When Tim Ryan, the US chairman of PwC, began asking the leaders of other big companies in 2016 to join a campaign tackling workplace race issues, he thought he would be lucky if he signed up a few dozen.
Try 700. That’s the latest number of participants in the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion initiative, which began its third year Wednesday, collectively representing 15 million employees. Of that list, nearly 30 companies and nonprofits are in Massachusetts.
To join, executives agree to three stipulations: a commitment to foster an open dialogue on diversity and inclusion, a willingness to share best practices with other participants, and an agreement to implement training for employees about unconscious bias.
On Wednesday, Ryan and the other CEO Action leaders added a fourth: a pledge to involve their boards of directors in diversity strategies.
Ryan runs a huge operation. But he comes across as a humble man, underscoring his roots growing up in Hyde Park and then Dedham before going into accounting after graduating from Babson. He lives in Walpole now and keeps an office in New York. His job, though, has him on the go constantly, meeting with employees and clients.
About those client meetings. If a client isn’t a member of CEO Action, Ryan will make the ask. More often than not, Ryan gets a “yes.” Diversity strategies regularly get added to the CEO Action website — the list of “best practices” totals in the hundreds now. Members meet in New York every fall behind closed doors to trade ideas.
Ryan is also funding and staffing a CEO Action bus with $10 million from his budget as US chair. The in-demand vehicle is equipped with simulations and games and manned with facilitators to help participants learn more about biases.
PwC was proud of its employee diversity efforts when Ryan took the top US position in July 2016. But Ryan soon learned the firm needed to do more. In his first week, a gunman ambushed police in Dallas, killing five officers; he had been targeting white officers in particular. The uncomfortable silence at PwC seemed deafening to Ryan.
Because of the Dallas episode, and shootings of unarmed black men by police around that time, Ryan decided to take one day at PwC to hold a companywide discussion on race issues.
It was risky. One big-time CEO warned Ryan it would blow up in his face.
Instead, the sessions in July 2016 turned out to be cathartic. Tears were shed. Lessons were learned. A deeper understanding was forged among colleagues.
Then one of PwC’s black professionals challenged Ryan to go further, beyond the company’s US workforce, which now numbers roughly 55,000 employees. The debate about race in the workplace is bigger than any one company, even one as large as PwC. Ryan agreed — and soon began dialing up all the other chief executives he knew. By the time CEO Action was ready to debut two years ago, he had more than 100 on board.
The participating Massachusetts companies represent a cross-section of the local economy, ranging from the ad agency Allen & Gerritsen to the fund manager Wellington.
Many participating CEOs had already embarked on diversity initiatives and welcomed the opportunity to compare notes and join forces.
Christopher O’Connell, the CEO at Waters Corp. in Milford, says the opportunity to learn from others has helped his internal diversity and inclusion work. Tom Croswell, chief executive at Watertown-based Tufts Health Plan, says that with so much divisiveness in the country, efforts such as CEO Action are more important than ever.
Ryan received some pushback for his advocacy, internally and externally. But he argues there’s a strong business case to be made for attracting and retaining the best and brightest, regardless of race or background.
And cooperation can help in the face of adversity: When a black PwC employee was killed in his apartment in September by a police offer, also in Dallas, the firm rallied together in support, Ryan says.
Ryan knows his time as US chairman is finite. These are four-year terms, and no executive gets more than two. He is determined to make his time in the role count for something bigger than just raking in revenue for the partners. That’s important, of course. But so is uniting for a greater cause.Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.