my life.

When I took that first analyst job, the company was in merger discussions with an equivalent company based in the UK. I remember distinctly thinking, you know, it's a small company, I bet in two years I could get myself to London. And then six months later the discussions completely fell apart. Then within 18 months of my starting at what was then called G2 research, we were acquired by Gartner. Three of us were offered an opportunity to relocate to the UK to help build out their technology services research team… and so interestingly enough I was in London within two years, which is crazy.

I spent the next 14 years of my career in London and then in Paris and back in London but living and working, traveling extensively all over Europe and elsewhere, and that was very much what I had really wanted to do. In that sense I would say it was by design at a very high level. I hadn't given myself any specific sense of exactly what I wanted to be doing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the work that I did and I learned a tremendous amount.

"I hadn't given myself any specific sense of exactly what I wanted to be doing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the work that I did and I learned a tremendous amount." - Nicole France

Since then it's been a little bit more by accident. I know what I like and I know the kind of context that I enjoy working in. It's been a lot more challenging for me to say, So, then what does that career path look like? It has been, I think the past few years particularly, since moving back to the U.S., more of an exercise in trying to feel that out and come up with my next big vision for myself.

So you set a big, broad intention and then it unfolded.

When you've got that clarity of vision, things happen. I have related to that advice given to athletes: Visualize yourself where you want to be. It's tongue in cheek—except I think it's absolutely serious. If you have that clarity of vision, that's when it happens. That said, I think you rarely have any clear sense of what the steps are going to be to get yourself there. But if you know that's where you want to be, it will happen.

I do wonder sometimes if I would be in a different place had I followed some rigid outline. I mean, certainly I would have been, but would I have been better off? I will never know. But I probably would have enjoyed the ride a lot less.

[Related read: Taking big swings is in leader Sangeetha Rai’s DNA]

What’s the line between aiming high and seeking perfection?

Perfection is a remarkably difficult goal to achieve, at least for any length of time. As I get older, however, I find myself really questioning exactly what it is I want. Do I want something because it's what I have always thought the next reasonable expectation would be? Or is it because I really want to do it? I've definitely made decisions, particularly working in large companies, looking up the food chain and saying, "You know, I could really knock myself out to get promoted to that next level,” but is that really what I want?"

In a whole lot of cases, I've said no.

"I've definitely made decisions, particularly working in large companies, looking up the food chain and saying, 'You know, I could really knock myself out to get promoted to that next level, but is that really what I want?'" - Nicole France

What makes working in the analyst world so worthwhile?

Being an analyst is a tremendous education on business, the technology market, you name it. It's really a rare vantage point because you get to see into all these different kinds of companies and what they're doing.

One of the things that's really cool about being in an analyst firm is your role as a mouthpiece in the market. It's to say things that are, hopefully, insightful and that help to provoke thinking and move the envelope a little bit. Often, what we look at and talk about is not necessarily radical, truly unique thinking—but it can be much easier to hear it from the outside than from the inside.

As analysts, we are kind of a clearing house for information. We're also very much a source of external validation. When people might have a hunch or an opinion or an internal thought, they come to us for the outside perspective that might get everyone around them to listen.

[Related read: Vend’s Talei Wood: On rising up and bringing others along with her]

Any thoughts on what it’s like to be a woman in this field?

It's a fascinating question because it's not an easy one to answer. I only have my own experience, and no direct experience other than my own to compare it against. Fundamentally, in some ways it's been great. When I look back and reflect on my time at Gartner in particular, I really feel like I was treated as a peer. And I was a young, fairly small woman, so it’s kind of remarkable in a way.

I remember the moment when one of my male colleagues, who was probably older than my dad, looked at me and genuinely wanted to know my opinion. At that moment, I felt like I had arrived. Hey, all right, I’ve earned my seat at the table. It felt great. It's not like that environment was without bias completely, but generally

In general, I experience an incredible exchange of thinking and ideas—and it's rare to get that kind of work environment.

"At that moment, I felt like I had arrived. Hey, all right, I’ve earned my seat at the table." - Nicole France

Any counterpoints?

There was a time when I was in the marketing leadership team at an international company in the UK. Looking around the room one day in a meeting… There were two other women on this team of nine, maybe 11. I suddenly realized a couple things: One, I needed to adjust the way I operated, from being an analyst to operating as part of a team. As an analyst, the thing is, you're basically paid to speak—get out there and tell people what you think. This doesn't necessarily work when you're on the inside, working as part of a leadership team. So that was one necessary adjustment.

The other thing that was really weird to me: I didn't feel like I got the same consideration for what I was saying as what my other male colleagues got. One thing all three of us, the women on the leadership team, realized—without being overly bothered about changing it… There was very clearly a social network that existed between the CMO and the male members of the leadership team. The three of us were not really part of it.

I don't think the CMO was even aware—I don't think it entered into his consciousness that this clique was going on, but it absolutely was. The other thing that made us laugh a little bit was there were only three people on the leadership team in marketing who had actually fired anyone for not meeting expectations. One guess who those three people were... We laughed it off and kept going, but it was definitely the kind of thing where it just felt so much harder to be taken seriously in the same way as the guys.

It's one of those things. Leaders do have their proteges or their favorites and that isn't necessarily something that's strictly down to gender. But there is an inherent bias there that I think reinforces the problem in a lot of cases.

"Leaders do have their proteges or their favorites and that isn't necessarily something that's strictly down to gender. But there is an inherent bias there that I think reinforces the problem in a lot of cases." - Nicole France

I’ve heard you say that strategizing is one of your major strengths and a big part of your role. How do you get good at that?

I’m just going to borrow from Lady Gaga and say I was born this way. Honestly? I don't know! I do think to some degree it has to do with how you think and how you approach the world.

My other half is an engineer. He graduated with a history degree as an undergrad and went on to get a master's degree in biodefense, but he's an engineer and he thinks that way and that's the way he works.

There's no doubt about it: I am a strategy person. It's just the way that I am, the way my mind works. So I'm thinking about these questions whether I want to or not, which is in part why I came back to the analyst gig—I'm doing this anyway. I might as well be in a position where I can capitalize on what I'm going to do naturally.

[Related read: Do more of what you love by being all of who you are]

How much of your work as an analyst is thinking and being a solo iconoclast who launches big important thoughts off in the corner? And how much are you in a room with other people coming up with the official Constellation stance?

The process itself, to me, is very interesting, and things come together in a real combination of ways. Like in any sort of innovation, it's very rare that an opinion or position springs fully formed into any one person's mind. A lot of the work has to do with, yes, the ability to think on your own, and I do.

I have my random moments of inspiration in the shower or the stuff that you wake up and you realize you figured out—but a lot of the work actually happens in conversation, and in conversation with the right kinds of people. Sometimes that's someone who absolutely sees the world the same way I do. Sometimes it's someone who absolutely doesn't. Sometimes it's people who don't really understand what I'm even talking about, and that's also useful.

You see all kinds of people in this role. Some are very much keeping their cards close to their chest and keeping their thinking to themselves. My personal experience is that it's much better when you are out there testing ideas with people. I test them with colleagues. I test them with enterprise customers. I test them with vendor clients. That, to me, is the way of tuning my antennae to figure out whether I'm on the right track with an idea or not. To my mind, the analyst job is really about observing, testing, synthesizing, and trying to discuss in some meaningful way.

So ultimately we are trying to get to something that is forward-looking that may not be strictly predictive models, but we're trying to see beyond the direct horizon in front of us. That is, to a large degree, I think the value that a good analyst brings. So it's an interesting mix of skills. Sometimes you have to be able to make some judgments that are not fully based on data, because the data doesn't yet exist.

[Related read: Can burnout actually be good for you?]

How do you define success for yourself?

One definition is when I'm able to articulate something that I think is complex and potentially very confusing in a way that makes sense and people can use in a meaningful way. The highest levels of success are when people take your ideas and run with them. It's even better when they reference you as the source. Which sometimes happens, not always. But when you can see that the things that you have been working on and thinking about and writing or talking about have an influence, that to me is satisfying.

"The highest levels of success are when people take your ideas and run with them. It's even better when they reference you as the source." - Nicole France

Greatest challenge in your career?

I really do not like to put out ideas that I don't feel are fully formed. What is great about working with Ray Wang: He puts pressure on me to either get there faster or do it iteratively. That is the pressure I need. One of the things I've seen is when I have an idea that I think is really good and really important, and somebody beats me to the punch. The worst is when they beat me to the punch but they didn't do as good a job as I was going to do.

It's different when you're like, Wow you did it better, props.

Yeah, exactly, exactly.

But when you see your great idea come out in a watered-down oatmeal version, ugh.

And it's interesting in the analyst world because you have to pay some attention to that but you also have to ignore it to some degree. There's so many voices out there and you just have to be confident that what you're saying is valuable to the audience that you care about. You have to test that too. You can't let other people stop you. This is especially true in a space where there is no ownership of thinking. It just doesn't happen.

What qualities do you value most in colleagues, in the workplace?

I hope that what I say here transcends different working styles, as there are so many. I really value people who are thoughtful, for one thing. That expresses itself in many different ways. Certainly people who are good critical thinkers, but I think thoughtful also describes people who are considerate of what they say and how they say it, and that's not the same thing as being indirect necessarily, but it's having some consideration for who's on the receiving end of what you say, which I think is an underrated quality.

I definitely value forthrightness at the same time. People who say what they mean. Recognizing that that can change over time. Opinions can change and I think I value that as well. I value colleagues who are open to a good discussion and debate and who may have a strongly held view but who are open to considering another view if there's a compelling argument.

[Related read: 8 cognitive biases that affect how you manage your team]

Have mentors played a role in your life?

Yes. Were they formal mentors? Not always, no. I've had some great bosses and I've had some absolutely lousy bosses who in their own way were also very educational. I've gravitated in my work life toward colleagues that knew their stuff and whose outlook and ways of working and being I admired. I've been lucky because a lot of them are people that I'm still close and in touch with.

I have never really—and this is probably quite obvious at this point—had the kind of mentor where I sit down and say “here's my career plan,” or who has asked me, necessarily, strictly what my career plan is. I do have a couple of very good professional friends who periodically will ask me those kinds of questions, and I'm hugely indebted to them for that. Sometimes you do need the friendly prod.

Is there anything you wish some hypothetical mentor would have told you when you were 19, 20, 21, first setting out into the world? A lesson that you figured out fine on your own, but that you wish you might have had some insider intel on?

Yes. Going back to this idea of envisioning goals… I wish someone had magically conveyed to me that I needed to keep setting, keep finding those visions for myself at regular, frequent intervals. Once you achieve one dream, then what? If that doesn't take you through your whole life, you still have to figure out what's next, and that is a lot harder than it sounds.

"I wish someone had magically conveyed to me that I needed to keep setting, keep finding those visions for myself at regular, frequent intervals. Once you achieve one dream, then what?" - Nicole France

Here's the thing: When you have been in the workforce for a while, even five years, you realize that through your friends and through people that you meet in your work life, you end up with your own network. As you grow and develop, so does your network. Part of that is simply the people that you have a natural affinity for—sometimes they are your really old friends and sometimes they're not. Sometimes they're people you just meet but you really have some sort of connection to.

Really good networking is all about the people that you want to stay in touch with—the ones where, even if you don't talk to them for several years at a time, you can drop a line back in and pick right back up and it feels very natural. It doesn't feel like there's some sort of quid pro quo thing.