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France Margaret Bélanger: ‘I find it important to engage on a personal level’

France Margaret Bélanger is executive vice-president, commercial and corporate affairs, and chief legal officer of the Montreal Canadiens.

I grew up in Matane, a small town in Quebec.

It's a nice town, but I wanted to study at an English CEGEP in Quebec City. Although I had been to English summer school, I still didn't really speak English well. It was very difficult because, despite my being an extrovert, I no longer had the courage to raise my hand in class to ask a question. I became humbler and more introverted.

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I think I'm an ambivert now – a mix of introverted and extroverted. I can go out every night, especially in this business of sports and entertainment. I like to meet people; I like to be with friends. But I can easily stay at home and do my own thing.

Ever since I left law school, I had wanted to do an MBA. I had two kids, and I said to myself, 'If you don't do your MBA now, you'll never do it.' I hoped to become an even better business adviser to my clients. Very often, clients see you as just a lawyer and call you once the business deal has been finalized. But as a corporate lawyer, you want to get the call at the outset when clients are considering doing a deal. You want to be there early on and be part of the whole process, not just for the execution part.

I believe in a strong personal connection and being genuinely interested in others. When connecting with a business contact, some people will get straight to business, but I find it somewhat gauche. Of course, it all depends on the context but I find it important to engage on a personal level where possible.

For the most part, I've worked in male-dominated offices. There were certainly young female associates at Stikeman, but as you went up the ladder, there were few women partners. Sometimes I was the only woman in the boardroom, out of 15 people. You get accustomed to that. At the end of the day, if you start to make an issue out of it, everyone will make an issue out of it.

I spend more time listening now than I did earlier in my career. If you're supposed to give advice to people, you have to listen and understand what the issues are. Facts change, and new facts come in, so you need to make a decision to the best of your capacity, given what you know at that time. You need to listen in order to do that effectively.

If you want people to follow you as a leader, you can't impose. You can't decide on everything yourself, your group needs to buy in. We respond to different things. I am motivated by different things than my dad, who's 87; how he used to motivate his employees is also different than how I am doing it today.

My passion is to be the best I can be every day, in everything that I do, always. I want to contribute to an organization. At Stikeman, when clients called me and trusted me with their issues, problems and transactions, I would deliver a solution. I always cared. At Canadiens, the sense of ownership I had as a lawyer for my clients – I still feel that every day for this great organization.

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The best career advice I've received is to be relentless and not to give up. That came from my parents. And it's tough, because sometimes you receive a complete 'no' and it is difficult not to stop; you're intelligent and you hear 'no,' so it means 'no.' But you need to be relentless and not give up.

You need to work for success. There are no shortcuts. Thinking that you are going to get ahead by some fluke or chance – luck is always good, but there is no way around just plain old hard work. You need to learn, and that takes time. Don't let one person or an event or a situation change what you want to do. One of the keys to success, at least at a law firm, is finding people that will mentor you. That, and hard work, are fundamental.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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