PwC’s new U.S. chairman launched company-wide discussion on race, buoyed by his desire to comfort employees and in the process bolster engagement, recruitment.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
Tim Ryan, appointed PwC’s U.S. chairman on July 1, realized his workforce was hurting and decided to take action.
A Q&A With Tim Ryan
Q. You’ve directly emailed and are going to have a Snapchat conversation with your employees. This is unusual in our observation; what motivated you to do this?
A. We are a new leadership team, the most diverse we’ve ever had. The firm is in great shape brand and growth wise, but as a team we want to be faster, take a little bit more risk on some sensitive topics.
We have issues of race popping up again in our country; two weeks ago we woke up to Dallas. We communicated internally to all of our people, acknowledging that we don’t know all the answers. If we really care about our people we need to create an environment where people can talk about it.
In the world of social media, on the positive side, our people have more tools than ever to communicate with each other. If they’re empowered, they can communicate differently and positively. If not, they’ll communicate negatively. We use social media as a way to communicate with people.
They want to consume information differently, so as a leader, I want to communicate the way they want to: on Snapchat and Twitter. I need to adapt to the way they want to communicate, not the other way around.
Q. PwC has always had a culture of communications, but this is a step beyond typical; do you expect your leadership style to be emulated by leaders throughout your company?
A. Overall, I believe the most successful organizations going forward are ones where people are trusted, enabled and empowered. Putting power in the decision-making hands of our people is strategically the direction we’re moving in. This is a culture of communication, employment and trust. We want to be famous for that.
[The race discussion] was one of the proudest days we’ve ever had. I was proud we could actually talk about it as a firm. Hundreds of emails came in, with story after story after story. We all learned and care for our people better.
Thousands of people went home and talked about this around the dinner table, over a cup of coffee, over a drink.
I got an email yesterday from a contractor. It said, “I was in the office and happened to be walking by, and heard the dialogue taking place. I was blown away. It’s a company I want to work for.”
Q. How have your own life experiences impacted how you approach these issues?
A. I came from a very working class family. We didn’t have much at all; my dad had two jobs, a utility worker and night shift at a newspaper, and mom was a cashier at a market.
My mother passed in November. She always taught respect, hard work and compassion. It didn’t matter whom you were talking about. That’s been informative. I’m not the smartest guy in world, but I learned very simple lessons on respect, compassion and hard work.
Q. What would you say to leaders who are scared to go down this road?
A. We were nervous as a team; I was guided by respect and compassion, knowing we had a big population that didn’t share and couldn’t share what they were feeling.
Two weeks ago today, I sent an email like many CEOs did, acknowledging the issues. But then what happened? Hundreds of emails came in thanking us. Because they didn’t feel like they could talk. We weren’t sure of the right next step.
We needed to create forums, for Black people to talk about it, and for others to listen.
We were nervous but kept going back to our core principle. We care about our people. I can be safe and avoid the things they’re concerned about.
I said I want to be famous for trusting my people to lead. I trusted my people across the country to execute.
I would encourage CEOs to truly listen. When you listen to stories of your people it will cause you to take action. I’m sure there was something we could have done better, but what I learned is we’re on the right track. Action and trusting your gut instinct is a good thing.
In the aftermath of two videos of Black men being killed by police, and the murders of five police officers in Dallas earlier this month, Ryan sent an email to 45,000 employees acknowledging the turmoil the events sparked across the country. He ended up getting hundreds of responses from employees with a recurring theme: even though many were saddened and feeling overwhelmed by what was happening, few felt they could discuss the events, or issues regarding race, with managers or coworkers.
“It became clear that our people needed a forum to talk,” he said, and he decided to call for all the firm’s offices domestically to hold discussions on race on July 21, including diversity forums on Snapchat and Twitter.
It also became clear to Ryan that taking on these issues was a business imperative because such tragedies can impact employee engagement and the recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce.
Ease Employee Baggage
Employees, he said, face a host of issues, such as caring for sick parents or pregnancy, and organizations try to address those in order to help employees be the most productive and engaged. However, “people are uncomfortable talking about race in the workplace. But many of our people were thinking of this in their heads,” he said about recent events.
Addressing the issues and talking to colleagues about what is weighing on their hearts is a first step in helping employees be able to bring their whole selves to work. “We can’t come to work with baggage and not be able to talk about it,” he said. “It’s about our clients and the communities we work in. If our people are fully engaged we will be able to give better answers to our clients.”
Be An Employer of Choice
As far as recruitment and retention, it’s critical to encourage dialogue. If a company wants diversity, they need to promote diverse dialogue, Ryan stressed. If not, he noted, “we’re not going to get the very best.”
And if reaction on social media about his initiatives is any indication, Ryan’s message is getting out. Here’s one tweet from a PwC partner in Chicago that summed up what many PwC employees were saying:
Don’t Fear Emotions
Confronting such issues isn’t easy and can open up emotions that many company leaders may be fearful addressing directly.
Indeed, employees were reportedly crying in the offices and conference rooms, including Ryan.
But if you ask Ryan, he’s proud of this accomplishment.
The discussions, which PwC estimates hundreds of employees and managers from all regions participated in, ended up opening his own eyes.
One PwC Black male professional, who has worked for the firm for nine years, referred to his business suit and tie as his “cape” because when he wore them he felt safe.
“It was shocking how many people said they feared being pulled over when they didn’t have their suit on,” Ryan said. Many Black employees said they carried business cards with them so when they got pulled over they could hand their license and business card to the officer.
“For most of the white professionals, including me, we never understood that,” Ryan said, admitting that he too got tearful upon hearing all of the heartbreaking stories. “It was the most emotional day ever in our firm’s history.”
Surround Yourself With Diversity
What gave Ryan the courage to take on the issue so directly, he said, was his leadership team. He got on the phone to discuss the tragic events with his new team, a team that’s the most diverse in PwC’s history, with 35 percent women and 40 percent minorities (25 percent born outside of the United States), as well as one LGBT person. (PwC is No. 5 on the 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.)
“We said to ourselves, ‘How do we show our people we care, put words into action?’” Ryan recalled, a question he believes got on the table because he felt empowered by his diverse team.
The call resulted in Ryan writing an email, edited by his team, that was sent out to all U.S. employees acknowledging what had happened and soliciting input from the workforce.
Ryan is hopeful the daylong discussion on race will set the wheels in motion.
The conversations were kicked off by a video of Ryan discussing race issues in light of recent events with Elena Richards, PwC’s minority initiatives leader in the office of diversity. The firm is also hosting a full-day Snapchat and Twitter discussion on diversity, promoted via #ColorBrave.
Here is a video of Ryan meant to kick off the national discussion on social media:
“I hope, for the sake of our country we all do better,” he said. “But if we do better at PwC, then we are a great destination for talent.”