Interview: Monique Leroux, CEO, Desjardins Group

Had her family circumstances been different, Monique Leroux might have been a concert pianist. Instead, she is the first woman to be elected chairwoman, president and chief executive of Desjardins Group, Canada’s largest – and the world’s sixth largest – credit union, or co-operative financial group. With over 42,000 employees serving almost 6m members and clients, and with $172bn assets under management, Desjardins was placed 20th in a ranking of the World’s Safest Banks by Global Finance, the New York-based magazine. Last week, she was honoured in the Women Corporate Directors awards for leadership and governance of a private company.

The FT’s ranking of the top 50 women in world business 2011 includes eight in financial services. Do you think women are particularly good at running banks?

My view is that both men and women, of a particular type, are good at running financial institutions. I think a financial institution is essentially [one] based on service; [one] based on the work of a lot of people, including sophisticated financial people; and it’s about risk management. Women, generally speaking, have a very participative style and leadership approach, are people-focused, and are very prudent in terms of risk management. The combination of these three qualities makes an efficient financial services chief executive.

Why is progress towards more gender diversity on boards so slow?

It’s not just at board level – it’s throughout the organisation. My view is there are three barriers. First, there is an entrance barrier. While there are many women in financial services, you don’t have a lot of women in oil and gas. You will find that, for example, in engineering and technology, there aren’t many women students.

The second barrier is about business valuing diversity. You cannot say you will wait for women to climb the ladder, because [diversity will not be achieved] just by waiting. You have to have a very determined action plan and it has to be a priority from the top, from the chief executive. You must have targets – not quotas – that are explicit and communicated both inside and outside the organisation. At Desjardins, we are looking at between 30 and 40 per cent at different levels – less than 30 per cent has been proven not to be effective.

Third, you have to look at your processes and HR practices, to have coaching support and mentoring programmes. My view is that there is some work to do [in convincing everyone]. We need to ask diversity questions of service providers, for example. There are different ways of influencing organisations, to increase the visibility of the diversity issue.

Are you against quotas?

It would be my last solution. I would rather build on the intelligence of people than impose quotas. But I’m not saying it shouldn’t be considered. I am keen on disclosure.

You trained as a chartered accountant with Ernst & Young: did you first plan a career in consultancy or were you always ambitious to be a corporate head?

No, is the short answer. I studied piano and music for 15 years. I completed all my studies in Quebec, but a career in the arts is very demanding. You need financial support and I was not in that situation. But I also like to work with people, and a musical career is lonely. As a young chartered accountant I benefited enormously from working with a range of clients and a lot of different people. I don’t believe in having a career plan.

Have role models and mentors been helpful in your career?

Absolutely. I continue to get support and inspiration from a range of mentors. It helps you to keep balanced and it’s good to ask for feedback.

If you hadn’t pursued a financial career, what would you have done?

I would probably say being an entrepreneur. I still like to play the piano but, at the end of the day, most of the time you have to practice by yourself. I love all kinds of music, from classical to jazz and world music.

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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