Bill McFarland knows teams. First, there is his 6,000-member team at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, one of the largest professional services firms in the country, where he is the CEO. Then there is the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage, where his youngest son, John, is a forward with a dream to make the NHL. And there are the Junior A Ontario Hockey League’s Oshawa Generals where his oldest son Paul is assistant coach. (His middle son, Mark, is at medical school, and medicine is, of course, the ultimate teamwork.) Mr. McFarland looks at the parallels between sports and business, and the keys to building careers and relationships.
With all this hockey talent around you, were you a great player as a kid?
My dad was the doctor in a small community, and when teams came to scout me, he said there was no way I was moving away from home to play hockey at 15. ‘He’s going to [University of Toronto],’ he said. And I didn’t push it – I was an all-round athlete and didn’t have that passion for it, so it was fine. And you can’t play sports forever – you need a fall-back.
But can sports provide life lessons?
I am a big believer in the team sports concept. You need the fourth-line banger as much as the first-line goal scorer. Everyone has a different role to play. And we have to work here in teams all the time. Nobody is an island and nobody can do it on their own. I have some people who are phenomenal technical experts and others who are practice builders, and one without the other doesn’t work. There are very few people, if any, who have it all. We have to realize one skill isn’t necessarily better, for if you lose one link in the chain, you’re not in a very good spot.
Do you see your key role as being a communicator?
Communication is absolutely critical. When I took over as CEO two years ago, one of the things we did was put together a staff council – 20 people from across the country, and all levels of the organization, who sit down with me once a quarter. We talk about what is happening, what we could change and how it would resonate. With my experience, I have a 55-year-old brain on things, but our average age in the firm is under 30. So I say, ‘What do you think of this? Give me some feedback, give me new ideas.’ This council is one of the best things I’ve done.
Is it different being CEO of a professional services firm?
We have highly qualified top-end talent – all smart people who have been highly successful their whole lives. So with our [more than 500] partners, we have to influence more than tell. If I were the leader of another major organization, it might be a case of ‘this is the direction now and everybody has to march.’ In a professional services firm, it does not work that way. And yet they are looking for leadership and direction; everyone can’t do his or her own thing.
Where do you assert yourself as CEO?
It is about myself and my [leadership] team setting the direction. And two times a year I get together with my partners. There is an annual meeting, which is an opportunity to debate and talk about business issues. And at this time of year, I am also sitting down in smaller partner groups for conversations about the business. It is about me helping set the stage. [The partners] can be working in the whirlwind of the day, and solving the problems of today and tomorrow. Their job is not to step back and look at the bigger picture – that is my job. I have to paint that picture and get buy-in so we can be aligned on direction. In today’s world, we can’t be everything to everybody. We have to collaborate, get feedback and then we have to be decisive.
Where do you personally need help?
One of the biggest challenges on becoming a leader is: Where do you spend your time? What you did before becoming CEO isn’t necessarily where you should spend time after you become CEO. There is now more vision, strategy, communication. I spend 50 per cent of my time with clients because I can then understand how we’re doing, what they want and how we should be thinking about the business. It is an important lens on things. And I have a personal coach from outside the organization. That is absolutely important.
What is the biggest personal pitfall for you?
The biggest thing is to make sure I listen. It might be that my mind is going 100 miles an hour – and so how do I bring people along with better questioning, rather than providing an opinion? Sometimes, I can shut down a conversation with the comment, ‘That is a good idea, but here is what I think.’ I am much better at listening now. It is a matter of being able to sit back, out of the fray, and pose open-ended questions. You sometimes lead people to the answer rather than giving it to them.
Your firm has talked about the global need for talent. Is that a big issue for accounting, too?
We are getting a lot of good talent, but one of my concerns is that in the audit profession – which is almost 50 per cent of our business – a lot of the debate is around how well auditors are doing their job from a quality perspective. We understand the bar is rising and we meet that bar, but I talk to [people in the profession] about finding the right balance. If you are always out there being negative on the profession, is it a profession that people will want to come into and stay in? And as a quality issue, there is this law of unintended consequences [which comes into play] if we don’t attract and retain the right people.
Don’t you need to be concerned about the auditor’s image?
You hear of the failures of audits and that has been an issue in some cases. But we did a survey of our partners and more than 90 per cent have requested changes by [client companies’] management in financial statements. You never hear about our successes; that doesn’t get the press. I say to our partners, ‘Wait a second, we’re doing some great work and we should feel good about it. We are helping businesses be better, and are having an impact on the standard of living in Canada.’ We have to think about how to make our profession more attractive to younger people.
We have seen the drive to merge the three accounting designations under a new chartered professional accountant (CPA) umbrella. What does it mean for PwC?
In our firm, we have certified general accountants, certified management accountants and chartered accountants and we use them in different parts of the business. But this is about change. We had a situation in Canada where more than 40 provincial bodies were running the profession. It didn’t make sense. It is too costly with too much administration. And what is the message we are trying to get out in terms of marketing to attract good people? We need one voice that is consistent, and we need influence on the global front. But with so much fragmentation, it is not possible.
Do you now regret not moving up in hockey?
No, I don’t … I tell our people to find something they love, and if they love it, be good at it. If you don’t have a passion for it, I can tell it from talking to you – but if you do, people will want to help you. You always like to help someone who is striving harder. And I have some of that small-town philosophy: Work hard and good things happen.
Chief executive and senior partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, Toronto.
Born in Alliston, Ont.; 57 years old.
Commerce degree from University of Toronto; trained as a chartered accountant.
Joined PriceWaterhouse in 1980; became a partner in 1992.
2002-2005: Leader of audit and assurance practice in Toronto.
2005-2011: One of the firm’s two national managing partners.
July 1, 2011, took over as CEO.