Lagarde From a Woman's Perspective

Washington will notice for sure that its new IMF boss has arrived. Christine Lagarde plans to bike to work, a concept inconceivable from her smart but not exactly fitness-oriented predecessor.

When I interviewed Lagarde at France's Finance Ministry earlier this month, she was so certain that she'd get the job that she asked me -- a former Washington resident -- for advice about which neighborhood to live in. Lagarde, once a competitive synchronized swimmer and a member of the French national team, wants to ride her bike to work. She'll bring it with her from Paris.

That bike says a lot about how Lagarde will run the IMF. (OK, she may take the limousine when it rains.) She's not going to be an imperious boss. In fact, the woman who recently complained about "too much testosterone in trading rooms" is eager to strike a collaborative chord. She told me she wants to start out with town hall-style meetings, getting to know the IMF's director and huge staff.

Alas, it won't be a love-in. Lagarde wouldn't have had a stellar career in the notoriously male-dominated field of law, and later as a politician, if she didn't have sharp elbows. She's the kind of woman who knows how to manage with just the right mix of firmness and femininity. That's earned her wide respect in France, where she has been voted Best Minister by her peers. In 2009, the worst year of the global financial crisis, The Economist named Lagarde European Finance Minister of the year. She reminds me -- no offense, Madame -- of my excellent elementary school teacher, who would lovingly teach us handwriting and the names of Joseph's brothers -- and if one of us misbehaved, she'd call out "I'll shoot you at dawn!"

Lagarde got the nod not because she's a woman -- though given the circumstances, her gender wasn't a liability -- but because she's an excellent manager. In that way, she reminds me of Nancy Pelosi and EU Vice President Viviane Reding -- both mothers of several children -- who use a "tough love" management style instead of instead of bullying staff into submission. "I would want to make sure that the staff feels confident, encouraged and feel good about the organization they belong to", Lagarde told me. "You don't join or manage an organization unless you have a good and strong connection with all the members of the organization." Can you imagine an imperious boss à la Dominique Strauss-Kahn enthuse about lowly IMF analysts?

Perhaps Lagarde's greatest asset is her ability to impress and convince. And now she's convinced the financial world that she -- a non-economist -- can steer it through an enormously complex crisis. So far, the tough-love style has worked well for Lagarde, who has negotiated the rescue of Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Oh, and biking in DC. Lagarde needs no advice: she spent much of her career in the US, joining US law firm Baker & McKenzie after a French law firm informed her that her gender was a liability. Lagarde eventually became Chairman of Baker & McKenzie's Global Strategic Committee. She asked about bikepaths just to be nice. But don't waste her time with an irrelevant answer. The tough moms like Lagarde who are taking on some of the world's most powerful jobs cut straight to the chase.