Original thinking propelled this working-class cockney to the summit of the accountancy world. And now Paul Eagland, BDO UK’s philosophical leader, is challenging many of the long-held assumptions in his industry
Paul Eagland can solve a Rubik’s Cube. He was also top of his maths class at school. Jealous types look away now because he has other talents, too. After qualifying as a chartered accountant aged 22, he became a partner at 31, and since 2016 has led BDO UK, the fifth-biggest accountancy firm in the country.
You’re probably building up a mental image of a middle-class, Oxbridge-educated high-achiever who was destined for boardroom glory since Daddy paid the first Eton bill. If so, you’d be wrong. BDO UK’s boss is a working-class Londoner whose father was a docker and whose first job was on Walthamstow Market. He’s also one of the deepest-thinking business leaders we’ve ever met.
It’s a cliché to say bosses come in many guises. It’s also true. Large organisations are run by shouters, jokers, quietly spoken cajolers, actors, tyrants, controversialists, a mixture of all these and everything in between. Almost all of them have great wisdom to offer and brilliant stories to tell. Paul Eagland is no exception. First and foremost, he is a philosopher, and that – combined with his working-class roots – make his tale and take on business fascinating.
In Paul’s favourite book, The Drunkard’s Walk,author Leonard Mlodinow examines how our lives are shaped by randomness, uncertainty and a tendency to seriously misjudge the impact of these factors. So, does chance play a part in Paul’s story? He’d be the first to argue it does, but his competitive nature and intensely analytical mind have surely played the biggest roles.
Growing up in a three-bedroom terraced house in Walthamstow, one of five children and the product of a happy marriage, he went to one of the lowest-achieving schools in the borough where he quickly stood out for his academic ability. “On paper I come from a poor background, but I had a great childhood,” he says. “In a way, I had an easy time. I was relatively good at maths and in the immediate environment of my school, very good at maths. In every situation, academic or social, I was competitive. I enjoyed trying to come top of the class. Whilst working at Walthamstow Market, I used to evaluate which stall was ‘best’ in terms of earning potential and street credibility. I learned lots about business at the market, seeing how people reacted to different stalls and situations and what impact that had.”
Few folk from Paul’s old school ever got the chance to go to university. In 1983, he won a place, but chose a one-year accountancy course at City of London Polytechnic instead, after which he was guaranteed a four-year training contract. Here, Paul’s competitive streak kicked in again. “There were 65 people on the course,” he says. “By reference to A level grades I was in the bottom 10% but by the end of the year I had worked hard enough to score the highest marks in the group. There is something spirited in me: when someone or an environment raises the bar, I want to try to win.”
Paul joined BDO in 1987 and soon excelled, strengthening his tax specialism and taking on leadership roles despite his youth. His technical ability was always strong but it was his softer skills that allowed him to rise quickly to the top. The human side of business fascinated him just as much then as it does now. He relishes analysing people’s behaviour, interactions and motivations, and then finding the best way to work with those to create the best possible outcomes. “What I love most about professional services and tax in particular is the combination of science and emotional human judgement,” he says. “For example, tax rules might be such that it’s clear, on paper, a client should do ‘X’. But actually they might not want to do ‘X’ for a whole host of reasons: maybe they don’t want to structure their business that way, or they don’t want to change their inheritance plan. The human side of work makes the whole equation far more complex, which I love. As we all know from our own personal situations, life is complicated. Clients’ motivations and situations are multifaceted. There is always a unique story, a little twist. No two people or families are the same.”
His passion for, and skill at, managing the more complex, human side of business is arguably the biggest factor in Paul’s meteoric rise. He explains: “Having the ability to work well with clients and their families translates nicely into dealing with 200 partners. Each has their own story, ambition, definition of success and personal plan. How you absorb that information, apply it, deal with the good and bad elements, and put everything into context… that’s crucial.”
Here we return to the Rubik’s Cube because Paul suggests the multicoloured puzzle is the perfect metaphor for BDO. “I truly believe I understand how this firm operates – its people, clients, financial model, processes, systems and procedures,” he says. “It’s like a Rubik’s Cube, which has more than 43 quintillion permutations but is never more than 23 moves away from being solved. In this organisation there are all sorts of variables at play, twisting and interacting with each other, but if you step back, calmly think them through and understand how everything works, you can flex it to get the best out of it. The worst thing you can do is keep on twisting too quickly.”
For the client-facing side of his role, Paul uses a different metaphor. “With clients there isn’t a perfect algorithm,” he says. “The external dynamic is more like a kaleidoscope. Each client is unique and a tiny twist can completely change the pattern. Twist a millimetre to the right and the client might think: ‘This is it, this is just what I’m looking for’. There are an infinite number of kaleidoscopic views. Matching organisational management and our service offering to each client’s requirements is the key challenge.”
These ideas demonstrate Paul’s talent for free and original thinking, and it’s no accident that both metaphors – the Rubik’s Cube and the kaleidoscope – are mathematical objects. Less algebraic, however, are his ideas on how businesses should measure success. “Organisations should not be over-reliant on KPIs such as revenue,” he says. “The ultimate sign of intelligence is the ability to balance the qualitative aspects of life with the quantitative elements. So much of my working journey has been driven by quantitative measures, such as revenue growth, but who says revenue hasto grow? We often fall into the trap of making instant judgements based on very simple KPIs. We must develop better ways of measuring success that balance qualitative and quantitative variables. Why should people just work harder and harder? It doesn’t make sense.”
Having too few – usually blunt – measures of success can have extremely negative effects, suggests Paul. “If you happen to be in an environment – whether it’s at school, work or home – where you’re on the wrong side of how people are measuring you, it’s not a nice place to be,” he says. “It can damage mental health. Many of us know youngsters – 20 to 35 year olds – who are working crazy hours. That’s madness. I want to be part of an organisation where people live balanced lives.”
This progressive approach – along with Paul’s personal story – has contributed to an interesting recruitment policy at BDO UK. “We are focusing on hiring more people directly from schools and our message is that this is an accessible profession, that we are an approachable firm and if you come here, you will be encouraged to be yourself,” says Paul. “We believe in communicating our message to a broad range of people across all schools. Our approach is to be really honest: we explain what’s expected and we also make it clear that ultimately this is a commercial organisation.” The recruitment message is working: BDO UK has seen a 30% rise in school-leaver applications over the past few years.
Over the next few years, with Paul at the helm until at least 2020, possibly 2024, if he is voted in for another term, you can be sure that BDO UK will continue to embrace change. His challenging background and unique philosophical approach mean he is the perfect person to challenge the status quo with his deep thinking making waves locally and set to leave a bigger impression across the industry. One word of caution: if you ever go for a coffee with him, leave the small talk at home. The conversation is far more likely to cover the random nature of existence than the weather. And whatever you do, don’t challenge him to a Rubik’s Cube race.