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News@Ivey · Youngwon Kim

An inside look at the International Language Academy of Canada while CEO for a day

Apr 18, 2024

Youngwon Kim and John DeFranco

L-r: Youngwon Kim and John DeFranco

HBA2 student Youngwon Kim saw firsthand how the International Language Academy of Canada (ILAC) demonstrates its values by spending a day with ILAC’s CEO, John DeFranco, on March 22 for this year’s Odgers Berndtson CEOx1Day program. Kim was one of two Ivey students who made the list of 60 finalists for the program, which offers undergraduate students the chance to shadow top CEOs in Canada. HBA1 student Rachel Zhu also shadowed Sasha Krstic, President of Mastercard Canada, on March 28. In his blog below, Kim discussed the leadership lessons and advice he gained through the experience.

The CEOx1Day program was an enlightening experience that went beyond the traditional case-study method and allowed me to see the complex challenges and decisions faced by today’s business leaders. My time spent with John DeFranco, CEO of ILAC, and his team, broadened my perspectives on leadership and the educational sector. Whether I was touring ILAC’s beautiful campuses – aptly named Growth and Heart – amid a blizzard, or engaging with DeFranco’s talented team, the day was filled with moments of insight and inspiration.

Balancing analytics with stakeholder engagement

Business leaders often face decisions impacting a wide range of stakeholders. One of DeFranco’s first strategic imperatives as ILAC’s CEO was to formalize the organization's mission statement and values. Instead of limiting this foundational work to his department heads and imposing these elements top-down, he described to me how he took a more inclusive, bottom-up approach. He prioritized gathering insights from all stakeholders involved, including his team, teachers, education partners, and students. Drawing from thousands of data points collected from surveys and interviews, ILAC’s leadership team didn’t create a new concept, but instead focused on articulating what they saw from the data as being implicitly understood and valued within the community. This approach ensured that when ILAC’s mission statement and values were formally introduced, they were immediately accepted by all stakeholders.

DeFranco’s approach to this highlights the critical role of stakeholder engagement in decision-making to ensure broad-based support and foster a sense of ownership and commitment among those integral to the organization's success. Doing so ensured the organization’s internal culture aligned with its external brand identity.

Walking the talk on values

DeFranco also emphasized the importance of integrating ILAC's values into every aspect of the organization's strategy and operations. When evaluating potential strategic initiatives, adherence to the organization's core values is the main consideration – even when initiatives could significantly boost earnings. This taught me that prioritizing short-term gains over core values can ultimately harm an organization.

During my visit to ILAC's campuses, every element, from the architectural design to the spatial layout, served as a living testament to ILAC's values. It was a vivid representation of how physical spaces can reflect and reinforce an organization’s principles. In engaging with various members of ILAC's leadership team, I also saw how these leaders both embody ILAC's core values in their professional conduct and in how they lead their respective departments. This consistent embodiment of values across all levels of leadership ensures that ILAC's culture is not just a statement on a website, but is lived out in the everyday actions and decisions of its people.

Don’t forget the fundamentals

DeFranco shared a piece of invaluable advice for anyone embarking on a career journey: the importance of deeply understanding the organization you're joining. This involves more than just knowing your role, but also having a strong grasp of the organization’s core goals and unique value proposition. A thorough understanding of these elements allows you to transcend your role and contribute value that extends beyond your job description. DeFranco said the individuals who truly stand out under his management, are those who excel within their own responsibilities while simultaneously enhancing the team's collective efforts. These individuals see beyond the immediate scope of their tasks and understand how their work fits into the larger picture of the organization's success. The lesson: taking a holistic approach to your career not only positions you as a key player within your team, but also cultivates the mindset of a leader.

As I reflect on my experiences, the overall takeaway was that leadership transcends the confines of boardrooms and PowerPoint presentations. It involves creating a vision that resonates deeply with every organization member, crafting a culture that embodies the organization’s values, and empowering the team to strive toward that vision.