Managers of the Future

About Managers of the Future Gerard Lefranc from Thales Group

Gerard Lefranc - as an electronics and software engineer from I.S.E.N in France Gerard Lefranc has vast management experience at Thales Group in various areas: specialist software for users with disabilities, intellectual property, human resources. He is currently in charge of the management of the policy for employing persons with disabilities at Thales Group. The policy’s main axes are:

  • recruitment of persons with disabilities (currently 1,500 persons with disabilities at Thales France Units),
  • development of support programmes aimed at retaining jobs by persons with disabilities,
  • implementation of disability awareness programmes for Thales Group managers,
  • cooperation with Thales Group subcontractors as regards the implementation of the policy for the employment of persons with disabilities at entreprise adaptée businesses,
  • improvement of the professional qualifications of disabled university students.

Participating in a French Government initiative aimed at supporting school pupils and university students in finding employment Gerard represents the corporate interest. He used to be president of the normalisation committee, which developed French regulations (AFNOR) concerning “requirements and recommendations concerning the integration of persons with disabilities in organisations”. He is also a Thales project manager in charge of projects focusing on the development of technological tools for persons with disabilities.

An interview with Gerard Lefranc, Director of Mission Insertion, a Thales department in charge of disability policy.

Ireneusz Białek: What does Thales do?

Gerard Lefranc: The key areas of the company’s operations are defence systems, systems for civil and military aviation, satellites and radars, as well as railway traffic control systems. The company employs around 35 thousand people in France and as many elsewhere across the globe.

Since when have you been with the company and what did you do before becoming Director of Mission Insertion?

I have been with Thales Group for as many as 37 years. I started off as an engineer and managed a team developing software for defence systems. After fifteen years, I moved on to the HR department where I was in charge of three centres dealing with personnel and social issues. Back then I was much in touch with trade unions. I worked in the purchasing department then, in charge of rationalising the number of our suppliers and reducing the related costs. Later, I focused on copyright and patents, particularly in the area of computer software and finally the head of the HR department offered me the chief post in the Mission Insertion unit, set up at the Thales Group main office to focus on disability. Our company took this theme onboard very early on, already in 1992, and in 2002 Mission Insertion was created and I became its Director two years later.

Why did you become interested in disability?

I wanted to get back to the HR department and do something new and disability was such a new area in the company. Back then a restrictive law was adopted in France concerning employing persons with disabilities. Each company must employ at least 6% of disabled staff, failing which it pays huge penalties for the benefit of Agefiph(a state organisation collecting the penalties and funding help for the employment of people with disabilities). It is, however, possible to retain such financial resources in the company, provided they are used to develop a policy of the employment of persons with disabilities in the future. My unit is responsible for managing such funds.

Although similar rules concerning employing persons with disabilities apply in Poland, sanctions for not employing them are much lower and it is not possible to retain such financial resources in the company. Does your disability policy cover other countries like Poland, for example?

No. In countries other than France each Thales branch conducts its own policy in this area, yet I would like to achieve some degree of uniformity, as most staff of our company are employed in EU member states. That is why despite different national systems concerning disability, for instance in France and Poland, one could refer to provisions of European law or documents adopted by the European Union like the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities. For now, however, at Mission Insertion we focus on more employment for persons with disabilities in France and cooperation with universities is one of the basic tools to achieve that goal.

And what is this cooperation like in practical terms?

80% of our company staff are engineers and technicians, which is why we cooperate mainly with schools educating future engineers. We invest in programmes which give students opportunities for enhancing their professional qualifications as well as programmes aiming at minimising limitations stemming from disability, for instance using modern technologies. We have concluded agreements with universities and commit considerable financial resources to such programmes, yet it is beneficial to both sides, with university students being the prime beneficiary of the system. Such activities have a very wide scope and we want to include in our company life all the people, regardless of the type and degree of their disabilities. This is what ‘Thales of tomorrow’ is going to look like, an inclusive rather than exclusive company, promoting employee potential rather than focusing on employee limitations, which after all can be eliminated to a large extent by means of, for example, relevant technologies. It is a matter of the knowledge and awareness of those who make personnel-related decisions in the company. Thales wants to be a socially responsible business and fears no challenges related to it. We know, for instance, that the number of students experiencing mental-health difficulties is growing. On this, we cooperate with the Pierre and Marie Curie University (UPMC) in order to support students in their professional inclusion, so that they can work for us in the future.

Why is it so that many companies confuse corporate social responsibility with charity activities, particularly as regards disability?

They do not know the real needs of persons with disabilities and they fear whether they would make good employees. That is because of lack of knowledge and awareness amongst managerial staff. Philanthropy has been a sort of tradition since the Middle Ages and it is easier for us to practise. Social responsibility is a more demanding idea obliging one to learn on a daily basis, improve one’s awareness and invest in people, in this case people with disabilities, with a long-term effect in mind. One can then expect some profit, the creation of potential. Philanthropy, in turn, is a noble yet still sharing one’s own profit with others, it is not acting together. In other words, rich people often share their money with disabled persons, but are they interested in how such people live on a daily basis? Social responsibility means learning how they function, collecting reliable knowledge and using one’s potential in cooperation with disabled persons, in order to create such jobs for them that would enable them to support themselves whilst bringing profit and satisfaction to the employer.

Social responsibility is then an ambitious idea, more time-consuming, yet bringing profits larger than those from charity actions. And let us not forget that in the context of social responsibility disabled persons become a subject, whilst in terms of philanthropy they remain passive recipients of assistance. The world has changed entirely since the Middle Ages and social responsibility is much more compatible with modern times than philanthropy. If someone asks you for a fish, teach them how to catch it instead of giving a fish to them. By the same token, universities and companies should teach persons with disabilities how to catch fish. This is the essence of the cooperation between Thales Group and its partner universities.

In Poland, philanthropy has a long tradition, too. How to convince decision-makers that socially-responsible activities are more useful?

This comes from education and better awareness. The role of the school is fundamental in this regard. When I was at school, there were no persons with disabilities there, and now there are. The school, university and then company: all these institutions should take their share of responsibility for disability as a social issue, just like non-discrimination of women, people with a different ethnic background or elderly persons. Building such a culture of approaching these problems lies in the interest of the entire society. We at Thales Group want to make sure that young engineers starting work with us know that the company implements a non-discrimination policy. Action brings action. Anyone can look at us and launch their own activities, also in Poland.

Following up on what you have just said: what joint actions can universities and companies take that are socially responsible?

First and foremost, acting well in their respective fields of responsibility. The role of the university is to provide good education for future employees and developing civil society, whilst the role of companies is the creation of jobs ensuring success for the company and comfortable life in such a society for its employees. It is in the interest of both, however, to develop a better society and this is where they can cooperate closely. People educated at university come to companies like ours and take managerial posts. If they have disability awareness, they value potential and diversity, they become ‘managers of the future’. It is just such ‘managers of the future’ that we must educate and employ in order to have a better society. ‘Managers of the future’ will be changing Europe and the world quickly.

Many people ask me about the agreement between Thales Group, the Pierre and Marie Curie University and the Jagiellonian University. A question recurs on the company’s benefits from cooperating with a Polish university. What are they in your view?

We had concluded an agreement with the UPMC at an earlier date and that is how I learnt about cooperation between the UPMC and the Jagiellonian University in the context of the DARE 2 project. The experience you have gained on the project whilst developing a disability awareness course programme for managers is of great interest to me. I would like to use it to improve our knowledge concerning persons with disabilities at Thales Group. Additionally, we are an international company and your students may become our employees one day, they can also become ‘managers of the future’. I would also like everyone in Poland to know that Thales is a company that not only does good business with your country but is an enterprise following defined and clear operational principles as regards social responsibility.

And what would be your message to other companies, including smaller ones, as well as organisations and individuals interested in social responsibility?

I would like them to speak in various ways about what they do and share good practice in this regard. This will broaden the circle of people and institutions eager to take socially responsible action, and may even create healthy competition. This would be good for all. Law, regulations and big politics are important, but specific actions can and should be taken at each level, also local, and this is very important. Such local actions must be spoken about, their results presented at various conferences at various places. In this way more people will learn about them, and possibilities will open up for cooperation with others who do something similar, some joint ventures, and this itself makes an opportunity for making some larger social change happen.

 Thank you.


  "Bulletin of the Jagiellonian University Disability Support Service", issue 4/2011, Kraków 2011.