Fiona Macfarlane, Ernst & Young: 2008 IS Awards Winner: CBC Toronto Business Leadership Award

When Fiona Macfarlane arrived in Canada from South Africa in 1987, she had a wealth of knowledge and experience. Trained as a lawyer, Fiona held four degrees including a master of law from Cambridge University. Yet she struggled to find work until she was hired by Ernst & Young.

Fiona moved up the ranks to become the first woman at a ‘big four’ accounting firm to lead a Canadian Tax Practice. Last year, she was appointed America’s Chief Operating Officer, Tax, where she is responsible for a region with over $3-billion in annual revenues.

Never forgetting the challenges she faced as a newcomer, Fiona has made it her mission to help others, including immigrants, flourish in their careers. “Immigrants represent a tremendous opportunity for us to work together and compete on the global business stage,” she says. “At Ernst & Young we seek to create teams of productive, smart people who can work across barriers of distance, language and culture. We need diverse teams to serve global clients. It’s that simple.”

Fiona has challenged search firms to increase the percentage of immigrant candidates presented to Ernst & Young for key positions, and it is now more common for human resources to recruit from a broader talent pool. At the Toronto practice, 25 per cent of employees are immigrants, and 60 per cent of these are visible minorities.

Fiona has also turned her lived experience into valuable lessons for others. Through TRIEC’s Mentoring Partnership she has offered career advice to professionals from Nigeria and India and has reviewed resumes, inquired about job openings and helped mentees understand the Canadian business environment. She has also successfully persuaded senior colleagues to participate in the program.

A true pioneer, Fiona was the driving force behind Ernst & Young University (EYU), which gives staff access to coaching and a curriculum that outlines the professional experience needed to excel in the company. According to Fiona’s colleague, Charles Marful, the impact of EYU is profound: “It allows all employees – whether immigrant or Canadian born – an equal opportunity to grow professionally.” By creating a level playing field, all employees have a fair chance to excel.

“Fiona has helped to change the operating business model in the tax practice to establish a deliberate approach that enhances the opportunity for immigrants to succeed,” says Marful. “I admire her passion and leadership in opening doors for new immigrants.”