Commentary

Making Diversity A Priority

When asked to describe the main benefit of a diverse organization, Niloufar Molavi doesn’t mince words. “Innovation,” she says without hesitation. A former chief diversity officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) who now serves as the company’s U.S. energy leader and market managing partner for Greater Houston, Molavi sees firsthand the impact that an inclusive workplace has on a business, its clients, and stakeholders. DiversityInc magazine has taken notice too, recently recognizing PwC as the No. 1 company for diversity.

“When people with different points of view, different perspectives, and different experiences come together, that drives innovation,” says Molavi, who will speak at the ANA Multicultural Marketing & Diversity Conference, October 28-30, in Miami, Fla. “Honestly, in today’s world, if you’re not attracting and retaining a diverse workforce, you’re not going to have the best and the brightest resources you possibly can. It’s really about talent management.” Molavi shares her thoughts on the role of the chief diversity officer at PwC, how the marketing industry can overcome its diversity challenges, and more.

Q. Companies seem to have different interpretations about what diversity means. How does PwC define diversity?

A. There are about 24 dimensions of diversity. That includes race, gender, and sexual orientation as well as generational diversity and physical ability. Our ultimate goal is to sustain a culture where every individual is valued for their unique contributions and has the ability to reach their highest potential. It goes beyond “traditional” dimensions of diversity. We want people to feel comfortable bringing their different points of view to the table.

Q. Please tell me about the makeup of the PwC staff.

A. About 50 percent of everyone we hire at the firm is female -- that’s been a trend for a number of years -- and about 30 percent are minorities. Those are some of our key metrics, and they’re important across our industry. Certain minority groups are underrepresented in accounting and finance programs -- for example, if you speak to any university, college or business school that has an accounting program, they will tell you they are not attracting many black and African-American students. And that affects the diversity of the recruiting pool. That’s why we go into schools and educate students about the opportunities in professional services. This is a major focus area for us.

Q. Please explain the role of chief diversity officer (CDO) at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Why does the position rotate every two or three years?

A. The CDO drives the firm’s strategy to make PwC an even more inclusive place, where people from all backgrounds can flourish. I spent two years in that role, reporting directly to our CEO Bob Moritz. I was a member of his six-partner leadership team, which also included our CFO, general counsel, and vice chairs who lead the practices within our organization. That shows you how important diversity is within our organization and how seriously we take it.

At PwC, the CDO is a rotational role for a client-service partner. I’m an accountant by profession, and I was supported by a team of diversity professionals who are subject matter experts in their fields. The CDO role is unique, in my opinion. We typically tap a well-respected partner who is a top performer and has significant client responsibilities. For example, prior to my being named CDO, I was a tax partner in our Houston market. I led both our energy tax practice and our federal tax practice.

There are a couple of reasons why the CDO role is structured this way. One -- coming from the practice, you’re on the ground; you understand the challenges, issues, and needs. You really know your audience and bring that perspective to the table. Second, you can engage other partners and help them execute the diversity initiatives they’re rolling out. After all, you are “one of them.”  

After two to three years as CDO, you’re integrated back into our client-service practice. I was asked to become the managing partner of our Houston market and oversee our Tax, Assurance and Advisory consulting practices, and lead our energy practice. Now I’m responsible for making sure that the things I pushed for as CDO are happening on the ground. So it’s a very effective rotational program for us.

Q. As CDO, did you work with a small staff on various initiatives, or did you involve the company as a whole?

A. The Office of Diversity is comprised of about 25 people across the U.S. In fact, about 17 of these individuals are diversity leaders in their particular market. They are responsible for driving our strategy on a local, day-to-day basis. At times, I certainly worked with smaller groups within my team. I also worked with what we refer to as our “extended leadership team,” which is comprised of about 100 partners in leadership roles across the firm. Nothing got rolled out until there was buy-in from those 100 leaders, because each had to execute the initiative, as well as get the rest of our partners on board.

Q. Increasing workforce diversity continues to be a major challenge for many marketing organizations. Are you surprised, especially in this day and age when marketers are trying to reach diverse global market segments?

A. We know that from city to city, state to state, and country to country there are significant differences in buyers. The question is: do you have the right people on your teams to market to these individuals? Companies that recruit a diverse group of people that focus on marketing and product development are seeing positive results. I can tell you that in organizations where we have seen more diversity, the tone was set at the top. In the accounting industry, our competitors are also focused on diversity. We all realize how important it is. Although we compete with each other every day, diversity is one of those areas where we actually collaborate with each other. For example, we are working together to attract more black and African-American professionals to our industry. We know we can achieve better results if we all come together. So that’s the big question for marketing: Has the industry come together to make diversity a priority? More importantly, is the tone being set at the top of every organization? It starts with the CEO and filters down. As I have seen, when people put their minds to it, diversity is achievable. There are fantastic resources out there.

Q. It’s been well documented in the advertising trade press and beyond that there is an under-representation of minorities at ad agencies. Does PwC do anything to encourage diversity with its agencies?

A. Within our procurement organization, we have an individual who is solely focused on what we refer to as “supplier diversity.” We look at diversity every time we consider any new service provider, including a marketing or advertising agency. We scope out organizations to see if they have the diversity we are looking for and whether we want to be associated with them. I can tell you that our clients are doing the same thing. They’re looking for us to bring diverse teams to their organizations -- teams that reflect their own diversity and bring innovative solutions to the table.

Q. What are some of the initiatives that PwC has employed to attract and retain diverse professionals?

A. We focus on three main areas: recruitment and early success; development and advancement; and cultural dexterity for all our people. Initially, our main focus was on attracting a diverse group of individuals. While we have come a long way in that area, a big part of our strategy now is retaining and advancing our talented diverse professionals. That’s because when people see you have diversity at every level, your company becomes more attractive to them.

Fifteen years ago, we had to spend a lot more time identifying candidates and talking to them about the opportunities at PwC and the cultural dexterity we develop in all our people. Today, we have a number of great recruiting programs, including eXplore, which is targeted at colleges and universities. We usually start our recruiting process in a student’s junior or senior year, but now we’re targeting freshmen and sophomores. We’re not only exposing them to the accounting profession and to the firm, but also using a lot of our programming on campus to help them develop their skills. Now, there’s something in it for them, and that’s attractive.

Another program we offer to college students is called “Start.” It’s a semester of discovery for diverse students -- typically between their freshman and sophomore years -- to further their professional and technical skills. We put them into a summer internship program, where they work with many different groups within our infrastructure team and interact with our client service folks. If they decide to pursue a career in professional services, we invite them to return for a client-service internship. It’s all about exposure. And a lot of individuals we target are from underrepresented minority groups.

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