Mary O'Connor exits KPMG after being passed over for CEO role

06 May 2021 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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KPMG’s leadership woes refuse to die down, after the company’s most senior female employee announced her exit from the firm – having been passed over in the race to become its next UK leader. O’Connor was reportedly excluded from the partner vote to choose the firm’s replacement of disgraced former Senior Partner Bill Michael, despite her replacing him on an interim basis for the previous two months.

In February 2021, KPMG veteran Bill Michael suffered a spectacular fall from grace, after comments surfaced from a conference call to the Big Four firm’s 1,500-strong financial services consulting team. During a wide-ranging tirade, Michael reportedly told staff to “stop moaning” about long working hours during the pandemic, before calling the concept of unconscious bias training – aimed at reducing unfair treatment to marginalised members of the workforce such as BAME staff or women – “complete crap.”

As KPMG looked to fire multiple fires, the firm announced an investigation into Michael, and soon after he announced his resignation. In a move which initially helped to quell some of the criticism levelled at the audit and advisory giant’s internal culture, KPMG then installed two women at the head of the firm. While Bina Mehta, a UK board member, assumed the role of Chair, Mary O’Connor – then Head of Clients and Markets – took on Michael’s responsibilities as Senior Partner; or the equivalent of CEO.

Mary O'Connor exits KPMG after being passed over for CEO appointment

With British business newspaper the Financial Times suggesting that the next Senior Partner of KPMG UK would “most likely be female,” O’Connor was heavily touted to completely replace Michael on a permanent basis. However, in a surprise turn of events, KPMG’s board instead decided not to give O’Connor the chance to take up its top role on a permanent basis. It instead put forward the eventual appointee – Head of Audit Jon Holt – as the only candidate in a rubber-stamp partner vote. He took office after being elected unopposed in April.

Soon after, it emerged on Sky News that the first woman to head up a Big Four professional services firm was in advanced negotiations to leave the firm, having been unexpectedly passed over for the top job. While the firm initially claimed O’Connor was considering her options for future roles, late in April, it was confirmed by the Financial Times that partners at KPMG UK were told O’Connor was to leave the firm.

O’Connor commented, “I am privileged to have been able to make a significant contribution to rebuilding the trust in our business and to help set it on the path to even greater future growth. However, I have decided that my corporate experience and approach are now best suited to a leadership role outside of the firm.”

While Holt’s stint running the firm day-to-day as chief executive is set to run until the end of September 2025, Mehta, the first woman to Chair the firm’s UK board, will see her remit end in February 2022. Speaking on O’Connor’s exit, she said, “Mary has made a significant contribution to KPMG, and we are hugely grateful for the commitment, focus and energy she’s brought to the firm.”

The brief stint of O’Connor to interim CEO represented a temporary boost to gender equality at the firm. Less than a quarter of partners with KPMG are women, while her exit takes the firm’s board back to a 50:50 split of men and women. Women had previously outnumbered men on the board – something highly unusual in large firms like KPMG.

Not surprisingly, the news has prompted a good deal of controversy on social media. The Women's Organisation – which campaigns for equality in employment and education – stated on Twitter, “Oh my word @KPMG did you find just any old bloke to take the role?” Elsewhere, Strategic HR Consultant David Prunell-Friend tweeted that the glass ceiling at the Big Four “seems to rather be Concrete Ceiling.”

Meanwhile, Maja Korica, Associate Professor of Management and Organization at Warwick Business School, took to LinkedIn to argue, “[When Mehta and O’Connor were appointed] I raised the question of whether this was a 'poisoned chalice' situation, in that the way of their appointment was likely to already hold them back from making meaningful changes to the company's culture. As it happens, even in that I was too optimistic. The company decided to go with the status quo, with the board foregoing an open election and so denying Mary O'Connor even the chance to compete openly for the position.”

KPMG has not commented further on the matter at the time of writing.