How PwC’s Tim Ryan Creates Trust-Based Leadership

The head of the massive accounting firm is trying to create a diverse workforce that can bring change to its clients.

How PwC’s Tim Ryan Creates Trust-Based Leadership
“We didn’t have the foundation to have hard conversations. I wanted to change that culture.”[Photo: courtesy PwC]

In his first week as the CEO of PwC, one of the largest professional services firms that provides audit, tax, and advisory services to Fortune 500 companies worldwide, Tim Ryan found himself in Dallas as tensions mounted between the African-American community and the police.


That Friday morning in early July, Ryan says he struggled to focus, “I found myself overseeing a 46,000-member workforce devastated from a series of shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas.” Wondering if his colleagues were feeling the same way, Ryan decided to send a note out to the entire firm that morning “expressing my grief and sadness while still knowing that wasn’t enough.”

Ryan was struck by the overwhelming response that he received. This, along with other conversations that Ryan decided to set up, in townhalls and safe spaces at PwC revealed, “the depth and immediacy of how this situation was affecting them—and how much they wanted to connect with others to process what was unfolding. I knew I was taking a risk by hosting these conversations, given I had only been in the job for a few days. [But I also] knew that we needed to address what was going on. I couldn’t expect our employees to show up at work thinking it was business as usual.”

“We didn’t know that some of our black professionals teach their children how to not get pulled over.” [Photo: courtesy PwC]
Although PwC is among the top companies when it comes to diversity (ranking #5 in 2016 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list), Ryan says he realized, through the kinds of conversations the company was hosting, that they still have a long way to go. “We didn’t have the foundation to have hard conversations. I wanted to change that culture. We didn’t appreciate that some of our co-workers who were black came to work worrying about their child’s safety. We didn’t know that some of our black professionals teach their children how to not get pulled over,” he says.

These were the gaps in empathy and understanding that Ryan wanted to help bridge. And, since July, a key challenge for him as CEO has been to keep up that conversation. The firm has implemented a new training plan to deal with unconscious bias in which employees can work at their own pace and are able to track their own progress—an approach that research shows is more effective than mandatory training.

Now Ryan is also looking to impact the wider corporate culture through the “huge convening power of PwC” as he put it, based on the fact that as a professional services firm they work with almost every Fortune 500 company.

He also plans to bring his CEO peers to talk about diversity and inclusion “so they can all learn best practices from each other,” as part of an initiative set to launch this summer. “Diversity is not just an issue for CEOs who have a lot of resources, financial and human capital. Rather, the challenge is to help the tens of thousands of businesses who don’t have the same resources like we do to invest in diversity.” The company also plans to make its new training plan available to other companies and the public free of charge.

“I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without some important mentors in my life.” [Photo: courtesy PwC]

Early Exposure

Despite growing up young in a blue-collar neighborhood of Boston, Ryan recalls thinking, “everything was fair, everything was equal” until he was age 7 or 8 when forced integration of the school system was implemented. Ryan says, “It was very informative in my early childhood. I can remember trying to understand what was happening. And my parents explained to me that our education system wasn’t equally distributed.”

Through his high school and college years, Ryan worked in a high-end grocery store where his mother and relatives also worked. He recalls an incident where he and another coworker were making fun of a special-needs coworker who was stocking produce slower than them. When the store manager asked them why they were making fun of their coworker because “he is giving me his 100%. Are you giving me yours?” That was one of his first lessons in managing fairly and, he says, it has stayed with him.

The reality that life isn’t fair really took root for Ryan 20 years later when he started his career at PwC as an associate in the firm’s Boston office, and began working for banking clients during the 1991 banking crises that hit New England especially hard. “For a short period of time,” he says, “the job that I had was actually to collect keys from people who couldn’t keep their houses.”

That experience became a crucial turning point for Ryan. It helped him understand the human side of their work, that the numbers on their spreadsheets had consequences that affected the lives of real people.

It might have also made Ryan step up as a leader during the 2008 financial crises. In early 2008, Ryan urged AIG, who was a client at the time, to declare a “material weakness in its financial results related to the company’s credit default swaps.” In September 2008, it was revealed that credit default swaps created underlying risks at AIG, which led to the near-collapse and failure of the insurer.

Investing in Communities

While Ryan sees the firm’s purpose as being front and center in their work with clients, he also sees the need to invest in the community. The firm just finished a five-year program where they contributed $190 million, and 3 million hours aimed at financial literacy; 80% of their team participated in the campaign. “They were in classrooms all across the country,” he says, “teaching students and educators about financial literacy.”


Now they are expanding the effort with the launch of a new $320 million campaign aimed at helping students in underserved communities gain crucial technology skills to succeed in college and work. As part of the program, PwC employees will mentor students to help them choose the right college or career for them—an effort the firm hopes will build more diversity in many professions including financial services.

“As the first person in my family to attend college, this is something that I’m personally really passionate about. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without some important mentors in my life,” Ryan says.

“The more empowerment I can put in other people’s hands the better.” [Photo: courtesy PwC]

Trust-Based Leadership

Ryan is still “getting used to the fact that people view you differently [as CEO]. I understand why they do, but I don’t want to be treated that way.”  In turn, he has had to learn to really trust his team and not solve all the important problems for key clients himself.  “I’m a big believer in what I call trust-based leadership,” a term he coined to describe his belief that “the more empowerment I can put in other people’s hands the better.”

It’s an approach that resonates with the millennials who now make up the majority of PwC’s workforce, “The average age of our 50,000 employees is only 28.” Ryan sees this next generation of the workforce as one that “demands to be empowered and understands that PwC has to stand for more than making a buck.”

It’s a passion that Ryan shares with his millennial staff, “Sitting at PwC, the fact that we have the brand and the convening power is a great place to try and change the world.”

Listening to Ryan, it struck me as a radical mission coming from the leader of an accounting firm. As if reading my mind, Ryan says, “I will have to consider it a personal epic failure if all I do is grow PwC by 20%.”


This article is part of a series of articles by Aaron Hurst exploring how leaders find purpose and meaning in their jobs. Last fall, Hurst’s company, Imperative, released a global survey of the role of purpose at work, in partnership with LinkedIn Talent Solutions, which found that those who are intrinsically motivated to find purpose in their jobs consistently outperform their colleagues and experience greater levels of job satisfaction and well-being, regardless of country, gender, or ethnicity. They are also 50% more likely to be leaders. This series will profile those leaders, and how they connect with what’s meaningful to them in their role and the organizations they lead.