An opportunity to be CEO for a day

Annual mentorship program popular with students, executives
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/20/2015

Imagine being CEO for a day. Several students did just that recently when they took part in Odgers Berndtson’s CEO x 1 Day program, shadowing some of the country’s top leaders.

After hanging out with Barry McLellan, president and CEO of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, David Li said his experience was “fantastic.”

“I had a lot of one-on-one time with him,” said Li, a medical sciences student at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. “I had a lot of chances to ask him about his background, his career, how he became the CEO and, in addition to that, we also talked a bit about medicine and the health-care system… it’s very important to get that interaction.”

There’s a leadership gap in Canada and employers are looking for people with the right leadership skills and business acumen, so this kind of program makes sense, said Robert Quinn, a partner at Odgers Berndtson in Toronto.

“Students don’t have an appreciation for what the CEO of an organization is responsible for and how much. What we like to say is that the CEO role is a lot of fun and it’s interesting but there’s a lot of moving parts and it’s a demanding job, so it’s something that we just want them to be able to experience.”

Having the ability to chat with a CEO, to learn from his leadership style, management style and best business practices, was definitely an opportunity Anthony Esposito wanted to take part in.

“I knew that it… would add immense value to my life, to my career, to my school — just everything in general,” said Esposito, a student at Concordia University in Montreal majoring in management.

In 2015, several employers took part in CEO x 1 Day including GE Canada, Altus Group, Cineplex, First West Credit Union, Lululemon, ATB Financial, VIA Rail, Hydro-Québec and Ubisoft. 

For participant Saad Rafi, CEO of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games Organizing Committee (TO2015), the program made a lot of sense.

“I’ve benefited in my career with significant input from mentors and those people that have shaped my thinking and my approach, and I thought (this) was a great initiative,” he said. “It’s just reinvigorating... you have an opportunity to provide some perspective to someone who is truly interested in the business that you’re in. And it’s an area that these Games have focused on, that is their impact on youth.”

Lanita Layton, managing director at Hugo Boss Canada in Toronto, has also had mentors over the years and saw CEO x 1 Day as a chance to do something similar.

“We’ve got the responsibility to pay it forward. And we’re always looking to see who’s up and coming in leadership and what is the potential out there,” she said.

“It was well-worth it for us too — the rest of our offices were quite intrigued with the program and for them, it’s an example of how Hugo Boss is trying to help coach and train and build leadership and succession planning and all of that… I always get a kick out of it just to see new people coming through and seeing it through somebody’s eyes again — you don’t want to forget what that was like.”

‘Rigorous’ application process

To take part in the program, students undergo a rigorous application process that begins with sending information about themselves, a resumé and a transcript. There is then an online psychometric leadership assessment. 

If successful, candidates participate in a half-day evaluation conducted by Odgers Berndtson partners and consultants. They also go through case study simulation so they are seen under group dynamics, said Quinn, adding the whole process is very similar to a real search. 

“With students, we’re not looking for demonstrated experience, we’re looking for potential and so we’re looking for leadership potential, we’re looking for curiosity and broad thinking, so we focus in on that extracurricular activity, and we’re looking for communication skills.”

The speed interviews with several interviewers were very helpful, said Li.

“I’m applying to med school this year and... a lot of medical schools are switching from a traditional panel interview to multiple mini interviews so I found that to be good preparation,” said Li. 

“It’s not just the one day with the CEO that you get to learn from — the whole application process itself, you really gain a lot of valuable skills and experiences that (will) help you with job searches in the future and a lot of it really helps you reflect on just what you’ve been doing in the past few years.”

In taking part, employers are encouraged to set up a day when something of note is happening, such as a public event or investor call, to really open the students’ eyes, said Quinn.

“A CEO is the face of a company so they have to have exceptional communication skills, they have to connect with employees, shareholders, customers, government and for students to be able to see that and to see all the aspects that a business leader is involved with is incredible.”

Esposito’s day at the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) included a weekly meeting with a group of store managers, a tour of a distribution centre and one-on-one time with president and CEO Alain Brunet.

“It was very nice to see the conversations they have, the leadership style he has, the way he communicates,” he said. “(Brunet) gave me a lot of valuable insights… at every point of the day, he really made me feel included. And the SAQ culture, I was very impressed with it. They were all super-welcoming, super-friendly, they always asked for my opinion on things, they always made sure that I understood everything.”

At Hugo Boss, the day coincided with the end of the month, a planning season and collection presentations, said Layton.

“(The student) had the opportunity to see the wholesale aspect, the retail aspect, we did a tour of one of the stores as well... We also had the opportunity, because I was planning for board meetings this week, that she could sit in on a store planning session on our retail stores and shop in shops with our wholesale partners.”

The student also sat through a marketing presentation with a director looking at upcoming public relations and events, including a New York fashion show, “so she really got the benefit of seeing the overall broad spectrum of the Hugo Boss Canada operations,” said Layton.

The student shadowing Rafi had an opportunity to meet with legal counsel to get an idea of sports management law and entertainment law, he said. 

She also sat in on a meeting with key stakeholders around marketing, advertising and commercial rights.

“That allowed her to see the other side of the Games that one wouldn’t necessarily see, is how you go to market with your sponsors, how you protect your sponsors while also maximizing opportunities with other stakeholders who may have different sponsors. That’s the delicate balance,” he said.

The student also had lunch with Rafi for a one-on-one conversation and met with a partner and his interns helping with volunteer recruitment.

“(The student) was put on the spot as CEO to summarize the discussion and to provide some encouragement to the interns and to provide feedback on their proposals, and she did a remarkably professional job with literally no notice — we didn’t tell her that going into the meeting,” he said. 

Generational insights

The CEO program also gives executives an opportunity to see the new generation and really get some insight — like reverse mentoring, said Quinn.

“For a CEO, one of their big challenges or one of their big objectives is to engage the workforce, the total workforce, and with this new generation... there are different things that appeal to them, that get them excited about getting out of bed and engaged.”

It’s about understanding student expectations in the workplace, their career expectations and career trajectory, and even their personal growth, said Rafi.

“And that’s helpful because we have a very young workforce here at the Games, but also it’ll help me in my future roles that I’ll be taking on to just better understand what is a growing demographic to attract for employment purposes.”

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