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Monique Leroux is the CEO of Desjardins Group. (Tory Zimmerman/Globe and Mail)
Monique Leroux is the CEO of Desjardins Group. (Tory Zimmerman/Globe and Mail)

Monique Leroux mentors women as Desjardins chief Add to ...

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. Over several weeks, a panel of six judges will select 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

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Nominations remain open until November 26. Submit yours today.

Monique Leroux, president and CEO of Desjardins Group, has been selected as one of 25 Transformational Canadians.

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In March, 2008, Monique Leroux became the first woman to lead a major Canadian financial institution. Being named president and chief executive officer of Desjardins Group - the country's largest financial co-operative, it ranks 91st among global banks - was remarkable enough. But Ms. Leroux also got herself elected to the top post at $175-billion Desjardins - no easy task. To win her four-year term, she fought for the votes of 256 delegates chosen from throughout the organization.

For Ms. Leroux, this triumph marks a sea change from the early 1980s, when less than 10 per cent of her university accounting class were women. But she has always been a trailblazer. One of the first female partners at what is now Ernst & Young, Ms. Leroux notes that the corporate world has come a long way in three decades. When she visits business schools today, she says, women are well represented in accounting and finance. "Many of them are excellent candidates."

Montreal- and Lévis, Que.-based Desjardins reflects the new reality: More than 45 per cent of its senior managers are women. Ms. Leroux, 56, says this makes good business sense. "Teams that are diverse naturally bring more openness and, at the end of the day, better performance over all."

But as Ms. Leroux admits, there's still work to be done. Despite her punishing schedule, she's working hard to get more women into the boardroom. Next week, for example, Ms. Leroux will be in Toronto to address the non-profit career advocacy group Women in Capital Markets.

At home in Quebec, she takes time to mentor capable women who can gain more confidence from her support. "I have the benefit myself to have excellent mentors supporting me over my professional life, and I try to do the same for other people," Ms. Leroux says.

Desjardins, founded in 1900 by former journalist Alphonse Desjardins, is thriving under Ms. Leroux's leadership. Like the big Canadian banks - and credit unions in English-speaking Canada - it ably weathered the global economic crisis. New York-based Global Finance magazine recently rated Desjardins the world's 25th safest bank and the fourth safest in North America, after Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion Bank and Bank of Nova Scotia.

Desjardins, whose 42,000-plus employees serve some 5.8 million members through its network of caisses populaires and credit unions, is having a strong year. In the first three quarters of 2010, it posted a surplus of $1.25-billion before member dividends - a 50.4 per cent increase over the same period a year earlier. Meanwhile, Desjardins' assets grew 11.6 per cent.

Growing up near Montreal in the town of Boucherville, Ms. Leroux had no ambitions to work in business. A gifted pianist who still plays, she went into finance partly because she lacked the means to pursue music studies abroad.

It turned out that Ms. Leroux was equally talented as an executive. Earlier in her career, she served as RBC's Quebec senior vice-president and senior executive vice-president and chief operating officer of Quebecor Inc. In 2001, Ms. Leroux joined Desjardins, where she was named CFO three years later.

Desjardins, which has been steadily growing its business outside Quebec and Ontario, is a socially responsible institution known for its global engagement. Ms. Leroux says many employees show interest in Développement international Desjardins, which has helped give more than seven million families in almost 30 developing countries access to reliable financial services.

Her first priority is to make sure that Desjardins supports communities here in Canada, she adds. Ms. Leroux, who has a 14-year-old daughter, says much of her own community service involves fostering young people's personal and leadership development. Recently, the avid athlete was also named president of the 2013 Canada Summer Games.

In Ms. Leroux's experience, the best leaders share a measure of humility and a willingness to listen. Both qualities are essential in a democratic organization like Desjardins, whose caisse network has more than 6,200 elected officers.

"You need to accept and you need to become comfortable with debates and discussions," explains Ms. Leroux. "And so that's why it is so important to be able to listen and receive feedback positively. That's part of democracy."

For this leader, gender equality is just as crucial. "We need to continue to bring more women to be considered as potential CEOs and senior executives in large corporations in Canada," Ms. Leroux says. "If I can help in opening the road for others, I'm very pleased, because it is possible."

Monique Leroux on the power of collective action

Leadership is always about people. It is focusing on other people instead of yourself, and it is thinking about what you can achieve as a group instead of looking at it from just a personal point of view. Leadership starts with your own personal convictions about what you want to accomplish for society….The next step is to come up with your own vision for what you want to accomplish, and of course you need to share that vision….When you can bring people to be strong believers in your vision, which becomes our vision - well, there is no end to what you can accomplish as a group.

On promoting Canadian values abroad

We should continue to push around the world to bring those kinds of things to other countries. Sometimes we are a little bit humble, which is good. But we should be able to be a little bit more aggressive, to be much more open to the world in general. And when I look at the changes in the world right now, with the strength of the emerging countries, we should be very comfortable in opening up who we are and what we can offer to the world.

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