Thierry Aldebert
Pitching up: Thierry Aldebert at the Stade Vélodrome, Olympique de Marseille’s home © Julie Vola

One of the perks of being a French gendarme — military police officer — is the legal right to early retirement after 36 years’ service. Many officers are nonetheless unprepared for the transition to civilian life. In an attempt to ease the switch, senior officers are being offered a 15-day specialist executive education course developed by HEC Paris business school, aimed specifically at serving gendarme officers.

The gendarmerie is responsible for policing France’s smaller towns and rural and border areas, with additional duties as military police. Participants in the HEC programme are assigned a personal career coach, who helps them define their skills and find civilian jobs that match them.

The course includes many of the conventional executive education subjects, helping the officers develop core business skills, particularly in finance and accountancy. Participants then work on specific skills depending on their career goals, such as communication, knowledge of public affairs or human resources techniques. The sessions are spread over a year.

The hardest part for those promoting the HEC course has been persuading serving officers to think about their next move after what in many cases has been a long period in the service.

When Thierry Aldebert was first asked if he would like to attend HEC’s programme, he refused. He had served in the gendarmerie since graduating from the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, France’s foremost military academy, in 1999. He still had a year to run on his posting at the Central Directorate of Public Security in Montpellier, the southern French city where he had made a home with his family and was reluctant to leave. “I had spent 20 beautiful years in this institution,” he says, “and I was not sure that I wanted to move on to the next thing.”

Aldebert agreed to take part on the condition, offered to all participants, that he would be under no obligation to switch careers if the opportunities presented to him were not right. While the course is particularly helpful for those near retirement age, it is offered to gendarmes at any stage of their career should they wish to consider another occupation. “I was not in a hurry to give up,” says Aldebert. “I did not know where I would find another place with such community spirit.”

No sooner had he started the course, however, than he was invited to apply for the role of operations director at Olympique de Marseille (OM), the Ligue 1 football club in the Mediterranean French city. Aldebert had always been more interested in rugby than football, and his first instinct was to decline.

He changed his mind, however, after a conversation with the club’s owner, the American businessman Frank McCourt, who explained that it was Aldebert’s military training rather than his sporting interests that was relevant to managing security at football matches.

Aldebert was also persuaded by his career coach at HEC, who helped him to understand that the skills he had to offer in security management fitted well with the club’s crowd-control requirements — the team’s home matches attract average gates of almost 50,000 in their 67,000-capacity stadium. The coach helped him to prepare for the interview — something Aldebert found particularly valuable, having never been through the process of applying for jobs outside the French military.

While Aldebert had been in no rush to leave the gendarmerie, he admits the job offer came at the right time for him and his family. With two sons, aged 18 and 26, he no longer needed to be close to home to help with school pick-ups and drop-offs. “If I had young boys, I don’t know if I would have accepted the job,” he says.

One thing he misses in his new role, though, is having the power of the French state behind him. “In the gendarmerie you are used to communicating with mayors and magistrates. You do not meet people with that level of power in football,” he says.

On the other hand, in his current job he likes the greater liberty he has to make decisions. “Mr McCourt gives me a great deal of trust. It is a great privilege,” he says. “I miss first the family spirit of the gendarmerie, but with OM there is a different team spirit because we are a professional football club seeking to win games.”

Antoine Cuignet, another long-serving member of the gendarmerie, took the HEC course not with any immediate intention of quitting the service but to find out what options might be open to him when he did eventually leave.

Cuignet was enjoying his role as a captain in Paris, overseeing a team of more than 100 officers. He also travelled overseas frequently and had served three-month stints in French Guiana in South America, New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and Saint-Martin in the Caribbean. He wondered whether there was another career that could offer him such possibilities.

However, with two school-age children and no experience outside the gendarmerie and the French military, Cuignet admits he also needed to see what alternatives were available. “My wife is an independent investment adviser, which gives her some flexibility, but when we arrived in Paris she was reluctant to leave because it was such a good base to get to clients all around France,” he says.

What Cuignet liked in particular about the HEC programme was the mentorship from his career coach, who encouraged him to think as broadly as possible about his options. “Some of my dreams seem a bit crazy now,” he says, admitting that he had considered a role in tourism or hospitality until he realised it was not a sector someone with his experience would find easy to enter at a senior level.

What HEC ultimately provided was the chance to “get out of the wood”, Cuignet says, meaning that his colleagues as well as friends became aware that he was considering a move. The job that finally took him out of the gendarmerie did not come directly from the HEC programme, however, although he returned to his mentor to discuss the opportunity.

He heard about a senior position at Streeteo, a new venture set up by France’s largest car park operator, Indigo, to manage paid parking on behalf of local authorities. Streeteo was looking for a director to oversee 200 people at its main operation for the greater Paris area and a friend from Cuignet’s local rugby club encouraged him to apply.

“I had to apply for this role along with everybody else,” he says. “But what the HEC course did was open my eyes to the other ways I could use my military leadership skills in jobs like this. For that I feel this course was a really key moment.”

The FT Executive Education Rankings 2019 will be published on June 3 2019

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