Growing up in El Paso, Texas, Maria Moats dreamed of leaving “to see the bigger world.”
“When you think about people from El Paso, most of the people look like me,” Moats said. “We’re Mexican-American and many of us first generation.”
After graduating from the University of Texas at El Paso she made her way to New York, joining global professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in 1994.
Moats is a licensed CPA in Texas, New Jersey and New York. “We’ll see where I go next,” she said. “It’s when I started to move for work — the different assignments, etc. — that I started to see that the world is bigger than the town that I knew.”
Ten years after joining PwC, Moats made partner, and a year ago she was named its chief diversity officer. When Bob Moritz, PwC’s chairman and senior partner, first approached her about the role, she said her immediate reaction was “How can I not do this?”
In her role as CDO, Moats sees herself leading by example — a Mexican-American mother of two who also has a successful career. “If we can just replicate that experience over and over and over again — that’s what I tell my partners — think about what we’re creating here,” she said.
Jennifer Allyn, managing director in the office of diversity at PwC, echoed this idea. “She’s an example of when things go really right in terms of she’s a first-generation Mexican-American, was the first in her family to go to college, came to PwC, and people immediately recognized her talent and hard work,” Allyn said. “Her vision is to make that happen more consistently throughout the firm.”
CDOs at PwC have a relatively short span of time to achieve such goals — they take on the role for two or three years before rotating into another position. This means the diversity function at PwC receives regular infusions of fresh perspective. “Our chief diversity officers really are not human capital specialists per se,” Moats said. “We come out of the line.”
Allyn’s role is to ensure consistency and progress as partners rotate in and out. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to get new thinking and new leadership and to have a partner really talk to his or her partners about why diversity is important, but the worst-case scenario would be if we started over every two to three years,” she said. “I’m here to provide continuity in terms of running the function, and I happen to be a subject-matter expert in gender and GLBT issues.”
The CDO rotation is also a great opportunity for PwC’s partners. As CDO, a partner becomes one of 14 on the firm’s U.S. leadership team. “Our senior partners [are] demonstrating that they’re in many ways sponsoring this individual,” Moats said.
But CDOs at PwC don’t guide its diversity strategy as much as they run with it. “Every one of us comes in knowing that we have the baton. We have the strategy, we can obviously change and tweak the strategy, but big picture it’s the same strategy,” Moats said. “It’s about the execution. It’s about working collaboratively with our line of service leaders, the market and our people; making sure that we’re all doing our part to diversify the partnership.”
PwC’s diversity strategy is built around three priorities:
1. Make sure diverse talent has early success strategies. “Someone like myself has the opportunity to have the right mentoring, and we actually have terrific programs when you first walk in the door for our diverse talent; here’s what you can expect from corporate America,” Moats said.
2. Diversify leadership. Moats said she focuses on not just increasing the number of women and minorities in the firm’s partnership but also asking critical questions, such as: How are they leading within the partnership? Are they serving PwC’s largest and most important accounts? Are they leading in its markets and lines of business?
3. Engender cultural dexterity. PwC defines this as the ability to work with people and understand them for who they really are; it’s not necessarily about trying to find similarities with people. “In a global world that we are now, if you or the leader cannot work effortlessly across the globe understanding cultures [and] leading?diverse teams, then we believe you will not be successful,” she said.
According to Moats, Moritz serves as an advocate for this overall diversity strategy. “He makes sure that diversity is at the table,” she said. “That’s important because the CEO or senior partner sets the tone, and if he’s talking about it, partners are listening. Bob is very good about communicating our successes around diversity.”
Moats can point to some key demographics in PwC’s partner population to demonstrate these successes. In 2001, PwC’s partners were 12 percent female and 5 percent minority. Eleven years later, they are 17 percent female and 8 percent minority. “That’s the right trend directionally,” she said, crediting strides in engagement and retention for these increases.
From there, PwC looks outward to engage clients in various communities in day-long events called diversity leadership forums. “We had one in New York, and we had one in D.C. last year,” Moats said. “The idea is to touch CDOs and their direct reports and the diversity leaders at our clients and non-clients to have a conversation about diversity.”
From these forums, PwC learned that diversity doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing for every company, nor is it practiced the same way. “When you think about the journey of diversity, every company’s in a different place, and we can certainly share back and forth best practices,” Moats said.
By the same token, a journey of diversity is not the same for every minority group or even subsets of those groups. Allyn said Moats’ vested interest in PwC’s Latino strategy highlights this. “Latino identity is not just one element or one shared experience because people have such different experiences based on what country they’ve immigrated from and what generation they are in terms of when they came to America,” Allyn said.
She said this is a rich area for exploration and discussion, and this diversity of experience can be seen in Moats’ own family life. “I actually married someone who is not Mexican-American,” Moats said. “He’s a terrific guy from the Midwest. I joke with him that he fell in love with my exotic looks.”
Moats and her husband Brett have a 5-year-old son, Quinton, and an adopted daughter, Alayna, who is African-American, Hispanic and white. “We are a multicultural family,” she said. “It’s been terrific even for my extended family to bring in somebody like Brett [who] loves our culture and really has gotten a lot out of it. Alayna was the first child in my entire extended family to be adopted.”
Moats’ adoption provided PwC with an opportunity to dialogue with its employees about what it offers in terms of flexible scheduling and other accommodations that allow working mothers to balance family and a career. “When you find out about your benefits, it’s very chilly and bureaucratic and technical or administrative, and so we really have been trying to add the benefit of storytelling,” Allyn said. “We did a big feature on Maria and her adoption and what her experience was, and it’s just been heartwarming to hear all the feedback we got from the firm from other parents and people who did adopt or are planning to adopt.”
According to Moats, PwC’s flexible scheduling is a big part of the reason she’s been able to remain in the workforce while raising a family. “That’s very important for a woman — I can share that with you as a working mom — making sure that you have the flexibility to do what you need to do when you need to do it to be present with your family,” she said.
Moats also credits PwC’s mentorship program for her success. She said the firm thinks its people should go beyond mentorship to actual sponsorship of high-potential talent, and that this can boost diversity. “We need to advocate for giving everybody the right opportunities at the right time, making sure that when we’re thinking about succession planning on our largest accounts or opportunities to lead within the firm, we don’t just pick the person we happen to know; that as sponsors we broaden our own lens,” she said.
Again, Moats’ own experience serves as an example. Starting with the firm in the 1990s, she didn’t have the option of finding someone of her sex and ethnic background to serve as her advocate while rising through the ranks. “If I was going to wait around for a role model that was Hispanic and female, I would have waited for a while back then,” she said. “Instead, I saw that people took interest in me. They happened to be white males or females; several much older than I was, a few generations ahead of me. But what they had, which was important, is they cared about me — they cared about my success.”
Now two decades into her career, Moats continues to take an innovative approach to mentorship. At her own request, she has a reverse mentor; a mentor much younger than her in a subordinate position. “She spends time talking to me about how she sees the firm from her view,” Moats said, adding that she finds this perspective invaluable, as she still regularly supervises younger employees in leading audits.
Moats shared how becoming a partner at PwC eight years ago led her to begin thinking about how she’d make her mark on the firm. “When you make partner in the firm it’s a very important day,” she said. The company stages an event for all new partners called New Partner Experience. “You get to go with your fellow new partners and spend?almost a week really thinking about what it means to be a partner and about your legacy.”
Moats’ goals were simple — to serve as a leader at PwC and inspire its people — and the CDO role has allowed her to solidify that legacy. Going forward, Moats said she will continue to focus on succession planning to grow the diversity of PwC’s partners and employees in other leadership positions. “Obviously to do that, we need to make sure that we’re grooming these diverse partners to be successful in those roles,” she said. “If you ask me what I get up thinking about, often it’s exactly that; making sure that I’m having those conversations with the line-of-service leaders, leaders for the assurance practice, for the tax practice and for the advisory practice.”
As for her own journey of diversity, Moats points to her young children to illustrate how she now inhabits the bigger world beyond El Paso. “They’re going to school here now,” she said. “Who’s to say that they’ll go to college in the United States? Who’s to say that they’ll actually start their first job in the United States? I’m making sure that my own children see the world not only from what they see but how big it is and what’s out there for them.”
Daniel Margolis is managing editor of Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at dmargolis@Diversity-Executive.com.