How CEOs Can Lead Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Efforts


The Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility virtually convened with Tim Ryan, senior partner and US chairman for PwC, on July 23, 2020, to discuss the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion.

CEO Action is the largest CEO-driven business commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion, but its beginnings were sparked by a particular tragedy in 2016. “I had a terrific plan [when I started as chairman]. We were going to grow revenues. We were going to steal market share. Invest in technology.” Then, four days into his tenure, there was a shooting in Dallas that resulted in the deaths of five police officers. “What I realized…was that having a plan to grow revenues and steal market shares is not what leading people is all about.”

After asking for feedback from all 55,000 PwC employees, Ryan came to the conclusion that although the company had been implementing diversity efforts for more than a decade, they were overlooking a fundamental element of a truly inclusive workplace—understanding. Encouraged by one young Black professional at PwC to consider his ability to create change beyond the walls of the office, Ryan decided he needed to meet with other CEOs to confront how societal issues like racial discrimination affect employees. 

HACR CEO Cid Wilson added that employees struggle with wondering, “can one employee make a difference and influence, not only a corporate culture internally, but how a company engages [in] diversity and inclusion externally?” In this case, the answer was yes. CEO Action officially launched in 2017 with Ryan as committee chairman, with large PwC competitors signed on to participate. 

“One of the [organization’s] core beliefs is that diversity and inclusion are not competitive issues…it is a way for us to help society,” said Ryan. “If the way to solve the problem is to simply steal each other’s talent, we’re not raising the game for everybody. Our biggest opportunity is [to create] a system where everyone can achieve…the economic prosperity that is out there.”

At the same time, the CEO Action committee realized that every company was at a different stage in their existing diversity initiatives, and they wanted to meet each company where it was, “not shame companies for where they weren’t,” said Ryan. Once CEOs are on board, CEO Action helps them strategize how they can dedicate more time, resources, and energy to diversity efforts, using four major commitments to which each participant must pledge.

These commitments include creating workspaces where people feel safe to discuss diversity and inclusion, implementing unconscious bias education, sharing best practices in addition to unsuccessful practices, and creating diversity and inclusion strategic plans with the company’s board of directors. CEOs must also create accountability systems to provide transparency about their progress. Ryan says the most successful companies have created overarching diversity and inclusion plans, “attacking it no differently than [they] would any other business opportunity.”

Currently, more than 1,000 CEOs from the world’s top companies have taken the pledge to advance diversity and inclusion in their companies, emphasizing the idea that CEOs set the tone for company culture and that change starts at the executive level. You can see the full list of participating CEOs, as well as the programs being implemented at each company, on the CEO Action website. To hear the full discussion, view the webinar recording in our virtual events archive