Meet the conductor of the orchestra

May 31, 2018
As Feargal McCormack takes the reins as President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, he shares his thoughts on the quality of the Institute’s membership, the importance of positivity, and his role as the conductor of the orchestra.

In the corporate world, people often talk about their “core values” or “guiding principles” but few people live out their philosophy as comprehensively as Feargal McCormack, Managing Director at PKF-FPM. Feargal, who recently succeeded Shauna Greely as President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, is a firm believer in the philosophy of St Francis of Assisi – it is in giving that we receive – and this principle has shaped not only his work ethic, but also his leadership style and sense of value.

Addressing the 130th Chartered Accountants Ireland AGM, the Warrenpoint native echoed the sentiment of St Francis when he outlined his main objective for his presidential year – caring for members, staff, trainee students and the community. While his evident sense of empathy could be attributed to the accumulated learnings from 27 successful years in business, it has its roots – in part at least – in his own family’s personal tragedy. “I went over a few hard stones on the way,” he said. “Our first child, Eimear, died after four days and our second child, Seamus, is severely autistic and requires round-the-clock care. Then, when my wife Anne was pregnant with Ruairi who is now 17, she suffered a brain tumour which she thankfully recovered from fully.

“Although you wouldn’t want them or go looking for them, those experiences do prepare you for life. They put things into perspective and as a result, I’ve never lost a wink’s sleep over work,” he continued. “I love my work and I love life. From the outside, people would say I’m a reasonably busy person, but I love every moment of it.”

A high achiever

To say that he is “reasonably busy” could easily be described as an understatement given the amount of time and expertise he has shared with organisations throughout the island. From Special Olympics Ireland and his beloved GAA to Ulster University Business School and the Prince’s Youth Trust, Feargal has balanced his role as Managing Director of an award-winning mid-sized accountancy firm with various extracurricular roles – something he is keen to encourage in those who work with him.

“I’ve always been able to mix work and home life with extracurricular activity, and I feel that both work off each other. You have to have balance in life, but interaction is important,” he said. Indeed, Feargal attributes his involvement in activities beyond the workplace with his ability to succeed as a young leader. “When I joined the Industrial Development Board, I was the youngest ever Principal Officer in the Northern Ireland Civil Service at 26 years of age,” he said. “At that stage, all of my subordinates were considerably older than me, but extracurricular activities gave me the experience to deal with that because from my teenage years, I was secretary or chair of committees where people were, in general, considerably older than me – old enough to me my father, I’m sure.

“I believe that it’s key in any organisation to encourage your team to get involved in areas they’re comfortable with – whether that’s charity, sport or the church, for example – because they can then bring the skills they develop back to the workplace. I genuinely don’t believe that you can turn the clock off at 5pm so if you’re not a caring person after 5pm, you won’t be a caring person before 5pm.”

Putting people first

Feargal encapsulates this idea in another life-long mantra – “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care” – and he hopes to bring this to life within the Institute during his presidency. “For me, continuity is key. I’m a member of the Institute’s oversight board and I can’t recall one decision in the last three years that wasn’t unanimous, so there won’t be any solo runs,” he said. “I only see a slight change of emphasis to increase our focus on becoming more caring and people-focused. That’s very consistent with our core values of integrity and ethics so I will be encouraging us, as an organisation, to walk that vision.”

The ultimate aim is to increase the Institute’s relevance amongst its membership and create a team of 26,000 brand ambassadors who will raise the profile of Chartered Accountancy – and Feargal plans to lead this charge. “I’ve always found that the key to happiness is looking outwards,” he said. “And throughout the Institute, there are many role models across many sectors who – both in work and beyond work – are making fundamental, positive differences to the societies in which they live.

“I hope to have an opportunity to shine a light on those role models but to do that, it’s important to get out there and meet those members,” he added. “So, over the next 12 months, I will be busy visiting companies and schools throughout the island. You’ll also see Council members hosting events where the President can meet members, and this will give us a great opportunity to tell the story of how Chartered Accountants make a difference to society because ultimately, that is our key contribution.”

Building the Chartered brand

Feargal also plans to enhance the external profile of Chartered Accountants and build on the “excellent work” currently under way to raise the Institute’s voice in the business community and beyond. While this is a key ambition for his presidency, Feargal sees himself more as the “conductor of the orchestra” who brings the best out of people.

“The diversity of our membership is our greatest strength – diversity not only in skillset, but geography also. There are some areas I’d like to explore a little bit further, including the diaspora of international members,” he said. “I would personally like to chair a taskforce to assess how we can best make use of our international dimension both for our membership on the island of Ireland and also, as a professional network for our overseas members and younger members wishing to work abroad.”

Another area of focus for Feargal is the parallels between sport and business. “Nobody really wants to speak to a 58 year-old man promoting our profession, so I would like to see Chartered Accountants who are also involved in sport promoted as role models for the profession. It will be interesting to hear how they blend their Chartered Accountancy studies and career with success in the sporting arena; how that discipline of study and integrity in the workplace can be transferred onto the field. There’s a lot we could learn from this group.”

Adapting to change

Learning from each other feeds into another important issue for Feargal – enhancing the Chartered Accountant’s capacity to adapt to change, which is more important than ever in the context of a volatile international landscape. “If we think about leadership in the corporate setting, it’s all about the ability to adapt – to be agile and change,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we’re in a very challenging market environment but in challenging environments, there are always exciting opportunities.

“We should therefore have positivity in the breadth of our membership. We can’t control what happens around us, but we can control how we respond and I firmly believe that there is no problem out there – however and whenever it arises – that we as an Institute cannot deal with,” he continued. “We have to prepare ourselves and be in a state of readiness, but there is nothing we should fear.”

Feargal does acknowledge, however, that technology, regulation and governance will bring many good things, but they will also bring challenges for the profession. “Am I confident that these are issues that we, as an Institute, will address? Yes, I am. We may have to work in collaboration with other accountancy, professional and – in some cases – statutory organisations, but are we up to that? We certainly are.” Indeed, this drive for agility extends beyond qualified members and into the Chartered Accountancy syllabus, with a number of changes in the pipeline – a responsiveness that Feargal is keen to nurture. “Two new electives will soon be introduced for FAE students and I think that’s the start of a trend,” he said. “We’re also seeing responsiveness in the enhancement of technology in our exam process and in the flexibility we can now offer to students. All these factors will help us address challenges as they arise.

“The most important thing for the Institute is to listen, and then move forward with pace. I suppose I would have a reputation – rightly or wrongly – for getting on with it and if we make a mistake, we go back and correct it,” he added. “If I have one frustration in life, it’s too much talking and not enough action. I firmly believe that action is the way forward – yes, conduct research but get on with the job quickly and learn from your experience.”

He added, “I’ve only seen positive things in the last 12 months but I can assure you, if I come across any negativity I will ask people to desist or leave the room because I believe you must be solutions-focused. I’ve been known on quite a few occasions to stop meetings as in my view, negativity has no place in any progressive and forward-looking organisation.”

The challenges ahead

Despite the challenges ahead, the Institute is in a very strong position according to Feargal – a testament, he says, to the leaders that preceded him as President. “The Institute’s current churn rate is minimal and the fact that members who previously terminated their membership are now returning as members demonstrates better than anything else the value of being a member of our great Institute,” he said.

“I would certainly like to encourage the Institute to continue the very good work that’s currently under way. We have made very significant progress in recent times and while we have achieved much, we must continue to work to ensure that we remain relevant to our members. Therefore, it’s always good to try new ideas and I certainly see us continuing to innovate because, in my experience, you either innovate or evaporate.

“Finally, I am very honoured to become President of Chartered Accountants Ireland. The Institute has been fortunate in the quality of its leadership and I hope I can carry on that tradition,” he said.

“I am also very conscious that it is the 130th year of the Institute and while we have come a long way in 130 years, the journey has only just begun.”

Feargal McCormack is Managing Director at PKF-FPM and President of Chartered Accountants Ireland.