CIBC president Victor Dodig learned leadership the hard way

Author: Angela Sienko

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“I was 29 years old and learned quickly that there’s a big difference between being a good leader and being a good manager…”

That’s how Victor Dodig, President and CEO of the Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), began his November 4 Boardroom Insights discussion at the Mendoza College of Business. The audience included about 250 students, faculty and staff members, and other guests, who gathered in the Jordan Auditorium to hear the banking executive describe the critical lessons that shaped him as a leader.


Dodig recalled a particularly transformative – and painful – occasion when six months into his first position as president of an asset management firm, his team confronted him and told him he didn’t know how to lead.

“Among other things, they told me I didn’t have delegation skills,” Dodig said. “But they also told me that I had what it takes [to be a good leader]; I just needed help.”

That may have been an odd way to begin his presentation, but Dodig was tapping into a subject that was already top of mind for the graduate students in the audience — especially the 22 Notre Dame MBA students. Earlier this year, they participated in Notre Dame’s Integral Leadership Development program, which centers on helping them gain clarity about their personal values, developing their ability to think critically and teaching them the difference between managing and leading — the very topics that fed Dodig’s discussion.

Among the many insights the CEO revealed during his presentation was the fact that there is no “one thing” that makes an individual successful in business; rather, success as a leader requires a collective set of values, beliefs and personal commitments.

“Always be looking for ways to make yourself better,” he advised. “And have a sense of purpose — [understand] your role in the greater good.”

That’s not to say these practices came to Dodig easily. He learned them, as most people do, by making mistakes along the way.

His career took many paths before leading him to CIBC. He earned a degree in commerce from the University of Toronto, followed by an MBA from Harvard Business School. He held positions with Arthur Andersen and McKinsey & Company before accepting the aforementioned position as the president of an asset management firm — the job that taught him he had much more to learn about leadership.

“That was my ‘a-ha’ moment,” Dodig said. “Leaders are people who can inspire others and who have great vision for growth. Managers are the ones who plan, organize and serve as the administrators. But leaders also need to have managerial skills, and usually they can’t do both to a level of excellence.”

For MBA students, this affirmed what they learned in the ILD course, where the program focused on teaching them how to take responsibility for their own leadership development, and understanding the commitment involved in doing so.

“Leadership is about others and how you interact with others,” says Alex Prosperi, an MBA student who recently completed the ILD course. “It’s all about your interpersonal relationships with people, how people look at you, how people respect you, and how you make people better.”

In his talk, Dodig echoed that sentiment: “Good leaders, people praise. Bad leaders, people blame. The best leaders are those who say, ‘We did it ourselves — as a team — in a healthy culture.’”

Boardroom Insights is an annual lecture series offered to graduate and undergraduate students at the Mendoza College of Business. Lectures take place on select Fridays, with guest speakers from top businesses including American Airlines, Citigroup Inc., E*Trade, Gap Inc., PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ulta Beauty and The Wendy’s Corporation.