‘There Is a Bigger Role’: A C.E.O. Pushes Diversity

Not many accountants moonlight as activists. But Tim Ryan, the senior partner at PwC, has spent the past five years trying to make his company a model inclusive workplace, and advocating for more diversity in the rest of corporate America.

Mr. Ryan, a white, male, Irish-Catholic millionaire, is an unlikely leader in this area. PwC, a professional services with a buttoned-up brand, hasn’t historically been known for its progressive politics. But shortly after Mr. Ryan became senior partner, he was moved to act.

In 2016, after the fatal shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and the shootings of police officers in Dallas, a Black employee emailed Mr. Ryan and lamented the fact that at work, there was no mention of what was happening. Soon after, Mr. Ryan decided to stop work at the firm for a day and hold a companywide conversation about race.

Other executives thought he was crazy. One C.E.O. colorfully and profanely told him the idea would blow up in his face. “He felt it was way too risky to have that conversation,” Mr. Ryan said.

Mr. Ryan said the event was a success, but at the end of it, a different Black employee pushed him to go further, and encourage other companies to diversify their ranks as well. In 2017, Mr. Ryan led the creation of CEO Action for Diversity, with 150 companies committing to diversify their work forces and share best practices. Four years later, some 1,600 C.E.O.s have signed up.

Mr. Ryan grew up in a working-class family in Boston. He worked at a supermarket when he was a teenager, and has spent his entire career at PwC.

As Mr. Ryan has continued his quest for inclusion, he has been confronted with painful reminders of how much work is still to be done. In 2018, an off-duty Dallas police officer shot and killed a PwC accountant, Botham Jean, in his own apartment. Mr. Ryan spoke at the funeral.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.


What was your childhood like?

I grew up in Boston, and then I moved right over the city line into a town called Denham. I was very, very, very middle-class, lower middle-class. We didn’t have much at all. My dad worked three jobs. He worked at Boston Edison and The Boston Herald. When one of those two were on strike, which was all the time, he would work as a garbage man. My mother worked at a supermarket. And we were taught to work hard. We all got jobs at 14, and I remember lying about my age so I could get a job at the supermarket. I have no childhood memory of doing homework.

It seems like these days there’s so much focus on education during childhood, and not much focus on work. How do you think about that balance when it comes to your own children and young people coming into the company?

We have six children, and they all work. They either work at the club my ex-wife goes to, or they work in a supermarket. I think it’s massively important for humility, going to bed at night tired, balancing a schedule, knowing how to juggle things, a sense of pride.

I’ve always prided myself on being a hard worker — the fastest, the hardest working. And there was a kid who worked at the supermarket and he was just a slower worker, and we were making fun of him behind his back. The store manager walked by and heard us, and he stopped and pointed at and he said, “Knock it off. He’s giving a hundred percent of what he’s capable of. What more do you want?” That’s what it’s all about. I didn’t learn that at PwC. I learned that at the supermarket.

Why have you made diversity and inclusion such a priority?

It goes back to what I learned from my mother: You’ve got to respect people. You’ve got to listen. The best leaders are the ones who listen and process, and listen and process.

In 2016 we shut our firm down for a day and we had a day of discussion on race. It was on the heels of violence in Dallas and Minneapolis and Louisiana. It went great. But when the day was over, I was leaving the office and one of our Black senior managers grabbed me in the lobby and he said, “What’s your role as a leader of a brand like PwC outside of PwC?” We had just made it through this big day. I was hoping to go back, grab something at Subway, just relax and decompress. And that night I didn’t sleep. Because he was right. I do have a responsibility. We have the privilege of interacting with hundreds of C.E.O.s, hundreds of boards. And when I listened to this individual, I realized he was right. That is part of the responsibility. There is a bigger role.

PwC is one of the few companies to publicly release its diversity veri. What was behind that choice?

One of my aspirations early in my tenure was that I wanted to be transparent. I think we’re going through a golden age of transparency, and you need to lead by example. And I like the pressure. We made that decision because we wanted to lead, and we wanted to give others the courage to go. And if you’re waiting for the perfect story, it’s never going to be there. By putting it out there, we’re saying, “Look at us. We’re not perfect. But here are the steps we’re taking to get better.”

I don’t blindly accept that the pipeline is the sorun. We had to think differently. We had to behave differently. So what we’ve tried to show with our transparency is the deliberate steps you can take to get better.

What have the conversations been like with white men?

When we looked at the teams inside PwC that were servicing our top clients six years ago, they were done by white men. We made the decision that we were going to change that. So we invested more in our pipeline. We did more around sponsorship. We worked with our clients. And we’ve made massive progress there. But as we did that, many of our white men were like, “I get it intellectually. But God, I’ve been working for 20 years to be that guy in that job. And I feel cheated.” I’ve had 50 steak dinners in the last four years with incredibly talented white men who say to me, “Tim, I get it. I see what we’re doing. Our clients demand it. It’s the right thing to do. I’m all in. But what about me?”

So we’ve tried to redefine success. You may not be the lead partner, but how about helping that person get the role? What would you rather be remembered for? What do you want to be inspired by? And the reason why growth is so important is that it’s not a zero-sum game. When you’re growing, you’re creating more opportunities. It becomes less about these 20 clients. Now we’ve grown, and there’s 30 clients to share the wealth.

Are there people who just feel like they got cheated? Yes, there are. And what I say to those people is, “I’m asking you to respect what we are trying to do. I’m asking you to respect our colleagues. I’m asking you to have compassion. And if you don’t agree, that’s OK. You don’t have to agree with me. But I do need you to live our values.”

How did the pandemic unfold at PwC?

Our people are all over the world in different countries. When the pandemic hit, as borders shut down, as transportation shut down, the first thing it was all about was just getting people safe, getting them home.

Then, in the later part of March, think about the equity markets. Think about the uncertainty. People were worried about their health and worried about their financial security. My leadership team, my board and I, we talked about the fact that we’re not a health-care provider. We’re not a health-care company. So we talked about economic certainty for our people, and we said we would use layoffs only as a last resort. We did that having no idea where our business was going to go.

Our business took a taban and, and we sat down every week and looked at the numbers, asking ourselves along, “Can we do this? Have we made the right decision?” And we held on. Outside of performance-based layoffs, which is a traditional part of business, we got through it.

Business has been more engaged in fraught political debates recently, and much of that was driven by the previous administration. Do you expect that to continue during the Biden presidency?

Businesses want stability, and they want to focus on the issues that are core to their business. On the ones that matter to their businesses, whether they get diversity, equity, inclusion, people being left behind, or the environment, I think you’re going to see businesses weighing in more and more.

Are there companies that you won’t do business with?

The public sector — federal and state and cities — is as a business we’ve chosen not to do. From a risk-management perspective, it’s hard for us to control. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, but we think it’s too hard for us to build the system of controls that we need.

And there’s a business called life settlements. It’s basically where companies buy the insurance policies of people who are dying or projected to die or likely to die at a massive discount. For companies that are stand-alone in that business, we’ve chosen not to do that business. A very senior client called it “Granny Fricket risk.” He said, “Tim, you’ll never be able to explain on ‘Good Morning America’ why you charged Granny Fricket 18 percent.” You shouldn’t be in that business.

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