For Liza Moonias, who has just travelled 1,800 kilometres south to Toronto from the isolated Marten Falls First Nation reserve in northern Ontario, an opportunity to experience the life of a corporate executive is a bit like being beamed aboard an alien spacecraft.
An hour after arriving at software developer Globalmaxx Technologies Inc. in a sprawling office park in suburban Mississauga, she is sitting next to president and chief operating officer Ida Pereira at a product meeting in an elegant, wired-for-sound boardroom featuring a wall-sized video screen.
Ms. Moonias, 26, professes to being nervous and unfamiliar with concepts like "linking tables" and "beta testing" of new software the company is rolling out in October.
But she's a quick study. She listens intently, her hands folded in contemplation, as project managers describe their progress, then takes notes about product features she wants to follow up on.
Ms. Moonias, a second-year business student at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, was one of 10 aboriginal students from isolated reserves chosen to spend three whirlwind days in Toronto last week shadowing corporate executives.
"The idea is not to make them instant CEOs but to give them an opportunity to see business from the inside and meet the people who can demonstrate the leadership skills it takes to be successful running their own companies," explains Aditya Jha, COO of software development firm Osellus Inc. in Toronto.
Mr. Jha is one of three partners who created the POA Foundation, which is aimed at helping first nations youth.
The foundation sponsored its first-ever job-shadowing program, called Project Beyshick (the word for one in Cree), which Mr. Jha hopes will become an annual event.
Dozens of student candidates from the Nishnawbe Aski Nation — a vast area of northern Ontario larger than Germany that is made up of 49 tiny, remote aboriginal communities — applied for the job-shadowing program.
The students chosen say that following in the footsteps of senior executives produced valuable skills and lessons they realize they will have to further hone to have successful careers.
But it's not just students who need to learn those skills and lessons, their executive mentors said. These are the very same things that they look for in job candidates, who would be wise to keep them in mind.
Here are some of those takeaway lessons.
Big or small, the team is all
"I never realized how well people can work together when they are all comfortable with each other," Ms. Moonias says. "I was told that, even if you have all the qualifications, you don't get hired unless you fit into the team."
Ms. Pereira says she considers compatibility so crucial that people seeking jobs at Globalmaxx get their first interviews with staff members they'd have to work with.
"For me that's important because it means I don't have to spend my time dealing with personality conflicts," she says. "If they qualify as compatible, then we go to the the next step of looking at their technical expertise."
Team work and compatibility are even more important at large, international organizations where people work together across borders and time zones, adds Erik Sande, vice-president of marketing for HSBC Bank Canada in Toronto, who was shadowed by Vivian Miranda Kakepetum, 23, of the Sandy Lake First Nation, 700 km. north of Thunder Bay.
Although Ms. Kakepetum is currently in a business degree program at Lakehead University, she says the only team experience she's ever had is working with her father and other relatives who run small shops and a restaurant in Sandy Lake, with a population of 1,300.
But her experience, watching executives pulling together from far-flung offices, proved to her how important it is to be able to trust others you work with.
"I see how important it is to be able to rely on other people to do what they are supposed to be doing and, because other people are counting on them, inspire them to do a bit more," she says.
Develop the gift of gab
"I realized I need to be more talkative," says Myra Beardy, a 17-year-old from the Sachingo Lake reserve, a community of 500 nearly 700 km. northwest of Thunder Bay –the only city she'd ever seen before.
Her three days were spent shadowing executives at Bell Canada, a unit of BCE Inc. of Montreal, where talk is the name of the game.
"I realized that communication skill is what it takes to be a leader. It's about being able to negotiate with people and get them to agree. I really need to be more talkative," she reflects.
Ms. Moonias says she gathered confidence while watching Ms. Pereira in action.
"It was great to see a woman take charge of a meeting of 10 men and make points and have them listen to her. That's awesome," she says.
"I realized that if you have an idea, just go with it and don't be scared to toss in your two cents. That's how good ideas happen."
There are reasons for rules
Ms. Kakepetum is also impressed by how orderly discussions become when there are clear rules and everyone follows them.
"Meetings have been really different than the ones I have been to in the reserve," she notes.
"People always talk too long and meetings go on a lot longer than they are intended to.
"But when everyone knows they have a time limit to get their message across, they're prepared and get to the point and nobody has to get cut off. "
Don't limit your horizons
Mr. Sande has the same advice for Ms. Kakepetum that he gives to every new recruit at HSBC: Get a range of experiences.
In Ms. Kakepteum's three days at the bank, Mr. Sande scheduled her to shadow executives in the marketing, human resources, private banking and commercial-banking divisions.
"You have to always stay open. You don't want to get into a small box," Mr. Sande says.
Ms. Kakepetum says the experience was an eye-opener.
"I always thought I'd like to be in a small organization but I realized there are more opportunities to grow up and out in a bigger organization."
Ms. Pereira says her advice to Ms. Moonias applies to every candidate as well: Never be afraid of change or a challenge.
"I believe the key to success is never to take no for an answer. Everything is possible; you just need to be clear on what you want and be willing to give people time to come up with an answer."
Memo to self: be tech-savvy
The experience of sitting in on meetings where participants are not in the same room or even in the same country had the students making mental notes about breaking through geographic barriers with technology.
Even though most of the northern reserves aren't accessible by road, they now have satellite access to the Internet and television.
Ms. Kakepetum says that an international teleconference she attended while shadowing executives at HSBC Bank Canada made her realize that she could operate a global business from her Sandy Lake community.
"I've definitely had my eyes opened," she says, adding that a priority will be to find out how to bring high-speed Internet to her reserve, which currently has only dial-up access.
"So much is going to depend on technology that everybody is going to need that knowledge," Ms. Moonias agrees.
"It definitely inspired me to take some computer and technical courses. I realized not knowing is the scary part and once you know about technology you want to learn more."
Always work on networking
By the end of her three days, Ms. Moonias was no longer nervous among strangers and has become a convert to networking.
"It's a question of getting to know people and for them to know you and to never be afraid to ask questions."
By the time she attended a banquet to thank the corporate sponsors, she was table-hopping to meet executives and introduced herself to Ontario Lieutenant-Governor James Bartleman.
"Now I've got a lot of contacts and e-mail addresses of people who can give me advice in the future."
Ms. Kakepetum says she also learned how important it is to keep track of who you met and where.
"I must have met about 50 people and, honestly, the ones I remember are the seven who gave me their business cards," she says. The ones who made the best impressions were those who spent time "talking with me about themselves and about me and plans for the future."
Mr. Jha says organizing the job-shadowing underscored for him that "the learning experiences you have and the connections you make are as important as the product you make in any given day.
"What we want to show them is: If you have a dream and tenacity you can make it happen. If you can't see it, you can't understand the possibilities."