Jim was born and raised in Montréal and has a commerce degree from Concordia University, as well as a CA designation. He has had a successful career spanning the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Jim has worked at organizations including KPMG, TransAlta, the YMCA and the Government of Nova Scotia.
What made you choose accounting as your profession?
Very early in my schooling, I came across an opportunity for learning—something called chartered accountancy. I put that in my head as being something I wanted to do when I grew up. When I tell you that I did this in grade seven, some people say “oh my god, that’s so young”. In reality I used chartered accounting as an answer to the question: “what are you going to do when you grow up?” When I heard about chartered accounting it sounded appealing to me. The person I had spoken with about this seemed to have a great job, a beautiful house, as well as a nice car. As a kid around the age of 12 the perks seemed appealing. I pursued it by taking it day by day. One thing led to another. I went to university and enrolled in commerce, majoring in accounting. Next thing you know I was on the verge of graduating and was able to seek out jobs through campus recruiting. I had offers from CA firms and pursued them. I started taking courses at McGill University. The next thing you know I passed my CA exams. Goal number one was accomplished.
What did you do after you received your designation?
One of my other goals was to join a big public accounting firm. I ended up landing a job with KPMG, which was perfect. I wanted to travel with them; I wanted the opportunity to transfer to other areas around the world. New Zealand was one of my preferred locations. After I got my CA, the first step was getting the firm to look into that opportunity on my behalf. I came to find, however, that there were no specific opportunities for me in New Zealand at that time. The firm wanted to move me out of Montréal, however, which was something that was happening to a lot of English guys that were docking in the late 1970s. I ultimately agreed to a transfer out West, and ended up in Edmonton for a couple of years.
Did you ever make it to New Zealand?
KPMG eventually found an opportunity for me to go to Wellington, New Zealand. I spent three years there; it was a great experience for me personally as well as professionally. I ended up starting a family over there, and after three years I came back to Calgary.
What other companies have you worked for?
After two more years at KPMG, I decided to pursue employment with a public company called TransAlta Utilities. I joined them as a corporate controller, and stayed with them for ten years. I was then recruited by head hunters to come to Nova Scotia to work as the controller in Nova Scotia’s Department of Finance. From the mid- to late-1990s I worked with government leaders to bring new ideas into the public sector.
After working for the government I was appointed CEO for the YMCAs of Halifax and Dartmouth. This was in the not-for profit sector. I had now worked in all three sectors, public, private and not-for-profit. The YMCA was in huge debt and my role was to get it back on track. This was the hardest job I ever had, but with the cooperation of the board of directors I was able to get the organization back into a secure financial position. During this time I began teaching part-time at Saint Mary’s University. I enjoyed the educational environment, and with the feedback I received from students I felt I was making a difference. After my term with the YMCA I worked with a consulting firm helping other companies deal with their problems. In order to get the contracts, however, I had to spend a lot of time and effort pursuing them, which was something I disliked.
What I really wanted to do was more teaching. I told myself that I was in the final stages of my career and I wanted to enjoy what I was doing. I taught at Dalhousie and also Mount Saint Vincent University. Eventually Dalhousie asked me to focus on teaching on their campus full time. I am now teaching undergraduate as well as MBA students. I think teaching for a living at this point in my life is fabulous.
You have a lot of experience in leadership roles, what do you believe defines a leader?
I believe leaders are able to inspire and engage people. Leaders have certain characteristics that bring out the best in people and then provide them with opportunities to excel. Leaders must also have the ability to get their team on the same page so they can pursue the same goals and agree upon a strategy. Leadership is not something that you can necessarily teach completely; part of it is inherent. I don’t think one kind of leadership can capably handle every situation. Certain leadership styles are more suited to handling certain types of situations, depending on the sector and the organization. If you look at different CEOs and business leaders, their positions are not based solely on tenure. You have to find the right fit between the leader and the organization. Ultimately, I think leadership today should be more focused on ethics, strong integrity and good values. I was fortunate to work with a variety of strong leaders with those qualities and characteristics.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
I think all leaders should be able to bring good people together, and get them engaged, excited and motivated about heading in a certain direction. Getting people aligned with you as opposed to being coerced is an important characteristic of leadership today.
What is your leadership style?
In the corporate world, I have been told my strengths are good listening and communication skills, as well as my ability to be a caring leader. I found that these skills have helped me reach the level of engagement to move an individual, an organization or a business unit forward.
How is accounting a leadership role?
Accounting now has a huge opportunity for leadership in organizations. Organizations that have flourished are those that have bridged the islands of accounting and finance with the rest of the organization. This has allowed accountants to have a role with the board of directors and shareholders externally. Internally, accountants can be partners in the operations of the organization. They can help operating departments understand the impacts of their decisions, in addition to helping them understand how their business units are performing. The accountant can now help move organizations forward.
Who do you admire as a leader?
I remember being asked this question many times during interviews. John F. Kennedy was a leader that I had heard a lot about and admired while growing up. In sports, a gentleman who played hockey for the Montréal Canadiens by the name of Jean Béliveau was definitely a leader on his team. To this day, even at his senior age, he is called upon to be and is perceived as a leader. People like that are people I admire. Someone I worked for directly and admired was the CEO and chairman of TransAlta Utilities. I went to see him a couple of years ago here in Halifax, when he was given an honorary degree at Dalhousie. He was a leader that possessed the aspects of ethics, integrity and strong values.
Can you talk about your leadership role at the YMCA?
My perceived role at the YMCA could differ depending on who you talk to. If you asked the board, they would have characterized my leadership style as action-oriented in a crisis situation. If you asked the staff, they would say that I was too focused on the financial part, and that I lost sight of the mission of the YMCA. They likely felt that way because I was not as concerned with the mission as I was with the future of the YMCA. I knew my role was to come in and get the job done and get the organization out of dire straits. For me, the biggest challenge was dramatically changing my style of leadership as I described before.
What were the most important decisions you had to make as the leader of the YMCA?
One was to close the Dartmouth location of the YMCA. This was obviously an unpopular decision. I faced angry crowds at town hall meetings, but we needed to do it. It was integral to the organization’s success and to my 10-point plan. Another important decision that I made at my first board meeting as CEO was to file for creditor protection. This is the first step towards bankruptcy and raised a lot of eyebrows, but I knew it was necessary for the YMCA’s future.
What leadership qualities do you routinely see in students in the CRMBA program?
Some of the leadership qualities I see are determination, focus and a strong sense of teamwork. To see a group of 40-60 students develop these skills in a short time is very impressive. These are qualities that will evolve as students get older and learn.
What makes Dalhousie’s MBA program different in terms of leadership?
I think the biggest difference is that we have introduced a program that allows students to gain a huge amount of experience early on through their internships. It is interesting to see cohorts come back from an eight-month residency. The change in them is like night and day. Students are able to take what they have learned in their first six months of class time and apply it in the workplace.
What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
First, I think it is important to not be afraid to admit that you do not know something. It is better to get back to someone with the right answer than it is to pull the wool over their eyes and portray yourself as all-knowing. Second, I think it is good practice to seek out other opinions because you may not always have the right answers. Lastly, I believe it is important to be patient and to always work hard.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?
One thing I try to do is stress the importance of learning from others. In my experience in the corporate world, you work with others, and you learn from others. At Dalhousie I am not afraid to bounce things off my colleagues, and I enjoy learning from and sharing with them. I attend meetings and sessions offered to faculty where I can learn as well as share ideas. I believe learning is a lifetime goal, and aids in developing strong leadership skills.