As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Jean-François Arsenault and Marc-André Roy.
Jean-François Arsenault (JF) and Marc-André Roy (MA) areco-managing partners or co-CEOs at CPCS, a global management consultancy in the infrastructure sector specializing in transport, power and public-private partnerships. JF drives the company’s international financial and operational activities while MA oversees the firm’s long-term strategy, including talent management and corporate knowledge.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
MA: I had never really planned my career path. After completing an internship in the Republic of Benin in Africa, this led me to CPCS. I started as a consultant, and among my first assignments included handling a railway market study in Tanzania and a port sector reform project in Nigeria. The regular travel lost its glamour when family commitments started calling. When I confided to management that I was thinking of leaving CPCS to travel less, they instead offered me a promotion to set up and build the firm’s North American consulting practice. After some time, the Board of Directors started looking for its next CEO and that’s when Jean-François and I pitched the idea of co-leadership. The advice I like to give to people who are early in their careers is to follow what you love instead of chasing a particular role. Chase your curiosity and things will fall into place.
JF: I spent years of my childhood living in Cameroon, where wildlife is perfect for adventurous people. I guess that’s how I’ve developed a daring and curious personality and seeking new experience has since remained a priority for me. I left a comfortable job to join CPCS in search of autonomy and ownership, a flat organization, trust to make decisions and opportunities to see the impact of my work. CPCS’s presence in multiple markets and its deep technical knowledge made it a stimulating place to work that prompted my curiosity. I started as a senior consultant, then principal, then vice president before becoming co-managing partner. Now I enjoy bringing stimulating work to my colleagues.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
JF: The best story from early on is probably how we decided to take on a co-leadership strategy. When the Board of Directors was looking for a new CEO, they came to Marc-André and me and told us that we had six months to prove which one of us would be the best match for the position. We started investigating the concept of co-leadership and the more we spoke about it, the more it made sense for us to go with this option. We went to the board with our action plan, and they were relieved that they didn’t have to choose between the two of us!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
JF: I had to do a lot of small adjustments when I started. For example, I realized I wasn’t exactly dressing the part in my early days, but if anything, what I learned from that is that protocol isn’t always the most important thing. We get to decide how we wanted to lead, and we tend to take a much more informal approach.
MA: Our co-leadership strategy helped make the transition much easier, which alleviated the mistakes we made. Sometimes we’d be at a board meeting, and I would realize that I had forgotten to do something, but then JF would pick up the conversation seamlessly. Or during high-stake presentations, if one of us is stumped, the other can jump in to help.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
JF: We wouldn’t be where we are now without each other.
MA: We had coaches that helped us along the way. They helped us understand that learning a new job is a lot easier than letting go of the old one. To be effective leaders, we had to realize that we weren’t driving our previous roles anymore.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
MA: Diversity in strengths, weaknesses, experiences and background forces leadership to learn and to listen abundantly. Instead of having group thinking in a meeting, people will bring different ideas and perspectives and management needs to learn to listen to these. There’s a saying, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” It might seem like it’s faster for everyone to automatically agree with ideas or decisions, but this can cause more issues down the line. If people bring up other perspectives, it’s more likely that a decision has been analyzed from as many angles as possible and will lead to the best outcome.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
MA: Giving everyone a voice is the first step. Three years ago, one of our employees raised that we didn’t have a gender equity plan and that we should have one. We agreed this was something we needed, so we encouraged her to bring her action plan to the Board of Directors, which they endorsed and led to our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. Now, our Board is now made up of 40% women and we’re continuing to find new ways to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in the company.
JF: It’s also about the tone executives have in creating that openness and a trustworthy workplace, which makes employees feel comfortable enough to speak up. Because we’re both invested and act in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, we now get a constant stream of suggestions and conversations on how we can improve on that as a company.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
MA: As co-CEOs we had to learn through experience that executives bring people on board rather than driving. While other leaders move their work and their teams ahead, as executives, we make sure people can believe in the vision and feel good about the company’s culture we’re creating.
JF: Co-leadership is powerful because you give people access to different personalities. For some, it’s easier to get along with one or the other.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
MA: You don’t have to do it alone.
JF: At CPCS, we usually don’t take a route that is frequently travelled, so it made sense for us to go for an uncommon management or leadership structure as most companies are led by a single CEO.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
MA: It’s surprising how many small problems flow to the top. I expected the big decisions, but a lot more gets escalated like approvals, minor decisions or the occasional arbitration. Another difference I noted is the importance of strong communication. When you’re leading 6–10 people, it’s easy to communicate naturally. When it’s about 150 people, the nature of communications explodes, and this was made even more difficult by the pandemic.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
MA: No, being an executive is not for everyone. And leading people shouldn’t have to be everyone’s career goals. We have staff that are good with technical work and don’t have an interest in people leadership. They’re great at what they do, and we continue to find ways for them to grow outside of the leadership route. If someone does want to be a leader, I would say the ability to have a big-picture view, to prioritize and to roll with the punches are important. Not all challenges, priorities or problems are existential, so know where to invest your time.
JF: The important competencies for leadership are different at every company as well. At CPCS, our work is very people-focused, so empathy matters a lot. At another company where the product is a physical good, what matters the most would probably be very different. Not everyone is cut out for every context.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
MA: Communicating effectively as a leader and managing a company’s communications strategically can’t be overstated. We have a highly skilled communications team that amplifies what we’re all about to make sure everyone’s on the same page and knows what’s going on in the company. We also like to find ways to reinforce our culture outside of traditional communications. Our culture is creative, so we have a mural painted in the office and lots of artwork around to reinforce this.
JF: To create a great company culture, you must start by defining it and doing so in an inclusive way so that most can get behind it. Once you define your beliefs, you can start living them more. We also believe in the importance of meeting up in person from time to time. Having those face-to-face conversations that aren’t all about productivity can be important to culture and motivation.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
MA: One of our company’s core beliefs is impact. Everything we’re about at CPCS is having a positive impact through better infrastructure, whether that’s improving public transit or advising for better public policies. Overall, our work and recommendations seek to enable positive economic, social and environmental impacts.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Don’t take yourself too seriously
MA: I believe having fun at work and this can mean different things to different people. The point is don’t be too stuffy, because as a CEO you’ll have to deal with tense situations and a higher volume of issues. Getting stressed at every issue isn’t good to anyone.
JF: In the beginning, when someone was leaving our company, it felt like a personal thing. We had to learn that people aspire for more and it’s not necessarily about you. The value of experience is knowing to not let the small stuff get to you and that things will be okay.
Feed your curiosity
MA: Don’t over plan your life or career. Instead, focus on what you enjoy, what fulfills you and you’ll have a solid foundation. You may never end up as nor want to become an executive, but if you’re on a path doing what you enjoy, you’ll end up on the right track for you. Plenty of other leaders at CPCS have shifted during their career and this has helped them find more meaning in their work.
JF: Just because your title is CEO, doesn’t mean you have all the right skills and competencies. You need to reframe and continue to be an avid learner. Having coaches during our transition to co-CEOs were helpful and most people managers at CPCS have one.
Vulnerability is a strength
JF: Being wrong doesn’t put your leadership in danger, and CEOs aren’t superhuman either. They all have blind spots. That’s why it’s important to listen and welcome different opinions and perspectives, and sometimes that will even make you change your mind. The outcome will likely be better for it.
Help others make a difference
MA: Letting go of habits from my previous role was the most difficult part when I became a co-CEO. Now, JF and I are in charge of the big picture, and we don’t experience all the small and gratifying impacts like we used to. Instead, we’re enabling others to make those impacts by creating the right conditions and removing roadblocks.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
MA: Professionally, find joy in what you do because time is your most scarce resource. If what you do isn’t fun in whatever way you define it, then you’ll feel like you’re wasting time, and it will likely drain your energy. I find that co-leadership makes work life much more satisfying.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
JF: This proverb resonates with me: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Marc-André and I decided we wanted CPCS to go far as co-CEOs. It’s a good reminder how important teamwork is.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
MA: There are two people I would love to meet. The talented musician Chilly Gonzales and Danielle Krysta, also known as the Jealous Curator. Both seem to love what they do and are good at integrating creativity in their lives. I’d ask them how they do it and stay so consistent in what they do. Surely, I have a lot to learn from people outside the business world.
JF: I’d like to spend more time with my friends across the world. There’s nothing like being with people you enjoy.