CEO for a day: Students sit in the chair

Odgers Berndtson Managing Partner Roger Duguay discusses the CEO x 1 Day program with the Montreal Gazette.

By: Paul Delean

MONTREAL — For Yannis Mallat, the hardest adjustment in becoming chief executive at gaming giant Ubisoft was letting others do the jobs they were hired to do.

“I was already with the company when I was appointed CEO — I knew the company by heart, I’d done other jobs so I knew what they involved. You’ve got to distance yourself from that, leave the other jobs to others, let them grow, make them responsible and accountable. Your job now is to take care of the perennials of the company, ask the right questions.”

Mallat, 39, never had a mentor per se for his own corporate journey, but he didn’t hesitate when headhunting firm Odgers Berndtson asked him to participate in a program it oversaw for the first time in Quebec this year: CEO X 1 Day.

Four Quebec university students chosen from hundreds of applicants got to spend a day with the CEOs of four major Quebec companies. McGill’s Simon Bibeau was paired with Mallat, Katerina Fragos of Concordia was matched with Vidéotron president Manon Brouillette, Robert Frank of the University of Ottawa joined MEGA Brands president Marc Bertrand, and Eloise Gagné of McGill spent her day with Hydro-Québec president Thierry Vandal.

Odgers, a global firm, introduced the program in Europe seven years ago and extended it this year to Canada, specifically Ontario and Quebec.

Getting CEOs on board proved surprisingly easy.

“You wouldn’t believe how many raised their hand,” said Roger Duguay, managing partner of the Quebec office. “They get bothered so much for money and fundraising, but all we wanted was for them to show a young student what they do.”
The hard part was processing the applications.

“We had about 500, which is pretty good for a first year,” Duguay said.

The field was whittled down in four phases. Final selections were based on a number of criteria including academic record, an essay on leadership, an online leadership assessment, and telephone and in-person interviews.

“It’s a big investment in terms of time. You interview the CEOs. You evaluate the submissions, interview the students, narrow it down to four, then pair them with the CEO you believe matches them best. Next year, we may choose more.”

Duguay said the students surprised him.

“I was very impressed. They’re smart, aware and knowledgeable. Their values are a little different, but the brainpower and passion is there, more than ever before, and they’ve got good communication skills. I could have hired some of them easily.”
The goal of the program is to identify future corporate leaders, demystify the CEO job and give promising students some real-world experience.

“I wish I’d had the opportunity when I was younger to spend a day with the CEO of a large organization,” Duguay said. “You could see it in the students’ eyes, in their faces, that this was a day they’ll never forget. It will change them for the rest of their lives.”
The process also benefits Odgers Berndtson, which gains understanding and insight into the ways and aspirations of the corporate leaders of tomorrow, something it can share with its own clients, Duguay said.

Mallat, of Ubisoft, said he was happy to contribute to a program aimed at forming future leaders.

“One day is too short for anyone to really get much knowledge, but hopefully it will help them know what we do on a daily basis. I wanted (Bibeau) to make his own decisions on specific matters we encountered during the day. I didn’t hide anything from him. He was even welcomed into a meeting where we saw a game early on that no one has seen. That was the point, to immerse him in the daily challenges, get his insight.

“I really hope the program keeps going because it demystifies the role of CEOs, something that’s often pretty fuzzy in people’s minds.”