Rita-Rose Gagné is executive vice-president of growth markets at Ivanhoé Cambridge, a global commercial real estate firm.
I grew up in Quebec City, the seventh kid in a family of eight. I was raised with English as my maternal language. I was in English school up until secondary school, but because schools started closing in Quebec City, I switched to French. Now I'm more French speaking.
I was into competitive sports – a lot of alpine skiing and soccer. But the other side of me was music. I played 12 years of cello very seriously. My career was supposed to be going into music or continuing into alpine skiing. I was very focused, and then had a serious skiing accident when I was about 18 years old. I couldn't ski or play cello for a year. It was a tough year. But I already had the idea of becoming a lawyer in the back of my head.
My father was a very strong figure in my family. He was a lawyer and a businessman, and formed his own law firm in Quebec City. It had a strong influence on the family for sure – six of us studied law and some have practised. It did influence me, although my father always said that I shouldn't do it, that it was a hard profession. It inspired me, looking at him.
Naturally, I'm attracted to building things up, building up partnerships, building up strategies. I practised law for 16 years. When you're on the legal side, you may achieve that sometimes, but you're in a different mindset – you solve legal problems. I like finance, and that was missing in my legal career. So in my MBA at McGill-HEC, I really got into knowing more deeply the financial side of things.
I'm an ambivert, but I think that it depends on the setting. For example, if you ask me a question, I don't pop up with the answer, which means I'm a bit ambiguous about it. If I'm in a room or meeting, I may be very extroverted. If I'm in a different setting I may intentionally be more introverted. If I am with my team, I often want to listen and take up no space at all. In a negotiation, I might speak less when I want the other party to put it all out before me. So it's a bit of both.
My leadership style has evolved over time. I was naturally very results-driven and thought everything was geared towards getting the result and winning. Now, it's changed a bit more into – yes, the result – but also creating the vision, creating the strategy, thinking more long term, looking forward. An additional layer of the result now is getting a good strategic plan versus just getting stuff done every day.
During the week, my focus is on my work. I naturally wake up at about 5 a.m., and since I cover Asia and the Pacific often, sometimes start calls at 6 or 7 a.m. I have long days and it's intense. But then, from Friday night to Sunday morning, I really try to disconnect from work.
When you work around the world, you have to be open and non-judgmental. You have to take a step back. Sometimes they will want to talk a lot before getting into a given topic or negotiation, and things might be slower.
A mentor helps you at critical points to step forward. I've had some mentors in my career, and I tend to do that myself especially with younger people. It's not a matter of being in a constant specific weekly relationship with someone, it's having people who make some key gestures.
I find that young women work hard, but we have to remind them to ask for the promotion or to ask for the salary increase. I find that I had more opportunities to give that type of feedback to younger women than to young men, who seem to more naturally think about that.
The advice that I'd give to younger people is "no pain, no gain." If you want an extraordinary gain, you have to make an extraordinary effort. You need to absolutely work hard. Then you do have to establish, look for, or develop relationships that are meaningful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.