Jim Kolar gives people a loud voice at PwC, and it’s enabled the firm to transform the way it services clients

Jim Kolar has learned that no matter how approachable he considers himself to be as a leader, there is probably someone out there who doesn’t see it the same way.

The managing partner of the Chicago market for PwC US strives to be quite intentional in the way he opens up to his employees, demonstrating that he’s a real person with real challenges in his life just like anyone else.

“You have to assume at certain levels that you are unapproachable until you make yourself approachable,” says Kolar, who assumed his current position in June 2013. “Little things like getting on an elevator. A person who has only been with us for a year or two isn’t likely to say hello to me if they know I’m at a partner level or above.

“So I should be the one who says hello and engages with people. Even if you don’t know or remember their name or what they do, it’s a familiarity you start to drive. You have to make yourself not only approachable, but accessible.”

Kolar’s willingness to engage with the 3,000 people who report to him in the Chicago market has proven to be important as the accounting firm transitions to become more of a professional services firm. He needs his people to understand the change, but he also need clients, both current and future to understand the services the firm can offer.

“We have to be more intentional not only with our delivery in the market, but with our messaging in the market,” Kolar says. “That’s the challenge facing us now. It’s a difficult problem. Many businesses are expanding their capabilities and their relevance. Their brand is expanding in terms of what they do. But is that brand keeping up with their capabilities?”

Help people find their place

When you’re delivering a message to employees about how you want your company to change the way it operates, understand that you’ll probably have to explain it more than once. This is especially true if it’s a complicated change that you’re implementing.

But it can still be tough for people to grasp an idea that may be perfectly clear in your own mind.

“There was a great quote I heard from a CEO a while back about strategy and communication,” Kolar says. “She said that just when you get tired of talking about it, they are just starting to get it. You have to continually talk internally about your strategy, what you’re doing and the capabilities you have. You have to start with an internal understanding and get everybody to work as one firm, rather than think, ‘This is just my area of expertise.’”

Communication must be more than just you standing in front of all your employees and offering your state of the company. You need multiple leaders at various levels in the organization to be part of the dialogue.

“It’s helping people to understand how they find their place in the strategy and how they find their ability to contribute,” Kolar says. “It’s also making sure they understand that their contributions are valued. They have an opportunity to enhance your brand, have it remain the same or diminish it because your brand is built individual by individual, experience by experience, beyond just what you say as the leader.”

Too often, leaders will give a grand speech that paints the picture for how the overall company will benefit from the changes you are about to embark on. But if your people don’t know where they fit into the mix to achieve these ambitious goals, it’s going to be hard for them to make a valuable contribution.

“Teams are better at breaking it down for themselves in terms of how they are going to behave, how they are going to interact, how they are going to work with the client and the kind of value they want to deliver,” Kolar says.

“That’s what I would characterize as customization within that strategy framework. It helps them find their place and their relevance for each other and feel a real part of the team and the strategy rather than just a delivery person. It has to be broken down in a manner that is understandable and identifiable at anybody’s level.”

This is where approachability and accessibility can play a big part. If people perceive you as being someone they can talk to, they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you and saying, “I’m really excited about what we’re doing, but I’m not clear about where I fit into the picture.”

“People have issues that they want to talk to you about and those are important to them,” Kolar says. “You need to listen. You’ll develop familiarity and people will get more comfortable with you. We’re all the same. We’re all people. Share some personal stories. Everybody has problems on any given day and you have to recognize that.”

Listen to your customers

As important as it is to build a dialogue with your employees, it is just as important to build a dialogue with your customers. And sometimes you learn through those conversations that you need to change course.

“We were in a head-to-head competition around some strategy work,” Kolar says. “The client came back to us and said, ‘We’re going to go with Booz & Co. (now Strategy&), on the strategy piece. But we know we’re going to need you for the execution.’”

The client wasn’t excited about splitting up the two phases of work, but didn’t see an alternative.

“There were elements about what Booz brought with strategy, but it lacked the execution side and the ability to help the organization with execution,” Kolar says. “And they liked elements of our strategy, but the Booz consultants maybe had a little more experience in the industry. They had to make a choice.”

Actually, the client did not have to make a choice. PwC bought Strategy& and eliminated the need for anything to be split up.

You talk to your employees about change and you must do the same with your customers.

“It’s soliciting feedback from clients on how you’re doing and how you can adapt,” Kolar says. “Sitting down at the end of a project and talking about what you delivered and how that experience was. How do you interact? Do you understand the culture and the business environment? Our strategy gets to customization and adaptation. We need to know our clients well. We need to know their culture to help really deliver the solutions they are looking for that can be implemented and executed.”

Make an impact
in your community

Kolar looks at his job in the context of three areas representing three different groups that he needs to be thinking about as the leader of his firm.

“You have to watch the balance from time to time as sometimes, it requires more in one area than the other,” Kolar says.

There are your employees, your clients and then there is the community where you do business.

“You have to give that a high level of importance too,” Kolar says. “All of those areas, if you get out of kilter on any one of them, you find yourself reacting. So you have to continually make sure there is emphasis on all three. When you look at community, it’s not just about involvement. It’s about impact.”

It may not always seem like community should be a key part of your business strategy. It’s what you do outside of work when you need a break from the day-to-day grind. But Kolar says it’s actually much more than that.

At PwC, it’s about helping people, especially the younger ones, understand the value of financial literacy.

“It’s helping bring education around financial matters and getting the youth in our schools to really think about budgeting, college, finances — all the things that weren’t there five or seven years ago when we went through the downturn,” Kolar says.

“People made financial decisions that were disastrous in many respects. A CEO I knew when I was in Orange County had a philosophy. He said, ‘If you find the time for the community, everything else finds its way of filling in.’ I haven’t taken that 100 percent to heart, but I have found a lot of time for community in the communities I’ve lived in.”

Kolar believes leaders should feel a responsibility to create balance in the lives of their employees and make sure they have time to give back to causes outside of their day-to-day schedules that matter to them.

“It’s that balance that people are looking for,” Kolar says. “Are they valued by clients? Do they feel like they are making a great contribution to them? Are they valued within the organization? Are they developing? Are they valued by the community and are they giving back and making an impact? It’s that balance that is so important.”

Kolar says the landscape will continue to evolve and both leaders and businesses will need to continue to adapt to keep pace with the changes.

“It’s going to require expertise we have today and expertise we’ll need to have tomorrow,” Kolar says. “The foundation for all of that is making yourself accessible and being honest.”



  • Be intentional about being approachable.
  • Find new ways to help customers.
  • Be responsible stewards in your community.

The Kolar File

NAME: Jim Kolar
TITLE: Managing Partner, Chicago Market

Born: St. Paul, Minnesota

Education: Bachelor’s degree in finance and accounting, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I worked for my dad, James Patrick Kolar. He was a pipe fitter by trade, but he and my uncle built a mechanical contracting business. I learned the value of a day’s work and how hard-working tradesmen really valued that experience and the satisfaction of being able to say, ‘Here’s what I accomplished today.’

What influence did your dad have on you? He prided himself on the quality of work that we did. He wanted to be known for high quality and he was as a contractor. When people had tough problems or tough jobs they needed done, they looked to my dad. He was there for them. I saw him make tough decisions. When you had to bid a job in the construction industry, it’s a tough business. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But make sure you deliver and don’t cut corners.

If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with? Nelson Mandela. I look at what he lived through in terms of personal persecution and those circumstances how he emerged from that. He had an opportunity around his brand and he could have taken it in any number of directions. He could have been vengeful and sought retribution for how he was treated. But his sole mission was to unify. What he did for that nation and who that nation is today is because of him and the path he chose.