Workplace Leaders
French Duncan
Managing Partner

Graeme Finnie

Corporate culture is no longer just a buzzword; it's the driving force behind employee engagement, innovation, and sustainable growth. This understanding is at the heart of the work done by Graeme Finnie, Managing Partner at French Duncan, who has helped to promote a culture of learning and growth over twelve years at the firm. 

Luke James, Co-Host of the Interview, sat down with Graeme to discuss issues ranging from the importance of a positive and inclusive corporate culture to the values needed to be a successful business leader. 

Graeme's Journey

Luke: Can we start with a brief introduction to yourself and your current organisation?

I’ve been the Managing Partner of French Duncan for the last 12 years. We are a mid-level Scottish accountancy practice with around 250 employees across offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Stirling. Five weeks ago, our practice was bought by AAB Group. It’s a big change, but I’m glad to be remaining with the firm.

Luke: I’d like to know more about you. How did you arrive in your current role?

I’ve been working for just over 30 years now. The first half of my career was fairly eclectic: I graduated with a law degree, trained as an auditor with PWC, and became a banker and corporate financier. When I was 31, I started running a direct marketing business, before leading a pensions admin company. In 2005, I joined French Duncan to help set up the corporate finance function. I didn’t see myself staying for long, but 18 years later, I’m still here! It’s the best job I’ve ever had — and that’s all down to the people and the culture. 

Luke: How would you describe the culture at French Duncan? And how have you seen the culture change over your 18 years at the firm?

I’ve worked in a few jobs which I really did not enjoy. Some firms rely solely on financial incentives, and you feel like you are selling your soul. But about 20 years ago, I worked for Ernst & Young, and that changed the way I thought about corporate culture. A lot of the work I’ve done here at French Duncan is based on what I learned there. To build a culture that works, people need to enjoy coming to work. It’s not that complicated: you need to let people have a bit of fun. It can’t be all work and no play. There’s always been a strong sense of humour and a good social aspect to this company. When French Duncan took part in the Sunday Times Employee Survey, we ranked in the top 50 firms in Scotland. That was all down to our culture. 

But quite a lot has changed over the time I’ve been here: when I arrived, we were partner-focused and had a small-firm mentality. Over the last twelve years, we’ve become more corporate, so we’ve changed the way we report and plan. We’ve also been working hard to enhance people’s sense of well-being and their feeling of belonging to a community. 

Luke: It can be challenging to balance the need to foster a sense of belonging against the commercial needs of a business. What’s your approach?

Earlier in my career, I worked for Ernst & Young. At that time, it was probably the least profitable of the Big Four; but in my view, it had the best culture. Around the same time, I worked for another company which was more successful commercially, but everything seemed to be driven by money. So I think there is definitely a correlation between culture and commercial success. I’m interested in making money and running a successful business, but that can never be to the detriment of people’s well-being. 

Luke: When it comes to leading change in an organisation, what are the most important traits you need to be a good leader?

Well, it would be a little arrogant to describe myself as a good leader! But over the years, I’ve thought a lot about leadership. Personally, I feel the key component of leadership is being able to set a direction and take people with you. The most successful leaders are people who inspire people to follow them on a journey. There’s a lot more to it, such as the way you treat people around you, but it’s important to have charisma and personality so you can bring people along.

The key component of leadership is being able to set a direction and take people with you. The most successful leaders are people who inspire people to follow them on a journey.
Luke: Changing culture can take a long time. How do you get people to buy into change on a long-term basis?

In a larger business, it’s all down to who you recruit and who you work with. You need to have people who are like-minded. Accountancy is quite a technical professional, so we tend to attract people who are highly technically skilled. But employees also need to have the right personality to fit in with the people around them. You can train technical ability, but you can’t teach character. You should ask yourself, “Would I want to have a chat with this person? Would I want to go to the pub with them?” If your answer is yes, then that’s someone you should want to work with. 

Luke: Many leaders have discussed the importance of developing employees. What’s your approach to helping people grow and develop in their careers?

As an accountant, you need to earn qualifications, but that’s just the start. It’s a little bit like driving: you only really start learning once you’re out on the road. You need to invest in people: that means training and technical skills, but the best gift you can give them is your time. If you personally give your time to people, it can bring huge rewards. I get a buzz out of watching people develop and seeing them improve. I came into this firm to set up corporate finance — the person who has that job now is far better than I ever was, and that’s a sign of growth. 

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard is to treat people fairly. At the end of the day, if I can look in the mirror and tell myself I’ve done that, then I can rest easy. 

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Luke James
Luke works hand-in-hand with leaders and changemakers in our professional services markets. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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