Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Cancer scare helped shape leadership philosophy

Chris Clark faced more than the normal business challenges during his six years as CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada. He helped guide the professional services powerhouse through tumultuous times, while dealing with a serious health challenge - the discovery in 2006 of cancer originating at the base of his tongue. At 57 and now cancer-free for four years, he retires from his job on June 30, and leaves with a different perspective on leadership.

What will you do now?

I'm moving towards board work. I've had interviews with a number of major Canadian companies and am about to accept one appointment. I get a chance to use my knowledge and experience and I want to continue to give back.

Story continues below advertisement

And you will retire from the firm?

That's probably the way it's going to go. It is hard to think about what would be your continuing role once you've been CEO.

Why not stay around as a distinguished senior partner or adviser?

It's not the right thing for an organization. I will be involved a little longer [after June 30]to make sure there is a smooth transition. But, whether it's a corporation, partnership or non-profit, once leaders have finished their terms, they should make way for the next person and not hang around.

The transfer of knowledge is critical, and it is good to be available in the future to act as coach. That's different than being there on a day-to-day basis and having people confused about who's in charge. Or having the new people looking over their shoulder and wondering whether they are making the right decisions.

Will you take this philosophy to your board roles?

I compare it to athletes - in some cases, they have a difficult time knowing when it's time to go. Leaders have to know when it is time to step down and get out of the way.

Story continues below advertisement

What was the toughest thing you had to learn as CEO?

It was getting the right balance between the short term and the long term, and being able to look at things in broader perspective - to look past the short term to say 'these are the investments we need to make for the future.' The last few years have been difficult and it has been tough to get that balance right.

What is one example of getting that balance?

It's the investment we've been making in people to rebuild our consulting practice. Coming out of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, we sold our consulting practice which was primarily an IT practice. Over the past five years, we made a lot of investment in new expertise, new people, to rebuild that practice. It is no longer IT-focused but about providing broad-based strategic advice to clients that will help transform their businesses.

It was a difficult decision to continue to invest in that business during the downturn of 2008-2010, when companies were turning off the tap on buying consulting services. But this is part of our growth engine of the future.

What was the impact of having cancer?

Story continues below advertisement

People often ask who influenced me the most during my career and I say it is not a person - it is really an event. It was May 7, 2006, when I was diagnosed with cancer. It most influenced me in how I act as a leader.

Now that you are cancer free, what is one thing do you do differently?

It demonstrated the importance of a culture within the organization that supports people facing personal and professional challenges. It's about trying to create that environment to engage and motivate people to be able to empathize with colleagues' challenges and help them succeed.

Have you changed PWC?

At the end of the day, a leader has to ask one question: Have I left the firm in a better place than I found it? I believe I can answer yes. Still, it's not about me but about all of us as an organization.

Will you continue in the public role of increasing cancer awareness?

Absolutely. I really believe it is important for people like me, who have been through these challenges, to reach out and help and support others who are going through their own adversity. If we are in position to be able to do so, we have an obligation to do it.

For example, I've been involved in United Way campaign cabinet [in Toronto] and on the board of the Canadian Partnership against Cancer. And it's also been about making sure we have the right structure and policies in PWC - because cancer control doesn't start with the diagnosis of cancer, but with everything we do in life, including the environment we work in every day.

You're a big advocate of talent development. Describe one way you helped influence the firm.

For several years, we have been communicating about the strategic business imperative to retain and advance more women through senior ranks, and into the partnership and leadership positions. We will not be successful if we are only drawing future leaders from 50 per cent of our population. So we're focused on developing, mentoring, and providing leadership development opportunities to help women advance at the same rate as men.

Our more pressing issue is not retaining women, but bringing more women into senior roles. We need to make sure that we have the supportive culture and flexible work arrangements that allow working mothers to be successful in their lives. So we have set tangible goals around the advancement of women - not quotas but aspiration goals that we will hold our leaders accountable to as a measure of success in this area.

What motivated your interest?

I don't think there was one ah-ha moment. But the greatest impact came from discussions with young women leaving the firm as they were telling me about why they were leaving. It was clear that there wasn't a sense of fairness at the firm.

Some final thoughts on the future of accounting?

There is concern by regulatory bodies, particularly in Europe [after the financial crisis]around whether we as auditors are really acting in the public interest. Yet I think audit quality has improved dramatically over the last number of years.

But there is still an expectations gap between what we do as auditors and what people think we do. Most investors don't understand the purpose and limitations of a financial statement audit. Reasonable assurance is not absolute assurance. We need to do a better job of improving the reporting we do to close that gap. But the changes have to be done in a way that improves audit quality and not just regulation for sake of regulation.


Chris Clark


CEO and senior partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Canada, Toronto


Born in Toronto, 57 years old


Bachelor of Commerce, Queen's University;

MBA, University of Toronto; CA designation

Career highlights

After university, played hockey in France In 1978, joined Coopers & Lybrand, a predecessor to PWC

Admitted to partnership in 1987

Appointed national managing partner of the financial advisory services practice in 1995

Elected CEO in 2005; leaves at end of June, to be succeeded by Bill McFarland

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at