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ceo for a day

ATB Financial CEO Dave Mowat, right, and University of Alberta student Nabaa Alam talk to a robot named Pepper at the ATB Campus in Calgary on Tuesday.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

As Nabaa Alam neared the end of his chemical engineering program at the University of Alberta, he was still unsure what path he would take following graduation.

"In previous generations, people stayed with the same company, or they kind of had a career mind-map of what they wanted to do," said the 23-year old, who graduated last April. "When I came out of engineering, I worked a lot in the oil and gas industry, but I didn't really know what I wanted to do."

Everything changed for Mr. Alam in February, 2016, when he earned the chance to shadow one of Canada's most powerful chief executives, Dave Mowat, who leads Alberta-based financial institution and Crown corporation ATB Financial.

"Dave told me not to really focus on that career mind-map, and instead follow my passions," Mr. Alam said, adding that Mr. Mowat advised him that, "as long as you love what you do, you're going to succeed in the end."

With that advice, Mr. Alam decided to organize a small campus team to answer a request from the Alberta Government calling on students to help develop sustainable energy resources in the province.

"We came up with the idea of taking canola oil and making marketable fuels such as diesel, jet fuel and gasoline," said Mr. Alam, adding that Alberta's government liked the idea enough to dedicate $10-million collected from the carbon levy to design a renewable-energy biofuels pilot plant. If successful, the province plans to build a larger facility in 2018 that can process 200 million litres of canola oil annually, which could save 112,000 tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions by the year 2020.

"Dave really inspired me to take on that project, because I saw it as an opportunity to really help Alberta and Canada and the world through renewable-energy development," Mr. Alam said.

The job-shadowing experience that paired the two was part of an annual program by executive recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson. Now in its fourth year in Canada, the CEO-for-a-day program matches students with executives to help bridge the gap between millennials and business leaders.

"Every generation has an almost built-in resentment or criticism of the generation that follows," said Eric Beaudan, the global head of Odgers Berndtson's leadership practice, adding that this reflex can be counterproductive and even damaging to employer-employee relationships. "One of the statistics we better get used to is that by 2020 the global work force will be 50 per cent made up by millennials."

As the millennial generation continues to expand within the Canadian work force, it is bound to cause major disruptions to the way workplaces have historically operated, according to Mr. Mowat.

"I think we will be less hierarchical in our organizations, and much more horizontal," said the ATB Financial CEO. "Information is kind of king, so making information more broadly available compresses the hierarchy, lets people connect and learn and lead and be inspired and do their best work."

Mr. Mowat adds that millennials also demand more recognition based on merit, moving away from traditional methods of advancement such as seniority and company loyalty. Another CEO participant, CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, adds that the CEO-for-a-day program is a prime example of how millennials are gaining access to information that may not have been available to previous generations.

"There were a multitude of applicants who went through very rigorous screening to get the opportunity to spend the day with a CEO of a dynamic organization," he said. "You didn't have to come from a privileged environment, you didn't need a personal relationship to get you in the door. The program is based on merit, and that is what this next generation is expecting."

That rigorous screening process began by putting 300 third- and fourth-year students at 33 Canadian universities through psychometric testing conducted by personality-assessment firm Hogan Assessments. Students were also asked to submit a detailed application and résumé, after which finalists were invited for a day of in-person speed interviews and case-study challenges courtesy of McKinsey & Co.

Mr. Beaudan explains that the application process is not entirely unlike the process the firm uses for recruiting executives, giving student applicants the opportunity to gain real-world interviewing experience. Furthermore, the 300 students that complete psychometric tests each year provides the firm with up-to-date data on the preferences and habits of those entering the workforce.

"When we use these psychometric instruments from Hogan we look at seven different components of personality that help us predict performance," he said. "What we learned from the Canadian students is that this group is very high on what we call 'inquisitiveness.' They're very interested in understanding how the world works."

Mr. Beaudan adds that the test results show that Canadian millennials are more enthusiastic about improving the world and making meaningful contributions than making money or furthering their own career.

"The pattern [for success] that may have been common with prior generations was more based on high ambition scores; you have to be aggressive, you have to promote yourself, you have to take the lead on everything," he said. "We've got a generation now that's a little bit more willing to work together, to be collaborative, to think through problems without having to take the lead and make all of the decisions."

"The definition of leadership is more broadly imagined by millennials than simply being a V-P or CEO," said Mary Barroll, the president of TalentEgg, an online millennial job board and a partner of Odgers Berndtson's CEO-for-a-day program. "They define leadership as empowering others to succeed – it's more of a collaborative view of leadership."

Mr. Alam, for one, says his mentor for a day, Mr. Mowat, already exemplifies the sort of leader millennials have begun to demand.

"The first person he talked to that day was the janitor; that caught my attention," Mr. Alam said.

Mr. Alam adds that employers looking to hire the brightest of the millennial generation can no longer hide themselves away in a corner office. Instead, leaders need to make themselves visible, and ensure their organization is doing everything possible to support the new talent. "Obviously they have to prove their worth in the workplace, but once they do so, afford them opportunities and give them better chances to develop," he said. "That's how you retain millennials."