Vélo Québec is the guiding force behind Montréal’s much imitated bike culture, a model that is being exported around the world. The woman in the saddle explains how she forged a lean, green urban lifestyle.
“I’m not a preacher,” says Suzanne Lareau, ceo and president of Vélo Québec. “I like to lead through persuasion.” As the figurehead of one of North America’s foremost environmental organisations, she is well aware of the reputation for evangelism people in her game tend to have. “We’re not militants. It’s more effective making constructive proposals than demonising people. In my role I have to be the guardian of that philosophy.”
Founded over 40 years ago, Vélo Québec is the oldest and largest non-profit of its kind in North America, cultivating ties with the state administration and guiding public policy and infrastructure schemes across the state. Lareau was one of the key figures in launching Montréal’s Bixi bike sharing scheme in 2009, providing early consulting on industrial designer Michel Dallaire’s prototypes, and hustling much-needed political support for the project. The success of Bixi meant that when London launched its “Boris Bike” scheme in 2011, all eyes went to Canada, with Dellaire’s expertise shaping the award-winning project. Bixi now has an annual ridership of over 4 million, and is making waves globally.
Lareau’s spacious office gives the impression of someone more comfortable on the road than behind a desk, from the colourful posters promoting Vélo Québec events to her screensaver images of a recent trip to Brazil. The 53-year-old has an athletic build and an engaging manner that suggest she thrives on interaction – it is easy to imagine her growing restless if parked at a desk for more than an hour.
When Lareau began as a 20-year-old volunteer with Vélo Québec in 1979, it had only three full-time employees. “In those days so few people in Montréal rode to work or school you could recognise who owned which bike around the city,” says Lareau. Today Vélo Québec is the largest cycling organisation of its kind, mixing political advocacy with a full range of services, supported by 90 staff. The ground floor of its headquarters, located across from Montréal’s landscaped Parc La Fontaine, houses a bustling café, a travel agency and a bike supply boutique. The floor above contains its publishing house and offices.
It is this sprawling portfolio that led to Lareau radically redesigning the organisation’s structure in 2005, bringing all ventures firmly under a single Vélo Québec umbrella. “We all had the same mission but too often we didn’t know what other sections were doing.” By streamlining the structure, Lareau created much-needed chains of command, meaning she now benefits from a board of senior managers. Still, Lareau concedes that Vélo Québec’s growth means it is increasingly difficult to know all employees personally.
A pragmatic, populist and carefully planned leadership style is balanced by the occasional need to take decisions in the moment. One such situation is the Tour de l’Île de Montréal, a mass 50km ride through the city’s traffic-free streets held on the first Sunday of every June and staged by Vélo Québec. Inspired by New York’s Five Boro Bike Tour, it regularly attracts over 25,000 participants. “Bad things sometimes happen at mass events, whether it’s illness or accident, and the key thing is for people in charge to respond quickly.”
Lareau is also frequently called upon by the media to comment in the wake of traffic incidents involving cyclists and cars. “In general,” she says, “making tough decisions now isn’t what it was 25 years ago. Our people have built up so much expertise. It helps that many staff have been with us for a long time and our turnover is very low.”
And how does Lareau make her influence felt in the public sphere, beyond the organisation? “I try to avoid putting politics into the foreground. We just present actions as fun events for the people of Montréal. Then when you get 30,000 people out you can show cycling is democratic. It’s young and old people, it’s all social classes. After that, when you say you need more bike paths, it’s harder for politicians to say no.”
The proof is in the results, and Montréal now boasts almost 600km of bike paths. Beyond the city, the organisation has also driven the development of the Route Verte, a 4,300km cycle network that crisscrosses the province.
Asked to describe her management style, Lareau says she’s une femme de terrain – a goal-oriented and grounded woman. Despite her reshuffling of Vélo Québec, she encourages her staff to operate with considerable autonomy. It is something she learned from her predecessors. “When I started here, the people in charge believed in building people’s capacity and confidence. Even though I was young they gave me a lot of responsibility. It was a great school. It gave you the chance to learn from your successes and failures, so you just got better over time.” Working your way up through the organisation is encouraged, to create a native breed of top management personnel.
It was long-distance bike rides around Québec and abroad that first got a young Lareau hooked on cycling, and she continues to cover a huge amount of ground in her work as ceo. Making face-to-face connections with like-minded organisations around the world has helped enhance Vélo Québec’s own expertise.
“Wherever I go, I pay attention to how things work – the cycling infrastructure, the efficiency of public transit, even how they organise a ferry to cross the river. I’m an addict for those kinds of details. Travelling feeds my work.”
What time do you like to be at your desk?
Between 8.30 and 9:00, but I start when I wake up with my iPhone and my email.
What’s the best place to prepare leaders: at an MBA school or on the job?
On the job. I’m not saying MBA school isn’t good but if you don’t have the fibre to be a manager or a leader you won’t find it at school.
How do you describe your management style?
Decentralised. My management team needs autonomy. I can’t make every decision.
Are difficult decisions best taken by one person?
Sometimes you have to say ‘it’s going to be like this’, but I prefer to make important decisions with my team.
Do you read management books?
No. I don’t think I ever have. I once read a business book about sponsorship but that related specifically to an event I was working on.
Do you want to be liked or respected?
It’s natural to want to be liked, but for a leader respect is more important.
What does your support team look like?
Passionate. Some are passionate about cycling, others about their job. For me, passion is worth a lot.
What technology do you carry on a trip?
I stay posted on my iPhone.
Do you run in the morning? Have wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I don’t run, I’ll have wine, but not with lunch. I don’t often socialise after work – only on special occasions. I go home to my family.
What would your key management advice be?
Be efficient. Don’t be a functionary who takes five days to get something done. If you can do it now, do it now. Also, stay grounded and always remember your core goals.