This blog isn’t like the others and we purposely wanted it so.
We interviewed John Parkhouse, our CEO, on a Thursday afternoon, one of those scattered sunny days of summer 2021. This is the story and the podcast as well.
Thursday afternoon. Mary is about to go on holiday. The studio at Crystal Park, PwC Luxembourg’s premises, is blessed with some rays of sunshine. “We’re lucky, Mary,” said Luis, who had woken up earlier than usual to prepare for the interview. John, wearing a white shirt with long sleeves, was already in the studio, smiling.
Half an hour before Luis had confessed to Mary that, “…he always gets nervous when he interviews the CEO, even if John is a down-to-earth, cool guy”. At some point during the interview, recorded podcast style, Luis asked John about the accomplishment that had helped the most in his career, and his answer proved how plainspoken John is.
To set the scene, think of Manhattan at the beginning of the 90s. Pricewaterhouse (PW) in New York was in need of new talent. Because of the UK recession crisis at that time, the local PW proposed to some workers that they join the American team. A young, curious and restless John however, wasn’t part of any of the two branches, but he managed to get the position at PW, more than 5500 kilometers away from home.
Referring to his job in the UK, he told us:
You know, there were a lot of young people having a great time. And you’re actually getting paid, which is the major difference with the university. But it wasn’t something that I was enjoying, it wasn’t something that I felt, right? I would say the major accomplishment that really changed that for me was actually getting a job with Pricewaterhouse at the time in New York […]
I […] joined a firm and a culture that was really at the peak of what they were doing and the impact they had with clients and the sorts of things we were doing together in New York… it was phenomenal! I would say that converted me […] I was sort of doing more (than a job).
What follows is a selection of the most remarkable moments of John’s interview. Writing all the conversation down would result in a very long article, which is why we invite you to listen to the podcast because it’s worth it! After all, how many times do you get your CEO into a (friendly) hot seat?
No lottery is better than the job one enjoys
While reviewing the questions for the podcast last August morning, Mary told Luis, “Hey, John will be in the hot seat with some of these questions. I honestly wouldn’t know what to say if someone asked me if I’d quit my job because I won the lottery. That’s not an easy decision to make.” She sipped her hot early afternoon coffee right after.
But John didn’t hesitate when he answered about the lottery – “the burning question of the day” – in Mary’s opinion. “So, John, would you give up your job, including the wonderful one you have right now if you win it?”
He looked at Mary first, then at Luis, and with a sideways smile, he said:
In a nutshell, and I guess, it’s the “stock answer” (but it is the true answer) … no, I wouldn’t, really. I think if I won the lottery today, my plans for the future might change in terms of where we want to be, what we want to do, as I start to approach retirement (although I’m still miles away)!
At the end of the day, where I sit at the moment is… I’m in an incredibly fortunate position! I’ve got a job I love, at a firm I love, doing something that I actually think really makes a difference. And I think that’s priceless.
But, you know, if I won the lottery, then I’d sort of say “I’ve just got to a financial position, but I’m not making the change that I want to be making. So maybe I’d take a couple of months off, maybe I’d do that just to celebrate with my family”.
How would you reply to this question?
How John thinks his former bosses would describe him
Talking about one’s self can make us feel too self-promotional or perhaps uncomfortable because we’re the center of attention. Using someone else’s perspective is pretty helpful and convenient in these cases. It adds some independence to any answer we plan to give.
That’s what John did when he replied to Luis’s question: “How would your last boss (or any of your former bosses, really) describe you?” But before that, he was asked if he could also describe both Mary’s and Luis’s personality after the interview (we decided to keep the answer between the studio walls, because he, indeed, did it!)
I think they would describe me as somebody who is passionate, full of energy, and who brings a lot of it. And somebody that loves working with people and is passionate about what I do, what the firm does, you know, someone who tries to bring that energy through. And I think, most importantly, somebody who can build very strong and trusted relationships with clients, within the firm, etcetera, in a pretty impactful way. I think that’s how they would describe me. Probably they would not describe me as the most organised person in the room,” John shared, smirking.
“In a nutshell, you’re people-oriented, enthusiastic and, you know, someone who brings energy,” Luis added, right before Mary, a little relieved, shared with the audience “I’m glad to hear it (about the organisation matter) actually, because I get picked on for that.
John completed his answer by giving a reflection on himself.
“That’s it. I think that’s where my strengths are. And one of the good fortunes of being in the role that I am now is that I have a lot of people around me to organise me right and make sure things get done when I need to.”
Managing a large-scale organisation is anything but easy. That’s why the countless how-to books on the matter are out there. In truth, “having no formula” seems to be the only formula because each organisation is a universe in itself, as is each and every person who holds executive positions.
Being the boss also has two sides
To reach the top, the CEO-to-be must develop functional skills—communication, organisation and people management, planning—and operational knowledge, apart from having a record of success that’s trackable and recognisable. And, of course, being skillful in managing frustration and able to discern between what is worth investing time in and when, and what should wait.
That’s why, for the designers of John’s interview, one of the questions to unavoidably include was about the downsides of being the CEO, of the things he dislikes the most.
Mary took the microphone and fired the question… Is there anything you dislike about being the big boss, John?
What I love about this job is that you see the great side of PwC and all the amazing things that we do […[ , but you also see the crap side. […] What I dislike is… some things are hitting my desk, especially behaviors.
And when this happens you’re like, really, ‘this just isn’t us’. The challenge with those things is, they’re rarely black or white […] I’ve never been—which might sound a bit surprising given my role—a sort of ‘politics person’. I like to think ‘okay, well, we say and we do something’ and we just get on and do it. And that’s actually, frankly, one of my challenges as CEO. It has been understanding that politics is an important game.
How to make sure things get done across a large constituency […] Obviously, there are issues that come up in terms of…client issues and stuff like that you have to deal with. But I do not dislike that because it’s just something that just needs to get done. But it’s really where I see bad behavior, and then learning to deal with the necessary politics. But, it’s vastly outweighed by seeing all the good. Yes!
What John would do differently today
“John, after all these years, will you do something different than the way you did before? All this experience you have, you know, gained, the people you have seen and the experiences and projects. Is there something you would change?”asked Luis. John replied, reflecting:
Well, there’s plenty of things along the way that I would have done differently, where I made my mistakes, and I sort of look back with regret. But, would I actually change the track of my career and what I’ve come to know? No. I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity to travel with the firm, my time in the U.S. was formative, it was really important for me.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best clients. Obviously, my early time was mainly in the market and then, I’ve had the opportunity to do this job…and it’s an amazing job! I’ve talked (already) about the great things […] I see within PwC. But, having direct access to the prime minister and other ministers, to the guys that run this firm, to the top CEOs in Luxembourg and beyond, and the ability to engage with them and be listened to. It’s a real privilege, absolutely! So I think I’ve been very fortunate.
What will happen after the game is over
The inexorability of time, sometimes a friend, arguably one of the greatest teachers, but also a cruel companion. John will retire one day, like all of us. Of the retirees we have talked to about this in our personal lives, all of them had a common feeling in the beginning of their retired life, which was, they had plenty of time. Figuring out how to take advantage of it, becomes the challenge.
What would John do with his time?
Retired life…Firstly, I guess my dream retirement life is an active one. I am healthy and can still do my skiing […] and explore a bit of the world. I think that’s probably a given.
I think there are two things that I would have on my radar screen. The first is – and I haven’t found it yet – but I would like to do something that gives back a bit, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be a charity. It can be whatever, but it’s something that is actually making a difference and helping to make positive change in some shape or form. But I really have no idea what that might look like at this point. That’s one thing.
The second thing I’ve always wanted to do and have never made the time to do is… I want to write! Oh…! I already have in mind, you know, what I want to write about, and I want to basically try my hand at writing novels.
“But will it be about fiction? It isn’t about business, right?”, Luis asked.
And John replied ipso facto, laughing,
“I’m not going to write about PwC.”
“It’ll be called The Firm”, Mary added, laughing too.
In the studio
Antoine was in the studio long before Luis and Mary arrived. He’s a talented young man who actually well knows how to deal with the technical part that needs to be done before any podcast recording. When John got to the room, he was the only person present so they engaged in a nice, warm, conversation, like any two colleagues do. Once the interview was finished, Antoine and Luis stayed chatting about how it went. “John is approachable, authentic and I just felt cool when chatting with him,” Antoine shared.
That’s, highly likely, one of the things that good CEOs have. Healthy and psychic rewards are as important as the pure monetary ones.
Listen to the podcast right below!
What we think
“…In giving advice (to the young professionals), I think it’s about being curious. I think that’s fundamental… curious about what your clients are doing, curious about what we’re doing as a firm, curious about the broader society. Also, think about how the people you see and how you individually can do something different, or bring something of value to the table, and be energised about doing it. I think there’s a whole world of opportunity.”