Cutting a Path for Diversity

Amity Millhiser, PwC US’s vice chair and chief clients officer, came up in the firm through the M&A division. M&A has never been a gender-diverse industry, she said, describing going into meeting rooms with about 20 bankers and lawyers who were all male. “We would have these working groups and I could never remember anyone’s name.” It was easy for them to learn hers, though, because she was the only woman.

Yet a situation like that has its advantages, said Millhiser: When you’re the only diverse person, “you can bet everybody’s going to remember you.”

A self-described advocate for women in leadership, Millhiser was named one of the California Diversity Council’s Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Technology in 2015 and one of Silicon Valley’s Women of Influence in 2012. She is also a 30-plus-year veteran of PwC. Millhiser shared leadership wisdom and career advice at a recent Wharton talk sponsored by the Wharton Leadership Lecture Series and McNulty Leadership Program.

Another advantage to being “first” or “only” in an organization is that you have the chance to make your own rules, Millhiser said. She became the first female partner in her division in 1995 and was the first to have children. There was no maternity leave policy in place, so Millhiser created one.

“It comes down to dress code, behaviors, policies — you have the opportunity to be there and to set the stage…. That’s fantastic. Most people have to follow whatever has come before them,” she said. (About the maternity leave policy, she quipped, “I should have been far more generous. Everybody after me got stuck with the one I wrote.”)

There are various ways one can be seen as different, Millhiser said. For example, she experienced being an expatriate American, working for 17 years in PwC’s Switzerland office. She was the founding partner there of PwC’s Center of Excellence for US/European cross-border deals. She strongly endorsed the idea of taking a position that involves living abroad, calling it one of the greatest experiences of her life.

“Take the risk, do not over-analyze it. Do not try to think about how it’s going to contribute to your career…. You cannot calculate [exactly] what the return [will be].” Millhiser said when she started PwC’s deals team in Switzerland, M&A was not as attractive a prospect as it is today. “I will tell you at that time we didn’t even have a business. I didn’t even know what I was building,” she said. But someone asked her if she could do it, and she said yes.

“Take the risk [of living abroad], do not over-analyze it. Do not try to think about how it’s going to contribute to your career… You cannot calculate [exactly] what the return [will be].”

Moreover, working on projects abroad is invaluable for becoming an effective leader in today’s global work environments, she said. A former market managing Partner for PwC’s Silicon Valley practice, she noted that half of that office’s staff was from countries all over the world.

“To be able to lead, motivate and inspire teams, you have to understand where they came from. You can’t be tone-deaf to the environments they go home to at night, to the families that they’ve been raised in.” That kind of awareness comes through travel, according to Millhiser.

And if you go with position abroad, don’t spend all your time with the other American ex-pats, she said. Experience the local culture. She described witnessing a uniquely Swiss holiday in Zurich, the Sechselauten, or Spring Festival, during which a giant wooden snowman is built and ritually burned. A fast burning rate is said to foretell good summer weather. “People love to know that you’re connecting with their holidays,” Millhiser noted.

Staying Human as Technology Proliferates

Now a Silicon Valley resident, Millhiser described herself as “a huge believer in technology,” and she  contributes monthly to Forbes on the topic of digital transformation. But she also emphasized the human side of business.

Wharton management professor Stephanie Creary, who interviewed Millhiser, quoted from one of her columns: “It’s critical we remember the importance of empathy and relationships in business because humans will always be motivated by how they feel.” Asked Creary: “How do you think about and position this against the digital transformation era?”

Technology enables a lot of things, Millhiser responded. It enables us to be more productive and efficient; to spend less time doing the things we don’t want to do. In fact, it frees people up to spend more time with one another. “But we need to do that,” she said.

The more we use technology, the more important the non-technology parts of our jobs are, she continued. One-to-one interactions are taking on more importance because there are fewer of them. Millhiser said she spends almost all of her time with clients, and that having human communication and empathy skills is “super important.” With clients, one needs to “really listen to the positive and negative feedback” and respond accordingly.

“To be able to lead, motivate, and inspire teams, you have to understand where they came from. You can’t be tone-deaf to the environments they go home to at night, to the families that they’ve been raised in.”

In-person interactions are also key to nurturing strong teams. “You’ll only be successful in your career if you can build good teams around you, or you will always be an individual player and there will be a limit to what you can scale.” The best team-builders, she said, are people who create “a connection and engagement point.”

In Millhiser’s view, companies should be cultivating both digital and people skills in their employees, but many tend to split those functions. “I worry that we’ve gone down a route where we’ve said to people, you’re either going to be a liberal arts major or you’re going to be a software engineer… you can’t possibly do both.” She noted that she first entered the accounting field from a non-STEM background, English literature. “I acknowledge I am a much stronger communicator. I don’t even know how to program…. But challenging everyone to have both [types of skills] is really important.”

Operationalize Diversity and Inclusion

Returning to her diversity theme and offering some career advice, Millhiser said that the best companies to work for have a strong commitment to diversity. Firms need to “operationalize” diversity and inclusion so it extends far beyond the HR function and is embedded at the leadership level. One of the metrics she applies to her own leaders annually is the extent to which they are filling their succession plans with diverse, qualified people.

She talked about one of PwC’s major diversity initiatives, CEO Action, to which she said 550 CEOs have signed onto so far. Leaders commit to conducting unconscious bias training in their organizations; to having open conversations about diversity and inclusion in the workplace; and to sharing three initiatives on the CEO Action website that have either worked or not worked in their companies so that others can benefit.

Creary noted that PwC has a partnership with professor Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychologist known for her work on implicit bias in relation to race, gender and sexual orientation. PwC is developing a suite of tools, such as brief two- to five-minute videos, which help employees recognize unconscious bias situations when they occur. “I think you guys are doing some fantastic top-line work in integrating science along with the practices you are encouraging in your community,” Creary told Millhiser.

At the talk, Millhiser was joined by Elena Richards, PwC’s minority initiatives and talent management leader, who described a CEO Action initiative called the Day of Understanding. It took place last December and was spurred by a tragic, controversial event that brought issues from the national stage home to PwC. A few weeks earlier, a young African-American PwC accountant, Botham Jean, was shot dead in his Dallas apartment by a white police officer who said she thought she had entered her own apartment.

Richards recounted how many organizations that had joined the CEO Action coalition reached out to Tim Ryan, PwC’s U.S. chairman, and said, “we feel your pain, it could have been one of our employees.” Some of those companies participated in the Day of Understanding at their firms, with PwC helping to fund those efforts.

As a result of this initiative, Richards said, thousands of employees had a conversation that day about difference. Ground rules were set, but no one was allowed to opt out. “There were probably more tears in the firm than I’ve ever experienced…. People were very emotional.” Richards believes that although PwC is “still working at” achieving full workplace diversity and inclusion, the CEO Action coalition is a step in the right direction.

In Millhiser’s view, a company that doesn’t prioritize diversity isn’t an ideal place for anyone to work, whether or not they belong to an underrepresented minority. “A company that doesn’t really believe in it will not have strong mentoring, like day-to-day mentoring programs. It really won’t look after their leaders [or] give you the kind of training and education you need.”

Especially for those early on in their careers, she said, “the principles, values and integrity of [a company’s] leaders matters…. It really, really matters to who you will become.”

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