Q&A: Fiona Macfarlane talks diversity vs. inclusiveness

Fiona Macfarlane | BCBusiness

Trying to break into the legal profession is a tough gig for anyone, but Fiona Macfarlane found that as an immigrant woman, it was near impossible. She’s had better luck since switching into accounting, and now runs the B.C. operations for one of Canada’s Big Four accounting firms. But the question of diversity continues to be a driving factor in her career

Having been raised in apartheid South Africa, Fiona Macfarlane knows a thing or two about bias and its effects. When she came to Canada in 1987 as an immigrant woman trying to break into the legal profession, she felt its effects firsthand. Trained as a lawyer, she became an honorary CA in 2012 and today is recognized as one of the sharpest minds in Canadian tax law, having been called upon to advise the federal government on the GST, among other things. In her dual role as both managing partner and chief inclusiveness officer for the B.C. office of Ernst & Young LLP (EY), she oversees a staff of 400.

Explain to me what a managing partner does.
I lead EY’s practice in B.C. and I’m responsible for the top and bottom line of our business, so it’s like being the CEO on a local level. To give you an analogy, it’s a bit like a coach on a soccer team: you’re deciding how to deploy the resources, how you pick the players and then you coach them to help them win. The fun part of this role is that it’s ever changing. The environment changes as our clients’ needs change, as the people that we hire change.

What’s your biggest challenge right now?
The challenge is really to develop people and give them opportunities to develop so that they’re exceptional. Not only that they’re technically proficient accountants, but they need to be business advisers, they need to be able to build diverse teams that can function globally. We have an apprentice model in the CPA profession, so you have to be able to develop others.

The problem is that once you’ve done that, there’s tons of competition for CAs—not just in Canada but globally—so you lose staff to outside companies, to government, to academia. You have to have an environment where you can keep the best; you have to create a value proposition that’s compelling for people to stay.

And how do you do that?
Culture is one of the most important ways—making sure you have a culture where you are a lifelong learner. Part of that is being a team-based organization; we work not just in local teams but global teams. And then we have a development model that is called EYU: a curriculum of experiences. When people feel like they’re in a culture with colleagues that they’re enjoying, doing interesting work and constantly learning, you’re more likely to retain the best that way.

You’ve spoken before about the difference between diversity and inclusiveness. Can you expand on that?
We hire people from all different groups, and most organizations do. So we’ve already got diversity. But now it’s important to have inclusiveness. And that’s not about treating one group in a special way; it’s about getting the best out of all your talent. When you look at the numbers in the C-suite and on boards and you look at how homogeneous they are, you’re not getting the best talent, because talent doesn’t reside in just one group.

Last month we published the annual BCBusiness Top 100 list of the biggest companies in the province, and it included just four whose CEO is a woman. Is that typical?
Sadly, it is typical. The stats on boards are particularly revealing. The Ontario Securities Commission did a survey of 1,000 TSX-listed companies last year and 57 per cent of them had no women on their board. In this day and age, that’s gobsmackingly disappointing. And when you look at public companies in Canada, the number is under two per cent. One of the bright spots is, EY did a survey of senior public sector officials around the world, and Canada had the best representation in the world, with 50 per cent of senior bureaucrats being women. So it can be done.

On the private-sector front, what needs to be done to get numbers that are more representative of the population?
I’m optimistic that we can address boards quite quickly. Boards can recruit from a wide pool, so it’s easier to fix that. I’m hoping that if regulations recently proposed by the OSC come into effect, we will see some progress in Canada in short order.

The CEO issue is more difficult. It comes down to companies assessing their culture and seeing whether there are systemic biases. You have to measure those key metrics that are relevant to your organization, and then address them. You don’t do it by anecdote; you measure who you are hiring, who’s leaving at what stages, performance-rating differentials and you try to really understand where the issues are.

One of the obstacles to better representation at the executive and board level is the question of work/life balance. Do you strive for balance, or are you a workaholic?
I work hard and I love what I do; it gives me energy, so it doesn’t feel like sacrifice. But I do have two children, a son who’s 15 and a daughter who turns 20 this week, so I have a hobby of figuring out how to have them want to spend time with me still. I try to keep all of it in perspective and say what I do is not brain surgery, so if I screw up or don’t do something no one is going to die.