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Advancing the Conversation on Diversity

An interview with Tim Ryan, U.S. Chairman and Senior Partner at PwC, and Founding Member of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion



Tim Ryan is U.S. Chairman and Senior Partner at PwC, having served as Chairman from 2000 to 2009. The primary focus of Mr. Cohen’s practice is regulatory, enforcement, acquisition and securities law matters for U.S. and non-U.S. financial institutions and their trade associations, and corporate governance matters for a wide variety of organizations.

Mr. Ryan has over 25 years of diversified experience serving clients in the financial services industry in the U.S. and internationally. Prior to his current role, he led PwC’s Assurance practice and, before that, he led PwC’s U.S. Financial Services practice and PwC’s Consumer Finance Group.

He has been published or quoted in numerous publications and is a frequent contributor to industry events. Mr. Ryan was a member of PwC’s “Closing the Expectation Gap Committee.” This committee designed and implemented improvements to PwC’s audit process to address gaps between the expectations of constituents and accounting standards. He has also served on the U.S. Board of Partners and Principals and the network’s Global Board.

Mr. Ryan is a certified public accountant in Massachusetts and New York and a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. He serves on the Board of Trustees for the Securities and Exchange Commission Historical Society. He graduated from Babson College, where he studied accounting and communications and remains an active and proud alum. A Boston native, he joined the firm after graduation. Mr. Ryan is the proud father of six children and is passionate about spending time with his kids, hockey, running and reading.

The topic of diversity and inclusion (D&I) has traditionally been a sensitive one in nature. While corporations may recognize the importance of D&I concerns, oftentimes, there tends to be hesitation on how to approach these topics and what the best tactic is to ignite conversations around them. However, over the last few years, corporate leaders have started to make a concerted effort to implement various initiatives across their organizations to drive awareness on the subject.

C-Suite recently sat down with Tim Ryan, U.S. Chairman and Senior Partner at PwC, and Founding Member of CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, the first CEO-led diversity and inclusion initiative. Ryan discussed his motivation behind launching CEO Action, as well as the lasting impact it is having in sparking the conversation around D&I topics across corporate America and how the advancement of progress begins at the top.


C-Suite: What was your motivation behind spearheading the creation of The CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion?

Tim Ryan: The CEO Action was born out of a summer of tragedies in 2016 involving violence between police and people of color. The first week of my new role as U.S. Chairman of PwC, Alton Sterling was killed, then shortly after, Philando Castile was killed. The next week, a sniper started shooting police officers in Dallas.

It dawned on me that, as the leader of 50,000-plus people, I had to step in and say something about what was going on because it was an issue that was clearly affecting our employees, in particular our black employees. I got on the phone with my leadership team and we decided that I should send an email to all of PwC’s employees about how we needed to be there for each other and act with inclusivity and empathy during this hard time. What I got back was a tremendous outpouring of emails from our people, but the one that struck me most was from an employee of color who wrote that the “silence was deafening” on the Friday after all these shootings involving police and black men. People weren’t comfortable talking about what was happening outside the walls of PwC and so they weren’t talking at all. It showed how many of our professionals didn’t feel comfortable expressing themselves and their feelings at work.

"It dawned on me that as a the leader of 50,000-plus people, I had to step in and say something about what was going on because it was issue that was clearly affecting our employees."

So I proposed a day for everyone in the firm to get together and talk about race relations at the firm. The firm slowed business for the day and we all came together to hear each other out on issues related to race and diversity and our different experiences. There were a lot of tears shed and I personally learned a lot about our black professionals’ experiences that I hadn’t previously understood. I heard our black professionals talk about how they teach their children “how to get pulled over” safely, tell me that they felt safer wearing a business suit in the office than in their tee shirt in the park, etc.

Since these discussions, we have had an ongoing dialogue with our people encouraging them to “bring their whole selves to work.” What these conversations taught me is that we as business leaders need to encourage our employees to be themselves at work and to invest in workplace inclusivity because it’s the right thing to do. It is also good for business, because people who are able to bring their whole selves to work are more engaged in their work, are more open to sharing ideas, are freer to think creatively and, ultimately, create a more productive work environment.

Not only did our people at PwC wholeheartedly participate in these discussions, but they also encouraged me as their leader to do more than just have this conversation at PwC. One of our black professionals in particular challenged me to take the message outside the firm and to the broader business community. He inspired me to spread this message—and materials supporting it—to other companies, which is how the idea for the CEO Action began. As business leaders, we recognize that diversity and inclusion is a top-of-mind issue, but as a collective we benefit from others’ insights and perspectives.

Since the commitment was launched in 2017, can you describe the impact it has had on advancing diversity in the workplace? How would you measure success?

Ryan: The coalition has done a lot since its founding to bring CEOs together and we have more than tripled in size to around 550-plus signatories. We have created a tremendous peer network and facilitated hundreds of connections between signatories that share resources and nudge each other to do better. We have also developed seven working groups focused on specific issues, and convened hundreds of CEOs at events designed to focus on prioritizing D&I within organizations, encouraging signatory organizations to take action beyond their current agenda, and put D&I at the core of their cultures. We’ve also collected nearly 500 examples of best practices for D&I on www.ceoaction.com that are available to everyone for free, released an unconscious bias video series, and launched the Check Your Blind Spots unconscious bias mobile tour that is traveling the country, bringing unconscious bias training to corporations, college campuses and local events with the goal of making 100 stops and training one million people this year. We also launched the “I Act On” pledge to encourage individuals to commit to mitigating potential unconscious biases and act on driving more inclusive behaviors in their everyday lives.

After our first year, we surveyed our signatories—50% of our signatories responded and 78% of the respondents reported that being a part of the CEO Action has helped their D&I impact. We also found that 89% are both having difficult conversations on race and are implementing unconscious bias education. While we are pleased with these figures, we know that there is more to be done and we are always looking for ways to double down on the resources and opportunities we can unlock for signatories and others.

What would you say is the greatest challenge or hurdle for companies when it comes to having conversations about D&I? Is there a particular practice or program that you would suggest?

Ryan: Diversity and inclusion feels really big. And it is big! I think tackling any societal issue feels very daunting to companies’ leadership. I think what CEOs need to remember when taking on a diversity strategy is that they don’t need to solve the thing in one day—but well-thought-out, small steps in the right direction make a huge difference to their people. Taking it slow and being well-researched and deliberate is the best way to get over the hump of talking about D&I. Also, talking to other leaders who have done it before you is helpful because you can talk about what works and what doesn’t—the connective network of CEOs who are in the process together is one of the great benefits of the CEO Action.

What lessons have you, as well as any of the hundreds of CEOs who have pledged to the commitment, learned along the way? Have you noticed a change in how CEOs and leadership are addressing D&I concerns from the top down?

Ryan: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that there is no “endgame” to the diversity and inclusion conversation. We must all always keep learning, or it won’t stick. As leaders, we can’t have one meaningful dialogue about race or diversity and expect people to come away changed. Creating a cultural shift requires a lot of work, a lot of resources, a lot of communication and also a great deal of vulnerability from your leaders and your employees that allows them to accept that they need to keep learning. The biggest change in how CEOs and leadership are addressing D&I concerns from the top down is that they are more willing to talk about these issues. We talk a lot about how employees want and often expect their leaders to address big societal issues and create safe spaces for them, and a big part of the CEO Action is helping leaders understand how, when and why they should communicate with their people about issues related to diversity and inclusion. I think overwhelmingly, CEOs are less afraid to talk about D&I, and understand the benefits of communicating around it.

What do you believe is the greatest risk that companies face going into 2019 with respect to D&I?

Ryan: The greatest risk associated with diversity and inclusion is not prioritizing it. It’s simple—people work better when they can be themselves, the best ideas come from teams where everyone can be heard and respected, and companies in the competition for talent kneecap themselves when they don’t make D&I a part of the everyday dialogue of their organizations.

Issue 29: Outlook 2019


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