Monique F. Leroux, Chair of the Board, President, and Chief Executive Officer, Desjardins Group

Andrea J. Will LifeChats Series in Finance & Accounting

MoniqueLerouxAs Chair of the Board, President, and CEO of Desjardins Group, Monique Leroux represents all Desjardins cases and leads the largest cooperative group in Canada, and the sixth largest in the world.  Leroux is an active member on multiple boards of directors throughout Canada, including the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and the Founders’ Council of the Quebec Global 100 Network.  Recently, she was appointed by the Prime Minister of Canada to sit on the Advisory Committee on Public Service.  Leroux is also a member of the Order of Canada.  She has received numerous awards for the various boards she is on, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, and the Centre Jacque Cartier Medal.  Monique holds honorary doctorates from a number of Canadian Universities, and she enjoys working with non-profit organizations, academic committees, and public advisory committees.

Read Leroux’s full bio at the end of the LifeChat.

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Key Takeaways:

MoniqueLerouxTakeaway

On being a leader who seeks advice from others:

  • I believe that when you want to be helped, you sometimes have to take the first step.  You need to identify those people, and ask them if they’d be willing to give advice and support.
  • Regardless of what position we have in our careers, there’s always something we can learn from people around us.
  • Before making any impulsive decisions, take the time to get feedback from people around you – your colleagues, employees, senior people in your organization, people outside your organization, or your family.
  • You need to think very carefully about the kind of people you will be placing your confidence in, opening up to, and getting advice from.
  • In order to provide the emotional contact necessary as a leader, you need to be able to listen and get the spirit and emotions of others in yourself.
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LifeChat with Monique Leroux:

How did you get your start in the finance industry?

Overall, if I look at my life, I have to tell you that I did not have a professional development plan.  It came much more from a personal desire to work with people and as a result of getting good advice and of taking advantage of opportunities.

I studied music for fifteen years, and I attended the Music Conservatory, which is one of the best music schools in Quebec.  However, I felt that I didn’t have the means to study outside of Canada (which I needed to do to become a concert pianist). And as a people person, I found it very difficult to practice 7-8 hours a day.

So, I decided to make a change; I went to business school and completed an accountancy degree.  I then joined Ernst & Young and eventually became a partner there.  My story is based on the fact that at different times in my life, I had the opportunity to give my trust to different people, and was able to develop myself with them.  I had the opportunity to work with great people at Ernst & Young who helped me a lot.

Finding and having mentors is so important in the business world.  In your opinion, how do you go about seeking good advice and a good mentor?

I believe that when you want to be helped, you sometimes have to take the first step.  You need to identify those people, and ask them if they’d be willing to give advice and support.  You need to have a certain faith in yourself to take that first step, and after that, be open and listen to what they have to tell you.  I would say that’s essentially the explanation for a lot of things I’ve been able to do.  With the support and encouragement of a partner of Ernst & Young, I joined the Quebec Order of Accountants, and eventually became the first female president of the Order.  I still continue to take the time to seek people out and ask for their advice.  I believe that regardless of what position we have in our careers, there’s always something we can learn from people around us.

Before jumping into new opportunities or challenges, it’s very important to talk to other people and seek advice.  Before making any impulsive decisions, take the time to get feedback from people around you – your colleagues, employees, senior people in your organization, people outside your organization, or your family.

You need to make sure you know who you will be talking to, because mutual trust is extremely important.  You don’t want to share your story or your vulnerability with people you don’t trust and who don’t trust you.  You need to think very carefully about the kind of people you will be placing your confidence in, opening up to, and getting advice from.  Personally, I’ve been quite lucky because most of the time, I was very well supported in my career and in the decisions I made.  There are only a few times where the confidence I put in certain people was not completely respected.  But those were just exceptions; overall, I’ve been extremely lucky with the advice and support I’ve received.

My position at Desjardins Group is an elected one, so when I ran, I knew I needed to decide if I was comfortable taking on the role.  Before engaging in the process, the first thing I did was to  get advice from different people – men, women, seasoned financial people, and also people who were not necessarily financial experts, but who were able to give me good advice in the context of this election process.

In your opinion, what does it take to be a strong leader?

To be a good leader, I believe that you need to be humble.  You need to speak, have convictions, provide a vision, and communicate positive energy around you.  In order to provide the emotional contact necessary as a leader, you need to be able to listen and get the spirit and emotions of others in yourself.  After that, you can relay this emotion to the group.

What lessons can you share about how you balance your life as a career woman in a very demanding field and your life with your family?

I think what’s most important is to decide what level of energy you are willing to invest in your life.  There is no one answer to that—you can decide to fulfill yourself by being much more active at home, or in community service, or in business.  But, you need to decide how you want to balance your life, and success has to be defined in a way that is not only based on your professional life.  This is a personal decision you need to make because if your motivation is to become a business leader, for example, obviously you need to invest time, effort, and energy into this aspiration.

For me, the balance includes my work life, my daughter, and my parents.  There are a lot of times where people are in situations where they have not only children, but parents to take care of, so we have that dimension to consider as well.  Personally, I made the decision to invest the resources and money to be well organized.  This means that I decided very early on to have someone always with my daughter at home.  We started with somebody living with us, then someone available anytime we needed.  We decided to do this because both my husband and I were traveling a lot, so we wanted to have a sort of stability at home for our daughter when we weren’t there.  I’m also able to take five to six weeks of vacation a year, so I have that time to be out of the office and be with my family.  I use this time to refresh myself and be in contact with my friends and my family.

A big part of my success is based on the fact that my husband and I are a team; we complement each other well and work together to make the best decisions for our family.  For example, when my husband’s job was very demanding and he was traveling a lot, I decided not to take a promotion at the Royal Bank, and I changed my career path in order to maintain stability in my daughter’s life.  And now, he provides that stability while I am traveling for Desjardins Group.  Over the years, we have tried to really work as a team, and I find this very important because I have the privilege to feel that we were always able to connect and to support each other.  We both have our respective parents to take care of to a certain extent, so my husband and I share the effort to support them.

There is not a large representation of women in the financial world today.  When you were just starting out, and you were one of the only women, how did you make your voice heard, and how did you build credibility in a male-dominated industry?

It is definitely true that it’s more difficult to get heard in a group of people if you are one of the only women, because your voice is literally not as loud.  However, over the years I started to speak a little louder, which has helped me.  It’s funny, but it is a reality.  When I became part of the group of senior employees at Ernst & Young, I was one of only two women, and when I had something to say, I realized that I didn’t speak loud enough for everyone to hear me.  I then started to push my voice up a little bit so I was heard more often.  In order to do this, I knew that I had to have self-confidence.

I also realized that I needed to develop my resilience.  I realized that even though the first time I said something no one listened to my point, I shouldn’t stop speaking and saying what I needed to say.  I would just take the time to speak to my colleagues before the meetings, make sure to prepare myself well, and go back into the meeting and say my ideas again.  I would continue this process until my voice was heard.  I just realized that I had to be strategic about the meetings and the way I conducted myself.  I may have been the minority in my career, but at the end of the day, being a minority gives you an advantage because people will remember you better.

I work with a lot of men and women, and I believe that when you have a more diverse representation of women and men, there are very different and much better dynamics around the table at meetings.  The meetings are much more balanced, and the attitudes towards risk are not the same.  Most of the time, women will be a little less aggressive and will be more careful about managing the risk of a particular decision. You can see a combination of these attitudes in asset management, running portfolios, and risk management.

What advice would you give to women starting up in the financial world?

Be confident in yourself: be prepared for all meetings, be positive, articulate why you are thinking in a certain way, and do not hesitate to fight for what you want.  You don’t need to be aggressive, but you need to have your own idea, and be very firm.  Also, be open, smile, and go forward with a positive attitude.

Tell us about a time where you faced great doubt, a major challenge, or a failure.  How did you turn that into a triumph?

I started my career in music, but quickly made a change and went into accounting and finance.  When I started my first job in finance, I was a little bit older than my coworkers, and my pattern of getting there was not the traditional pattern.  But I just had to realize that yes, I am older, but I am not behind – I was investing my time doing something else.  So, I continued my path and followed my own conviction as a woman, and didn’t let my age affect me.  The most important part of life and your career is learning and making progress.  You can learn and make progress in many different ways and at different times.

I also remember that around this time, I wanted to become a senior manager.  People told me that they weren’t going to choose me for that position, and they wanted me to go into the tax department, which I had no interest at all in doing.  However, I decided to go into the tax department, and to make the most of it.  I told myself I would go, and I would teach at universities.  I knew that through this, I would at least be able to develop myself in the taxation area.  I wrote a book from this experience, and I turned this problem into a new opportunity.  I had the support of people around me in what I considered at first a failure, but now that I look back, I know it was not a failure.  I learned a lot of things from my taxation department experience, and from then on I knew I could take any problem or potential failure in my life and turn it into a positive experience.

At Desjardins Group, I started as the President and CEO of its subsidiaries, but at one point in time, the president asked me to become the CFO of the Group, and I really didn’t want to take on this role.  However, I decided to take on the new responsibility to see how I could contribute more to the cooperative.  Now, looking back, if I hadn’t taken the CFO position, I don’t think I would have been elected as President and CEO of Desjardins Group.  Being CFO gave me the opportunity to delve into certain things I wouldn’t have been able to grasp in my previous position.

Overall, many people see problems and become negative about them. However, personally I see a problem as being an opportunity to find a solution, or to develop a project, or to do better.  This attitude goes back to my family.  I am from a family of very humble origins; we experienced some financial difficulties when I was young and I had to do many things to help my family and parents.  But my mother was a positive person. She was able to bring the family to embrace those problems and at the same time find ways to move forward and find solutions.

What advice would you give your sixteen year old daughter, Anne-Sophie, to help guide her future?

You need to bring the combination of sports and music to kids’ lives because that’s how they can develop relationships, networks, and the momentum they need to keep them in school.

I would tell her to have trust in herself, seek advice on everything she does, and always stay connected to her family and people who are constantly around her and willing to help.  I would also tell her to commit herself to whatever she’s doing.  There are always people who say, “I could do this and that,” but who never follow through.  I would tell her to not be one of those people, and to select something that she loves, commit herself, and do everything she can to achieve this goal.  The notions of commitment and hard work are very important.  I would also tell her to focus on teamwork and collaboration, which are both so important in any field.  Being able to work in a team and to work with people will help you in every aspect of life.

 

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Full Biography of Monique Leroux:

Monique F. Leroux is the Chair of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of Desjardins Group, the leading cooperative financial group in Canada.

A member of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and the Founders’ Council of the Quebec Global 100 network, Ms. Leroux also chairs the Conseil québécois de la coopération et de la mutualité and is a member of the board of directors of Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada. She is a member of the board of directors of the International Co-operative Alliance, member of the board of directors and the executive committee of the European Association of Co-operative Banks, vice-president of the presidential committee and a member of the executive committee of the International Confederation of Popular Banks and a member of the board of Crédit Mutuel’s subsidiary CIC (Crédit industriel et commercial). She is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Business of the World Economic Forum; the HEC-Montréal’s Council of Governors; the Desautels Faculty Advisory Board at McGill University and the Governing Board of Finance Montréal.  Ms. Leroux also sits on the Advisory Committee on the Public Service (appointed by the Prime Minister of Canada), on the Catalyst Canada Advisory Board and is a member of the Canadian Group of the Trilateral Commission. She is a founding partner of the Quebec International Summit of Cooperatives (2012-2014).

Ms. Leroux is a member of the Order of Canada, an officer of l’Ordre national du Québec and has received the titles of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Pléiade, the Woodrow Wilson Award, the Centre Jacques Cartier medal and the Outstanding Achievement Award from l’Ordre des CPA. She holds honorary doctorates from a number of Canadian universities. She is a Fellow of the Ordre des CPA du Québec, past-president of the Ordre des comptables agréés du Québec and has served on the Board of Governors of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Ms. Leroux lends her time to a host of not-for-profit organizations and is a member of many academic and public advisory committees. She is currently the President of Desjardins Foundation and was the president of the Canada Summer Games–Sherbrooke 2013. She will also co-chair the 2014 annual fundraising campaign of Centraide of Greater Montreal.

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The Andrea J. Will LifeChat Series in Finance & Accountinis sponsored by the Andrea J. Will Memorial Foundation. More information at www.ajwmf.org.