‘Leader of leaders’: Community housing exec keeps it real

Stephane

There’s a framed list that hangs on the wall of Stéphane Giguère’s office.

It’s a compilation of advice from dozens of tenants of Ottawa Community Housing (OCH), given to Giguère when he first took over as CEO of the not-for-profit community and affordable housing provider in 2014.

Tips include: Be a good listener. Be patient. Get to know your tenants and communities. Understand what it’s like to be poor. 

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“That’s my reminder of why I’m doing this job,” the 53-year-old executive said during an interview at OCH headquarters, located in a business park near Hunt Club Road and Prince of Wales Drive. “It’s about being a voice for our tenants.

“It’s important to recognize that they are amazing people. Our clients deserve to be known, deserve to be included in the broader conversations of our communities. It’s important we make sure the public understands that Ottawa Community Housing is a great neighbour.”

There are more than 32,000 tenants of OCH. “Each and every day, I’m learning about myself through them,” said Giguère. “It’s important that you reflect back on where you’re from, how you’ve grown and where you’re going. That’s what they bring to you.”

Giguère knows what it means to struggle financially and the strong sense of resilience and determination that this can foster. His early childhood in Quebec City was spent living in a lower-income community, similar to OCH neighbourhoods. Money was tight while his father helped to support his many siblings after their own father had died young.

Giguère always saw higher education as his path to success. He was the first member from the paternal side of his family to attend university, earning a degree from Laval University and a master’s from ENAP (Quebec’s National School of Public Administration), before starting on his doctoral in business administration at Laval. He put himself through school working as a janitor. Among the buildings that he cleaned was Sûreté du Québec’s cell block.

Giguère is not ashamed of his modest roots and, in fact, believes they’ve helped to shape who he is. “Being humble is a key element of leadership, no doubt in my mind.”

By the time Giguère was in his early 20s, he’d already founded and sold an IT company and was serving as vice-president at a publicly traded company, Cognicase. The Montreal-based consulting and technology service company opened an office in Ottawa, which is what brought Giguère here. Cognicase has since been acquired by CGI.

Giguère went on to work at Telesat, Scotiabank and CBC/Radio-Canada. When he joined OCH, he brought 20 years’ experience in the technology, financial and broadcasting sectors, helping to manage and lead strategic business, financial and technology transformations.

Giguère says he was at a point where he wanted to work on behalf of a meaningful social cause. “That sense of purpose, or making a difference in someone’s life, was still there somewhere in the back of my mind. Now, I have it each and every day when I wake up in the morning, knowing I’m going to be helping someone.”

OCH is an arm’s-length organization owned by the City of Ottawa. It remains the largest social housing provider in Ottawa and the second largest in the province. It has 15,000 housing units located in more than 160 OCH communities across the city.

And while Giguère is the boss, he takes a collaborative leadership style. “I don’t see myself as a CEO but more as a leader of leaders.

“I’m always curious. I think that, for me, that’s what leadership is about. It’s about really listening, learning and growing.

“It’s important to take a step back and listen to individuals and seize opportunities to learn.”

This year, OCH celebrates 20 years of building better communities. It’s a $3-billion organization that has invested $700 million in new construction and capital repair investments under Giguère’s leadership.

OCH employs over 500 people and provides contract work to over 600 more.

The organization also has a network of 1,200 volunteers who take on projects to enhance and beautify OCH communities. “We do that with the participation and inclusion of the tenants.”

One of the challenges OCH has been facing in recent years is climate change and, in particular, severe weather patterns that bring disruption and destruction to its communities.

Three thousand tenants were left without power following the major storm that ripped through Ottawa this past spring. A large number of employees turned out to lend a hand, Giguère noted. “They just rolled up their sleeves and helped, most of the time without even being asked.”

Giguère remains immensely proud of the staff at OCH. “They are all driven by one common denominator, which is mine as well, and it’s the impact you can make in someone’s life.”

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT STÉPHANE GIGUÈRE

 

  1. His words to live by: “It’s not about what you did, it’s about what you do with what you did that builds where you’re going.”

  2. In 2021, he was recognized by the Regroupement des gens d’affaires de la capitale nationale (RGA) with the public sector executive award.

  3. He’s a governor of the University of Ottawa and chair of its finance and treasury committee.

  4. While he’s had many mentors and role models, his former university professor Dr. Pierre-Gerlier Forest stands out. “He saw potential in me that I was maybe not seeing in myself at the time and he leaned me toward a direction that I thought might make sense.”

  5. He’s a team player who participates in all kinds of sports and also loves to coach. “It’s about pushing myself to be my best and, when I’m coaching, pushing others to be the best of themselves, as well.”

 

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