Tim Ryan's 'CEO Action' pursues meaningful diversity in the workplace

Diversity and inclusion efforts can be ambiguous undertakings in the workplace, with businesses and leadership often left up to their own devices on how to enact said practices. A rising initiative launched by the head of a Big Four firm, however, asks CEOs to commit more solidly to diversity, via a signed pledge.

CEO Action for Diversity of Inclusion — complete with a CEO Pledge and a personal I Act On Pledge — bills itself as the "the largest CEO-driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace," seeking signatories to "take measureable action in advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace."

The program is the brainchild of Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner at Big Four Firm PwC. He arrived at the name because "CEOs can drive change within their organizations and 'Action' [means] less talk and more action," he told Accounting Today.

The program, launched in June 2017 with 112 companies on-board, asks signatories to make three basic commitments to promoting diversity and inclusion, according to Ryan: "1) To make the workplaces truly safe to talk about issues around inclusion; 2) Make unconscious bias training available to everybody, and; 3) To share best practices across all our organizations and with other companies."

Two years later, CEO Action has grown to include more than 800 CEO signatories from some of the most prominent businesses across the United States, covering some 15 million employees, Ryan estimates. Spanning 85 industries and over 50 academic institutions and associations, a slew of accounting firms and organizations (including the AICPA, RSM US, and all Big Four firms) have also signed the pledge.

Some 300 signatory members of the initiative recently gathered in New York City on Nov. 14, 2019, to share their experiences thus far in the program and to share best practices within their organizations. As part of the meeting, CEO Action extended programs including its Check Your Blind Spots unconscious bias tour, a national training program, as well as lengthening its initial Day of Understanding into a Month of Understanding for February 2020, in which CEOs are asked to host dialogues on diversity in their workplaces to build trust between employees.

And to mark CEO Action's second-year anniversary, a fourth CEO commitment was added: Each signatory company is to develop a diversity and inclusion plan and review it with their internal corporate board.

"The reason we did that is because after two years of having the hard conversations, of doing unconscious bias training ... it was time to move to another level of action, meaning a diversity [and] inclusion strategic plan," Ryan said. "What we’re really asking companies to do, in addition to the first three commitments, is to drive the diversity [and] inclusion strategic plan at their organizations. That’s when you get in to the executive suite level and the board level all the elements of the [plan]: culture, recruiting, retention, development, mentoring, numbers at all levels, tracking [and] accountability. What we’d really like to see the group do is continue to make progress in that area."

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PwC U.S. chairman and senior partner Tim Ryan speaking in New York City on Nov. 14, 2019.

The accounting profession, specifically, is no stranger to a dearth in diversity — especially at the leadership level. To remedy this, Ryan says that the profession must cast a wider net in recruiting candidates moving forward.

"I don’t think it’s news that the profession is not where we’d like to be," he said, "but as I talk to other leaders of firms, we’re focused on a couple of critical things: No. 1 is widening the pipeline. We’re expanding where we recruit from, not just the traditional institutions, and we are working with those institutions to make sure they’re increasing the pipeline."

"More importantly, what we’re all focused on is retention when we get these great skills into the firm," Ryan added. "We know by data, when you look at women and minorities, that their retention rates aren’t equal to where we are with with the majority, and we’re working on strategies to make sure we have better retention. We’re talking very openly about how the profession can reflect the society that we work in, and the key areas of focus are retention [and] widening the pipeline because there’s incredible talent out there."

On CEO Action's progress, Ryan sees the program as, at least, starting necessary conversations among employees, but there's still much work to be done towards achieving a truly diverse workplace.

"There’s been a lot of progress, but I’ll also humbly tell you that we, like most organizations, have a long way to go," he said. "But one of the things I’m most proud of is [when] we did our first day-long discussion on race in July 2016. At that time, it was driven by the top (meaning me). We asked people to go talk about the uncomfortable issues around race. If we fast-forward to where we are today ... those discusisions are happening naturally, across our firms, across the United States, without a scheduled day."

"It’s becoming cultural, and that’s very important to me," he continued. "It’s one thing to drive it from the top; it’s another thing for people on the third floor of the [PwC] San Francisco office decide to sit down over a cup of coffee and talk about the complicated issues. It’s becoming more cultural at the firm, and I’m very proud of that."

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