Learning to Lead, the Nabaa Alam’s CEOx1Day Story

TalentEgg finds out what the University of Alberta student learnt about leadership during his CEOx1Day

Odgers Berndtson’s CEOx1Day event has a premise that asks a simple question: What makes a great future leader?

Leadership is a concept that we talk about a lot; in school, at work, in job interviews. Yet when you think about it, leadership is a complex idea that is often over-simplified. Students and new grads tend to think of leaders as seasoned professionals at the top of their field who have decades of experience. In other words, light years away from where most of us are now. With this image in our minds, it becomes difficult to recognize ourselves as leaders (or at least potential ones).

As a young person, it might seem like you don’t have much leadership experience. However, this quality isn’t just built in high-powered jobs: without realizing it, you’re building leadership skills every time you volunteer for a cause, join a sports team or club, or take an administrative role in a student group. Leadership is built day-by-day and learned long before you set foot in that corner office. That’s why executive recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson created the CEOx1Day event to inspire future leaders. In the CEOx1Day program, 3rd and 4th-year university students and those enrolled in a college degree-granting program can experience a rigorous selection process in order to join one of Canada’s major companies as CEO for a day.

It might seem like a tall order to go from campus to CEO in the span of a few months, but for Nabaa Alam, this life-changing transformation began with one question that encouraged him to complete the application: “What do I have to lose?”

As a student in the Chemical Engineering Co-operative Education Program at the University of Alberta, Nabaa found the CEOx1Day application on his department’s weekly e-mail newsletter. He immediately thought of what an amazing opportunity it would be to shadow a CEO for a day and realized that participating in the application process would be a great way to learn about himself. Nabaa is a good case for the argument that the first step to becoming a leader is believing that you can be one; turns out, this small moment of self-belief changed the course of his professional life.

As a student, Nabaa had undertaken several key activities that helped him develop leadership skills early on. As a kid, he was part of the Canadian Soccer Developmental Program, where he honed a team player mentality alongside the ability to juggle the ball. After some injuries, he applied the skills he learned as a dedicated leader and athlete to an academic setting. It was during his undergraduate degree that years of study and hard work led to a big break: becoming the CEO of ATB Financial for a day.

The CEOx1Day application process begins with an online submission of your resume, transcript, and a personal essay discussing your thoughts on leadership. For those who demonstrate leadership potential, the next phase is the Online Leadership Assessment, known as the Hogan Assessment which measures your core competencies and leadership potential. For Nabaa, this part of the process was incredibly valuable and gave him an in-depth understanding of his strengths and weaknesses as a leader, and how he could improve. After a phone interview with Odgers Berndtson’s search consultants, Nabaa was one of 12 semi-finalists who took part in a half-day interview and evaluation period at the firm’s Calgary office. The semi-finalists worked through case studies, speed-interviews, and presentations throughout the day. Finally, Nabaa got the call that he would be joining CEO Dave Mowat at ATB Financial. He was excited, a little shocked, and ready to learn. Nabaa immediately began to prepare by writing down questions for his mentor.

“The application process was quite rigorous but amazing, as I was able to learn a lot about myself, meet other motivated individuals and learn what it takes to be a leader from the Odgers Berndtson’s team,” says Nabaa.

“The interviews also gave me the confidence to converse with anyone at any level in the workplace,” Nabaa says, a valuable skill for anyone in the workforce.

The selection process was just the beginning of Nabaa’s learning experience. A few months after his initial decision to apply, he found himself having breakfast with CEO Dave Mowat at the ATB Financial Calgary Campus. After getting acquainted with his mentor, Nabaa met the VP Internal Audit and attended the Investor Services Board Meeting, where he met board members and learned how they make business decisions. From there, he and Mr. Mowat went downtown where the CEO was the keynote speaker for the Magnificent Men! Leadership Lunch. Mr. Mowat gave some personal insight on leadership and helped raise funds and build awareness to provide support for adult male survivors of child abuse in Calgary. To round off his day, he and Mr. Mowat had a Connections Strategy Meeting with more business leaders of ATB Financial.

Although they had a jam-packed day typical of a CEO, Nabaa and Dave Mowat had several one-on-one moments where Nabaa could ask questions about key leadership skills, finding your career fit, and how to deal with professional challenges.

Thinking back to when he was CEO for a day, Nabaa reflects on the most valuable advice Mr. Mowat gave him.

“One of the most important qualities Dave spoke about was having a passion for what you do. With passion, you can overcome all forms of adversity or challenges. He wanted me to not only be passionate about my career but life,” he says.

Mr. Mowat taught Nabaa that the best leaders are passionate about improving their company, people, and society and that goods leaders are focused on creating a positive corporate environment in which their staff can meet their full potential. Nabaa took note of Mr. Mowat’s personable attitude and that he knew every single person at the company. Through these observations, Nabaa learned that Mr. Mowat’s core values were not just spoken, but acted upon; a true leader makes a community where everyone can meet their potential. True to form, Mr. Mowat has continued to mentor Nabaa and support his potential by advising him on his career choices.

“The most important advice I received from Dave Mowat was that you should pursue your passions no matter what. Dave also told me that it is extremely important to give back to society. Regardless of if you are a CEO or not, you should be passionate about what you do and make an impact in your community,” Nabaa says.

For Nabaa, the CEOx1Day event was a significant step to developing his skills as a leader. Although the event took place over a single day, the lessons he learned will last a lifetime.

“My experiences from the CEOx1Day Program have significantly changed my professional and personal life,” Nabaa says.

Overall, the experience made Nabaa more confident in identifying as a leader. After participating in the CEOx1Day program, he became the Lead Process Designer and Economics Lead for a campus team that designed a renewable energy biofuels pilot plant with SBI BioEnergy. His team received $10 million dollars in Provincial government funding and attended the Climate Leadership Plan Press Conference featuring the Alberta Premier, Rachel Notley. This formative experience demonstrates how a series of actions can lead to serious leadership skills, which Nabaa built upon further by earning an Executive Leadership Certificate from Cornell University.

When asked about his advice for any student who wants to become a leader in the CEOx1Day program, Nabaa answered:

“Applying to the CEOx1Day Program was one of the best decisions I ever made in my young career. The advice I would offer to students would be to be confident, reach out to former participants and above all else, apply!”

Today, Nabaa Alam is a Process Engineer & Budget Analyst at Imperial Oil Limited. His current career success is in part due to his willingness to try new things, work hard each day, and his belief in his potential as a leader. We have a feeling that in time, Nabaa will be a CEO for more than one day, but it all started with his application to the CEOx1Day event.

If this sounds like the perfect place to start building your leadership skills, Nabaa encourages you to reach out to him on LinkedIn to learn more about the CEOx1Day program.