Insights From the 2018 World Economic Forum

with Tim Ryan, Chairman and Senior Partner, PwC
2017-18


“Picture this beautiful quaint little town that for 51 weeks out of the year is a ski town in the Swiss Alps,” Tim Ryan told students, staff, and faculty gathered in Broyhill Auditorium. “And then picture the world converging on this city.”

Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner at PwC, brought insights from the 2018 World Economic Forum, held annually in Davos, Switzerland, to the School of Business.

Around 3,000 world leaders from business, politics, and NGOs gather for the four-day Forum that features over 400 sessions on topics that range from cybersecurity to water safety to the importance of inclusion and the significance of new technologies. Many of these events take place at the Davos Congress Centre, where you might bump into corporate leaders like Ryan, or world leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “It’s a tremendous experience, and a serious networking opportunity,” Ryan said.

To accommodate all of this, Ryan explained that virtually every store along the main stretch in Davos is rented out by corporations like PwC or Facebook and used as spaces to meet and convene. “You could spend an entire day just going in and seeing what’s on display.”

Ryan shared with students, staff, and faculty that he experienced a feeling of optimism from the business leaders at the meeting.

“The confidence level CEOs have is higher than we’ve seen since before the financial crisis. What we’ve also consistently heard is that CEOs are having a hard time finding the right talent.”

He advised the students that they are entering the job market with the right soft skills and technical knowledge when supply is low and demand is high.

“Organizations are looking for skills that are enabled by high technology acumen,” he said. “They’re looking for people who can be change agents, who can use data analytics to solve complex problems that traditionally took a long time for humans to follow, and understand artificial intelligence — not just how to use it but how to regulate it and build a code of conduct around it.”

Ryan also shared thoughts about how leaders must focus on diversity and inclusion. During his first week as senior partner in July 2016, the country was experiencing racial turmoil in Louisiana, Minneapolis, and Dallas. Ryan reached out to PwC employees with a message affirming they were there for each other. “What came back was over 1,000 emails to me and our team. Just two and a half weeks later we asked our employees to get together and have a day-long discussion on race.”

Those discussions led Ryan to help spearhead a movement called CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion. Over 400 CEOs joined with him to create www.ceoaction.com, a website repository of over 500 best practices from companies committed to making their workplaces more inclusive.

“At PwC, we want to have the most inclusive environment in the world,” Ryan said. “It’s the right thing to do, it will create a massive competitive advantage, and will stave off unwanted regulation that won’t get at the root cause of the problem.”

And speaking more broadly of regulation, Ryan noted that while the current climate in Washington is one of deregulation, he doesn’t see that being the long-term trend.

“What we’re hearing from CEOs is there are several major societal issues out there and they all emanate from the fact that the world is short financial resources for things like elderly care, healthcare, infrastructure, education, diversity and inclusion, and natural resources.

Shortage of resources combined with the full transparency enabled by social media leads to policymakers feeling the need to regulate around society’s biggest opportunities because they want to be relevant to their constituents. So despite the fact that we have this short-term feel-good peel back of regulation, I think it’s inevitable that as these issues become more and more important to society, you’ll see more regulation.

Ryan sees this as providing opportunity, however. “We’re going to get to a tipping point where the private sector gets pulled in to solve societal problems. It’s inevitable. I want our brand to be known for solving those issues.”

Q&A with Tim Ryan

Why is trust-based leadership important?

The reality is no one leader can see it all. We need to have ethics, training, culture, and values, but then empower our people to make the right decisions so we can best serve our clients. It’s almost impossible for a company to survive today for the long term without trust-based lead-ership. I don’t even know how you attract the best talent if they’re not going to be trusted.

How do you keep talent?

Our biggest investment is trying to build a culture where people have the flexibility they need to make sure they have the right balance in their lives, they get the investment from technology upskilling, they get time to impact society, and they get time to make sure they are being inclusive leaders. Our strategy is to build the best place where we can build the best leaders.

How will technology change the profession?

I don’t see financial reporting going away. I don’t see auditing going away. In fact, I see the profession being more relevant going forward. A lot of the work we do today is because our clients give us disorganized stuff. As technology makes our clients more efficient, if we’re investing in our people to do world-class things with that data, then we’ll have the ability to be massively relevant and give insights in ways we’ve never dreamed possible. We’re already on that path. We’re helping our clients not through hours we charge but through intellectual property we’ve developed to solve our problems that clients can then use to transform their workforce.