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By Chris Atchison | March 30, 2015

Monique Leroux isn’t the type of CEO to shy away from making important strategic decisions. In fact, the Chair of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of Desjardins Group, Canada’s top financial co-operative, embraces an active approach to leadership and management across her organization.

It’s a sound strategy, especially given the challenges facing Leroux as the banking industry experiences a seismic shift in its traditional business model, thanks in part to transformative new digital technologies reshaping how customers interact with their financial institutions. That’s even before considering the CEO’s determination to grow Desjardins’ market share across categories, from financial to insurance services, at the expense of her rivals at the Big Five Canadian banks. 

“At the end of the day, I believe that organizations are always about people and the relationship between people,” Leroux explains. “I believe that the digital economy is creating change across the financial services industry, and I don’t believe the industry will be nearly the same in five years. That puts a lot of pressure on the organization to adjust, adapt and change.” 

Home to more than six million members and clients, Lévis, Quebec-based Desjardins manages $227-billion in assets. It was named the world’s second-strongest bank in a 2014 report by New York-based financial services firm Bloomberg L.P. Although it might go without saying that Desjardins is a powerhouse in the co-operative banking industry, Leroux is constantly working to protect and strengthen that already formidable market position. 

It’s why the CEO stands firmly behind her belief that senior leaders must stay in constant contact with their employees and press for the kind of peak performance that can help businesses stay a step ahead of the competition. At the same time, management must reinforce the view that change offers an opportunity for innovation and growth, rather than presenting seemingly insurmountable challenges at every turn. 

Doing so means building and tapping the differing skill sets of a diverse employee base, she says. But it also requires listening to ideas and creating platforms for meaningful dialogue. That’s a tall task for a mammoth organization with more than 45,000 employees. 

Leroux and her team use a range of tactics to engage with staff and reinforce key messages around the group’s strategic vision. The first is Desjardins’ innovation forum, an in-house network linking roughly 4,000 employees digitally. The forum allows them to share ideas and opinions on everything from in-branch customer service improvements to interesting financial articles. The second is ID3, a more formalized innovation process that assembles a small group of employees with varying levels of experience and expertise from across Desjardins. ID3 is tasked with debating select topics of relevance to the organization, as well as their potential future impact. The committee reports its strategic recommendations directly to Leroux. The last is the Institut coopératif Desjardins, an internal university dedicated to providing education and training to the co-op’s more than 5,000 elected officers, managers and employees. 

Leroux considers these initiatives indispensable to Desjardins’ ongoing success. “It’s not a view from the top,” she notes. “It’s a view from the network, from the people who understand what’s going on in the organization and our industry, who understand the major trends and what we need to do in terms of adjusting the organization going forward.”

When asked what’s changed most about her own leadership style since being elected President, CEO and Chair of the Board in 2008, Leroux points to a greater willingness to listen to views from all levels, while also emphasizing the continual communication of Desjardins’ strategic direction, priorities and values. 

“The first step to learning is to be able to listen,” she says. “You may decide to follow the advice or not, but at least it gives you the opportunity to connect with people and have a sense of what they have in their mind, so you can learn about the issues. And from there, you can focus on the next stage, the next journey. That’s certainly an important aspect of leadership that I’ve learned over the years.”

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