It didn’t take Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman of PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), a long time on the job to determine where his priorities would lie in leading the American arm of the $41 billion “Big 4” accounting firm.
“The summer of 2016…my first week as CEO, there was the Dallas [police] shooting that came on the heels of shootings in [Minnesota] and [Baton Rouge] Louisiana. At that point in time, I had really become engaged on the topic of diversity. I saw how big of a gap there was in this country when it came to race and I decided to make that my top priority.”
Almost immediately, Ryan saw how affected his 50,000 employees were by the issue of race and diversity. He launched a series of companywide meetings on race relations—a way to get people talking and attempt to understand each other’s perspectives. He says that kind of honest powwow was missing from PwC and many other companies’ diversity initiatives, prior to that summer.
“You can have the best training in the world, but if you don’t have an environment where someone can talk about what it’s like to come to work and have these feelings in your head, the benefits to any of those [diversity] programs are muted,” Ryan says.
Getting 500-plus CEOs on board
Ryan didn’t just take stock of where PwC was in the area of diversity and inclusion, he looked at the business world at large. What he saw was a lot of room for improvement. A lot of companies went the safe route and didn’t scratch the surface. As such, Ryan helped launch CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion in 2017, an initiative aimed at getting CEOs to advance diversity and inclusion initiatives at their companies.
More than 550 CEOs have signed the organization’s diversity pledge since last year and many led their companies in December’s “Day of Understanding,” where employees convened to discuss bias in the workplace. CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion has also published more than 450 best practices and already had three closed door/CEO only meetings on how they can expand and improve diversity and inclusion efforts across the business community.
It wasn’t easy at first. “18 months ago, the biggest challenge we had was getting people to sign up. It was, ‘Am I going to put my brand at risk if I sign up? Will I get criticized because I’m early in my [CEO] journey and my numbers aren’t right? We’re way past that now—most months we get 20 to 30 companies or colleges and universities signing up.”
It’s getting to the point where more CEOs are becoming comfortable speaking out on these issues—partly because they have no choice. “When you look at a CEO’s stakeholders, it’s employee and customers, there’s a mutual expectation around speaking out on these things. I can tell you from talking to hundreds of CEOs, there’s a growing confidence they have around knowing when to speak out and speak up,” he says.
What’s even more impressive to Ryan, however, are the CEOs who are willing to go the extra mile and take proactive steps. This is why he is particularly proud of the companies involved in the “Day of Understanding,” because he says CEOs need to be willing to have these discussions before something happens—not just after.
Looking for progress
By the end of 2019, Ryan is looking to double the number of CEOs signed onto the pledge and nearly triple the number of best practices published on the site. He’s also looking for the concrete recommendations from the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion’s steering committee, which can “further move the dial” on diversity and inclusion in the business community.
“Over the next 18 months, we want to move to more tangible measures of progress inside our companies as I’m a big believer in that. You need be deliberate right? If you are building a house, you lay the electrical work, do the plumbing. I call this [initial stage] the plumbing. We’re working with companies on the plumbing under the base foundation…but as that stuff gets laid down, the next opportunity for this group is to show demonstrable progress.”
He advises CEOs to treat diversity and inclusion like any other business opportunity. If they do that, he says CEOs are exactly the right people to make this progress happen.
“CEOs are remarkable creatures. They restructure balance sheets. They buy and sell companies. They do technological transformations. They enter new markets. When they put their organizational strength behind any of those, it’s not a journey, it’s like ‘go get it done.’ They go get stuff done.”