The Advancing Leadership Blog

Chair Ray Levesque: Intellectual honesty, curiosity and rigour

Ray Levesque has been chairing CEO groups in Quebec for ten years, and exemplifies the TEC value of lifelong learning and its importance to the development of executive excellence. Ray very kindly took some time out to discuss why he chose to become a TEC Chair, why he’s still a Chair and what it means to him.

Why did you choose to become a Chair?

When I first wound down my business, I wanted to contribute to the community. I had always viewed myself as a teacher, and had started my working life as a university professor. To paraphrase Jack Welch in his autobiography, ‘In essence, all that I am and all that I was was a teacher.’

Even before reading Jack Welch’s autobiography Straight From the Gut, I knew that about myself. And as his book was so good, the first people to join my group all got copies – I eventually had to stop buying them because it became quite expensive!

What do you find most rewarding about being a Chair?

There are two components that I find especially rewarding. One is being part of a community. Between when I folded my companies in 2000 and heard about TEC in 2001, I was getting bored because I wanted to be part of a team. I always played team sports and prefer to be part of a team. Once you retire, then what do you do? Hockey players retire, and then they’re lost outside of the community of their team. TEC and Vistage is a community.

The second (and equally rewarding) element is being able to impact a point of view, seeing people and their companies become come what they could become – seeing them reach their potential. I am especially interested in company growth and business development: The greatest kick is seeing someone grow from this level to the next level and so on.

What has been your main strength or focus as a Chair? Has that changed as your groups have evolved over the years?

I’m strict in recruiting members: I probe with questions, if they don’t meet the criteria, they don’t get to join. I’ve led my life by following this mantra: I look for “intellectual honesty, intellectual curiosity and intellectual rigour” in my members.

In terms of intellectual honesty, I look for people to ‘face the brutal facts’ as Jim Collins, author of ‘Good to Great’ puts it. To be honest with themselves, face the truth of life. It’s said that ‘Things are always going well until you start to dig’! The Stockdale paradox highlights this through the story of Vietnam war prisoners; those who chose to gloss over the truth and be optimistic about being rescued in the near future were the ones who didn’t make it. Those prisoners who honestly faced the truth of the situation said no, we’re optimistic that we’ll get out, but the truth is that we’re in here for the long term.

So I lead from that position, but with a more didactic, more intellectual approach. I’m constantly looking for intellectual content and knowledge I can bring to the group so the group can develop. I really push the group: you can’t be in my group, unless you’re willing to search for knowledge – and to read! I force them to think things through, get to know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, so they can grow. I tend to attract members who are looking for that sort of thing, so over the years my group’s dynamics and focus have not changed so much.

All the TEC Chairs bring different sets of values and opportunities and life experience so each member can find a group that ‘fits’. Some Chairs approach from a visceral point of view, while I approach from a cerebral point of view. I’m much more theoretical, driven by curiosity.

Something I learned from Lynn Tanner was to always have a handout for my group meetings. It’s not necessarily related to the speaker we have heard at our meeting that day, but I make sure my members always have something – even just a single page – to read and use to broaden their knowledge.

Which piece of advice/learning have you seen have the most benefit for a number of your members?

I think what I force my members to do is take a step back, view the bigger picture. I’m more of a big picture guy. I have great attention to detail, but I’m more interested in the big picture. I’ll tell someone “take the 5000 foot view”.

For example, if you’re in a traffic jam, you generally won’t know why – you just know that there are a thousand cars ahead of you. The news reporter in the helicopter can see what’s happening, the patterns and reasons. Politicians can be great at making plans that will revolutionise society, but frequently fail in the implementation.

I develop instruments to help people to see the broader picture and then to focus in as needed.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Canadian business today?

The greatest challenge is one that is related to demographics. There have always been changing demographics all over the place, but they are very evident now. The Baby Boomers are coming to retirement age, the younger generations don’t yet have the life experience – and those leading in the business world are generally younger than in previous years.

The replacement rate – the number of children each woman needs to have to maintain the current population size – should be 2.1. In Canada it is 1.3, hence the need for greater immigration to maintain population growth to sustain economic development. In the near and long-term this will impact employment and training.

Recently, a member showed me some data that pointed out that the average age of his sales force is 54 years old. He said “When I approach the buying section of a company, I’m approaching purchasing managers in their late-20s, and my old guys aren’t comfortable in those situations.” So it’s already forcing a change to the way we do business.

In Quebec we have a tremendous problem getting qualified people to come and work. The religious-based ‘revenge of the bedroom’ policy that encouraged large families created a population bubble, where the fertility rate went from well over replacement, at 2.5 in the 1960s-70s, to well below, at 1.3, today. Quebec has one of the youngest populations in Canada.

There will be an impact on international business as well, as some countries have fertility rates of around 6 children per woman. Foreign Affairs magazine published a good article last year, called ‘The New Population Bomb’, that went into detail of the impact these imbalances will have in the long-term.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing business leaders as individuals?

Bombarded by information. This is a major problem. Most chief executives don’t have the time – and some don’t have the inclination either – to get through all the information, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Demands on their time are such that they don’t have work life balance. This hasn’t really changed noticeably over the last 10 years, although I had a younger group for a while that handled it slightly differently from the older members.

How do you keep work-life balance? How do you spend your ‘life’ time?

I take a week to refresh my intellectual and personal relationships, try to get them in balance. I do try to share the intellectual side with family and friends. My wife is very intelligent, a lawyer, and we share a lot of intellectual pursuits. I have a bimodal brain – I was once a musician, and I still make time for music, going to concerts and so-on.

Driven by my intellectual curiosity, I also read a lot. I live in small community near Montreal with a great community library. I go 3 times a week and come back with books on ideas, history, business, and novels. I love to read novels.

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