Sometimes, as you get to know people over the years, they reveal more of their personality. Time can allow you to peel back the layers and understand the psyche sitting in front of you, but not so with Ghazala Parvez. I first met Ghazala, now CFO of of a tech companyback in 2004, and she still comes across the same way: serene and in control with just a hint of the “driver” personality that I’ve seen on occasion. Ghazala’s story is fascinating as it takes her from Pakistan to Canada, and from a planned career as an academic to her true calling as a CFO in her second, high growth Canadian technology company.
What were you like during school?
I had a liberal arts degree in economics from Wellesley College and I had no idea what I was going to do. School was interesting for me and I had wanted to do my graduate program at Harvard for Economics and go on to a Ph.D. when my father sat me down for a talk. He wisely pointed out to me that while I might ultimately want to do my Ph.D., I would have to live hand to mouth and I really did not want to be struggling.
Why did you go into accounting and finance?
It was a lifestyle choice. It came down to Law or doing my CA. I could have gone either way, but I am more of a numbers person which pushed me towards my CA. It felt like the right choice at the time and I am happy I made it.
What was the next step? Now that I knew what I wanted, I thought that I would start sending out letters to the Big 4 and wait to see what happened. The only one to call me in for an interview was the head of recruiting for Ernst and Young. I can still remember his telling me that I wouldn’t make it as a Chartered Accountant unless I committed to getting some further schooling. He went on to tell me about an M.B.A. program at the Rotman School of business. This program had been developed specifically for individuals with unconventional backgrounds looking to enter the CA profession, and would get me the mandatory accounting and finance university credits required to become a Chartered Accountant.
It was a very generous offer, as Ernst and Young would sponsor me for the duration of the program. To this day I don’t really know why he chose to bring me in for the interview, but I am grateful he did. It was a lucky break for me!
What did you think about the M.B.A?
Well, I needed to go through the program to get the required credits, so I probably have different perspective than many of the people who choose to attend business school. It was an intense program and I truly thought that some people belonged while others didn’t. Our class was a group of diverse people who now wanted to get a fundamental business background. The class contained chemists, engineers, economists and students of the humanities.
It has been my experience that working with the same people for 2 years will let you create some lasting friendships and I actually met my husband in the program.
What was your first job in Finance and accounting and how did you like it?
My first role was in public accounting with Ernst and Young. It was a bit of a difficult time for me and I would say that I wasn’t able to get as much from public accounting as many of the people I worked with. This was really my first job in North America and it was an adjustment for me. I was born in Pakistan, and had spent a significant part of my life operating under the rule that you always respect those in authority. That meant not speaking your mind and always supporting the ideas of people who were older and more experienced than you.
My thought processes ran counter to how Ernst and Young wanted me to behave. The culture at E&Y was one of challenge and active participation, where you were expected to actively engage in discussion and bring your opinions forward. I was still anchored to another way of doing things, and it took a while for me to understand that my opinion had value and that I was a welcome participant.
As for the culture, Ernst and Young divided up the teams, and you worked with the same team which really helped me develop my own voice. The consistent interaction led to trust which made me feel more at ease while putting my views forward on each particular issue.
The one downside of a big firm is that you can feel a little bit like a cog in a machine and it can be impersonal. On the plus side, you get the confidence you need to succeed in any environment.
What did you set for a goal for yourself at the start of your career?
I know that this is where I am supposed to say that goal setting is very important, but it isn’t something that I do. It sometimes feels to me that setting too specific a goal can limit you and close you off from great opportunities.
I believe in being open to the things that are around you and chasing what you want when you see it. You can say that you want to be a CEO of a billion dollar company, but how do you know that is what you want? You don’t know, because you haven’t been there, and it just feels more natural to recognize when you are in the wrong place. You can then look for your next challenge, embrace it and work to its conclusion.
For me, not being challenged in a career is very difficult. I experienced that feeling once in my life and I found myself not energized and watching the clock, or even worse, not wanting to go to work at all. Now contrast that with how you feel when you are engaged in something. It can fill your life and each new milestone makes you even more excited – it is all consuming. That may not be what you are looking for, but constant challenge comes with taking a senior position.
Come back on Friday to get Ghazala’s insight on the tech space in Canada, small vs large companies as well as some person highs and lows!