When Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers, was shot and killed in his Dallas home by an off-duty police officer in September, Tim Ryan found himself at the forefront of yet another difficult conversation with his employees about race.
In an email, the US chairman of PwC encouraged all employees to "take time to understand the experiences our underrepresented minorities — and especially, in this situation, our black colleagues — experience in everyday life so that we can all be better co-workers, friends and allies."
This kind of understanding is something Ryan has been seeking since he first became chairman in July 2016. Just days into his new role, the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police officers, as well as the shootings of five Dallas police officers by a lone gunman occurred over the course of just three days.
"We started to see the unraveling, in my view, of America," Ryan tells CNN's Poppy Harlow in the latest episode of Boss Files. "When I came to work on Friday morning, the silence was deafening."
"Ultimately I had to make a decision... let's talk about it."
He ignored some of those closest to him who warned him not to take on the issue of race in the workplace. "One CEO said to me, 'You're crazy, this is going to blow up in your face,'" Ryan reflects.
Instead, the Boston native defied critics who questioned what he knew about the challenges of diversity, and launched a series of emotional, company wide conversations about race that continue to this day.
"While I may not be Latino or black or female, I am a leader of our people and that's where my responsibility lies: to our ethics, to our values, to our people, and to our clients. I think it's the responsibility, regardless of what you look like, or who you are, to take this issue on. And that's what we did," Ryan says.
The resulting conversations were eye-opening, Ryan says. He learned that many of the black professionals that he works with have had to teach their kids that they may get pulled over by police for no reason other than the color of their skin, or that these employees carry their PwC business card with them in case they get pulled over to prove to police that they can afford the car that they're driving in.
Ryan says it was "heartbreaking" to hear these stories and he was embarrassed that he didn't know about them.
"If we don't make it safe for [employees] to talk about what's really on their minds, we'll never be the business we want and serve our clients, the way we want to," Ryan says.
In 2017, Ryan helped start CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, a collaboration of CEOs across corporate America dedicated to promoting discussions of workplace diversity and inclusion. As part of this effort, Ryan has called on all Fortune 1000 CEOs to sign a diversity pledge.
When he began reaching out to CEOs, Ryan expected 25 to 40 to sign the pledge. Today, more than 500 have signed on.
"The complexity of the job of CEO today is multiplied by tenfold," Ryan tells Harlow. "The skillsets a CEO needs today, are much more than what a CEO needed just five years ago. Because if you're not engaging with society, they will judge you harshly. If you're not engaging with society, you won't win the war for talent."
While Corporate America has been talking about improving diversity for decades, Ryan says he is starting to see some real momentum. In a new PwC survey of corporate directors, 91% report that their boards have taken some steps to increase diversity -- up four percentage points since last year.
"My goal is to help be one of the many leaders, who can help American business be relevant on inclusion," Ryan says. "I would love to be remembered as somebody who led a movement that had America's workplaces be fully inclusive."
His efforts on diversity have some questioning whether he may eventually run for public office.
"We'll see," Ryan tells Harlow. "There's a tremendous opportunity to help society... It is something that's very attractive, to be able to help where we need to go as a country. We need people who can find common ground, and we need people who can pull people together, find a common problem and try to get it solved."
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