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leadership lab

President and CEO, Desjardins Group

Running a large organization is a daunting task for any leader. For many, the pressures of adapting to rapidly changing technologies such as fintech and blockchain, consumers’ increasing move to digital, and an environment where industry “disruption” is commonplace, make it even more challenging.

The question for all 21st-century leaders is how to innovate and grow, while keeping true to your values, roots and key strengths.

At Desjardins, our values are more than a century old. As a co-operative, we approach our business in a bit of a different way. Our organization was created by members for the well-being of members and to support socio-economic development. My challenge is to lead more than 45,000 employees and 5,000 officers and to encourage them to adapt, modernize, expand and innovate in a complex business environment while we continue to make our 7 million members and clients our top priority. We also have had to do all this while managing a complex brand transition from our acquisition of State Farm Canada while staying true to our co-operative roots.

My approach is deceptively simple and may sound familiar to most leaders. Here are four concepts that have worked:

Keep it simple

Despite the complexity and competitiveness of the financial services industry, customers insist that we make it easy to do business with us. They want the best service where, when and how it suits them. For example, people might dread the mortgage-renewal process because it’s complicated and time-consuming. We wanted to make this process simpler and less of a burden to our customers, so we introduced a digital mortgage renewal where you can easily review and renew your mortgage with four to five taps on your mobile phone.

Keeping our customers first is not a new concept for leaders. But we must instill it in our employees. Make it simpler for the customer of the 21st century to work with you.

Relentlessly integrate the modern

Disruption is now common and technology is advancing at an exponential pace. At Desjardins we view disruptors as potential partners, not as competitors. We bring our capital, experience and reach to take the best innovations and mainstream them faster. By doing this, we’re able to onboard innovation in ways that meet the changing needs of customers and our employees.

We recently partnered with a startup called Hardbacon, a fintech organization that makes investing simpler for everyone. We helped them during the startup process by providing them with office space, mentoring and other services. Their app connects and monitors multiple brokerage accounts to look for vulnerabilities, expose hidden fees and provide investment education. We were able to play a role in their development and we now offer their solutions for free to new customers of Desjardins Online Brokerage. This type of collaboration could have been seen as a threat, but it turned out to be a win-win scenario, especially for our customers. A good question to ask yourself is whether you are open to new ways of doing things and actively involved in fostering growth to benefit your customers.

Never lose sight of the human touch

Customers count on committed employees who want to provide excellent service and our employees are all brand ambassadors. Technology makes everything faster and easier, but it can have a big drawback – a lack of human interaction. As much as customers demand a human touch, so too do employees, especially if they are to carry your message to customers.

One of the early commitments I made as CEO was to ensure that I was the visible face of my message. To do this, I hold a webcast with all 45,000 employees every quarter. This personal approach lets me share my thinking and it lets others share their thoughts with me. I also try to meet as many people as I can when I travel to different parts of the country. E-mails are efficient and necessary, but they can never take the place of in-person conversations. As a leader, these conversations not only give you insights, but also give you a good pulse on where things are in the company.

Performance vs. purpose

Performance is often measured in numbers – profits, growth and margins. These are all key drivers, but they don’t measure whether an organization is fulfilling its purpose. Being everyone’s “No. 1 choice” means that people choose to do business with us and work for us. And I believe that to achieve that goal an organization must stay focused on its values and roots – its purpose as an organization. For Desjardins, it’s about being a true socio-economic leader that supports our members/clients, employees and the communities we serve. So, in its own way, our success at fulfilling our purpose is another driver of performance. If we don’t perform on this measure, we won’t perform financially.

Leading large organizations in the 21st century is a mile-a-minute challenge defined by the competing interests of financial performance, customer demands and the relentless pace of innovation. But Desjardins and many other successful companies are finding that success lies in strong values such as focusing on purpose over performance, always keeping your focus on the human elements of your business and always putting customer needs first.

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