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MBA schools across Canada are making increased use of former executives.Matej Kastelic

For more than 25 years, real estate executive Blair Hagkull put his fingerprints on some of the world's biggest property developments and investments in North America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Now, he's passing on his strategic management expertise and leadership skills to MBA students at the University of Victoria.

During the fall and winter semesters, Mr. Hagkull spends a day a week on campus as an executive-in-residence, adding "real world" business experience to the learning environment of the Gustavson School of Business. "It's a wonderful opportunity to engage, contribute and give back," he says.

Now in his third year as a volunteer, he has mentored about 40 students with one-on-one advice, delivered guest lectures and participated in panel discussions. "I offer a pretty unvarnished view," says Mr. Hagkull, whose résumé includes stints at Concord Pacific Corp. (developer of CityPlace in Toronto, among other projects), Emaar Properties in Dubai, and RSP Group. "It's not just about the achievements and success but some of the challenges, as well. I owe it to the students to be upfront and honest."

Now an adviser with real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle, he has also contributed research ideas to the faculty and participated in the school's strategic planning process. "People have been very open to my comments about how to make things better," he says.

Gustavson has been enlisting executives-in-residence or EIRs since its inception 25 years ago. At any time, four or five executives are in residence, most of them retired business leaders from the Victoria area.

"They are another way to assess whether what we're doing is relevant for business," Gustavson dean Saul Klein says. "It's a reality check in terms of our connectedness with our community,"

The EIRs also serve other functions, such as raising the school's profile in the B.C. business community and helping with fundraising. Most don't become directly involved in writing cheques, says Dr. Klein, "but they may open doors" that lead to donations.

Victoria is not alone in tapping the business world's collective knowledge base. MBA schools across Canada are making increased use of former executives. "Business schools have recognized that there is this reservoir of talent – people who want to be engaged and can add something quite significant to our programing," says Dr. Klein.

At Queen's University's Smith School of Business, Peter Copestake, a former senior vice-president of Manulife Financial, has volunteered as an EIR since 2007. He is one of two or three EIRs the school has each year, all drawn from the ranks of alumni. He calls his role "almost the most fun thing I've ever done. It's wonderful to work with these incredibly smart young Canadians."

In addition to delivering three or four guest lectures a year, he taps his broad network of financial executives to arrange job interviews for some students. "I don't do it with every student," he says. "I get to know students before I'll recommend them." He estimates he creates opportunities for 30 students a year. He lends a hand with fundraising, too.

Mr. Copestake also devotes several hours a week to guiding two student-run investment funds sponsored by the Smith school. One is an undergraduate fund that has grown to $1.3-million from $500,000 over six years. The other, a hedge fund run by MBA students, is managing nearly $500,000 in assets.

"I serve as chair [of both funds] and give the students a sandbox to play in, but they make all the decisions. I may say, 'Have you considered this, have you considered that?' But I've never said no to an investment decision."

Not surprisingly, the B-schools located in Toronto have access to the largest pools of EIRs. University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management has eight EIRs, including Ron Yamada, the co-founder of MDS Inc., who serves as EIR for health and life science strategy.

York University's Schulich School of Business has the largest group – 29 EIRs, including former federal deputy ministers of finance Mickey Cohen and Fred Gorbet. Individuals chosen represent a wide range of industry sectors in order to match Schulich's diversity of MBA specializations and industry-specific programs – everything from arts and non-profit to real estate, retail, mining and health.

Some of Schulich's EIRs are volunteers but others, as they become more active in teaching or sitting on the school's advisory councils, are paid for their expertise. "I created the program with maximum flexibility for the people involved," says dean Dezso Horvath. "The only requirement is that they do something during a three-year period."

McGill University is in the process of reshaping its EIR program. Last decade, the Montreal school's Desautels Faculty of Management heralded five marquee names, including Paul Desmarais Jr., co-chief executive officer of Power Corp., and Paul Tellier, former CEO of Bombardier and Canadian National Railway.

A school spokesman says the five executives are still involved with the school but in less formal ways. Meanwhile, the EIR program now has only one participant – Melissa Sonberg, a former senior vice-president at Aimia Inc., who also acts as an adjunct professor of organizational behaviour. The school spokesman declined to discuss future plans for the program.

While many of Canada's business schools have women among their EIRs, the University of Regina is going a step further by creating a Woman Executive in Residence position. The first appointee, yet to be selected, will take up residence in July in the faculty of business administration, says dean Andrew Gaudes.

Her mandate will include building knowledge of the challenges and barriers women face as they rise in organizations and inspiring female MBA students to set their sights on becoming future leaders. She will also work with other faculties on campus and advocate for research specific to women in leadership.