Leading at PwC

Managing partner Tracey Riley looks back on her professional development, her leadership philosophy, and building a career with PwC

Tracey Riley is a managing partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) thanks in large part to her perseverance. Riley studied accounting and economics at the University of Waterloo, where a co-op program helped her get a foot in the door. Over a 25-year career, she’s made the most of every opportunity as she’s advanced in the industry by taking roles with increasing responsibilities. The positions have taken her from Canada to the UK and back again. Now, as a managing partner, she’s looking to attract and retain the top talent that will in turn add value and deliver the best possible service to PwC’s evolving client base. Riley recently sat down with Advantage to share what she’s learned about leadership, professional services business, personal growth, and organizational transformation.

You’ve been able to accomplish a lot, and you’ve flourished at every level. How?
I’ve always believed in making the most of every opportunity, whether proving what I could do as part of a co-op program or leading in a foreign country, or working in a new field and industry. I moved from Canada to the UK, from financial services into technology and from assurance into consulting, and learned from each move. You have to be willing to learn new areas, take on new challenges, and be agile to adapt to changing environments and expectations.

“We’re part of the largest assurance network in the world, and we are making significant investments to protect our lead position and serve our clients’ evolving needs and demands.”

How valuable was that original co-op program?
It was huge for me, because I was given the opportunity to work with great people and take on challenging and interesting opportunities early in my career. I was given the chance to prove myself, and the chance to discover if working with a professional services firm was a match for me. It was extremely valuable, and I continue to encourage students to pursue these opportunities today.

Looking back, what’s led to your success?
I come from a very entrepreneurial family that ran a small business, so I had that strong work ethic and entrepreneurial outlook from my early days. Moving into university, the co-op program gave me the opportunity to work in different industries and across different service offerings from assurance to tax to restructuring and due diligence even as a young accounting student. I grew accustomed to responding to a steep learning curve and challenging projects, and I was given the chance to lead during the early phases of my career.

How did your experience in the UK change you?
I was given the opportunity to move out of audit and into computer audit. To do that overseas I had to learn a different country and culture, as well as deepen my capabilities in the technology area. That really allowed me to get some diverse experience and a sense of confidence because I had to reinvent myself in a new place. I was given the opportunity to be involved in the start-up of a new global service offering and through this gained a broader understanding of the breadth of our firm and developed a strong global network. I received tremendous support from the PwC network as I undertook this new challenge, and it showed me a lot about how we add value to our clients and build great careers for our people at PwC.

How did it help you when you moved back to Canada?
That network became invaluable. When I was asked to develop new service offerings or teams, I was able to draw on thought leadership and contacts from around the world. I could seek advice from a broad network, and I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Those professional relationships have played a big part in my continued development.

Now that you’re a managing partner, what do you see as critical to your work?
Agility and transformation. With the constantly evolving geo-political and economic landscape and market disrupters, our clients and ourselves need to be constantly transforming. The public expectations around trust and transparency are increasing, and this provides opportunities and challenges for the assurance business. The global trends support the need for assurance much more broadly than just financial statements. Addressing that growing need for trust to help our clients solve their most important problems is huge. We’re part of the largest assurance network in the world, and we are making significant investments to protect our lead position and serve our clients’ evolving needs and demands.

What does it take to lead in this kind of environment?
It takes a commitment to people. I’m constantly thinking about how we can develop and grow our people. We need to recruit, develop, and retain great people if we are going to continue to bring great value to our clients. We want to be number one with our clients and our people. We’re a people business, and if we’re not attracting the best people, we can’t attract the best clients.

How do you build high-performing teams?
Establish a clear strategy, which is grounded through collaboration with our people and our clients. Gain buy-in to the strategy, and get the right people in place to enable execution. I am a strong listener and value collaboration and enjoy a challenge. I love building great teams. I’ve had great mentors and been part of great teams, and I try to recreate that for those I lead. That helps us serve our clients well.

Other firms are also looking for top talent. How do you compete there?
We are constantly looking at how we recruit, develop, and retain the best people. We know students today are looking for more challenge and diversity than ever before, and we are committed to delivering a differentiated experience for our people from early in the recruiting process, through onboarding, throughout their career both with PwC, and as alumni of PwC. We do very well, but we are constantly looking at how we can do even better.

What do you think it is about your firm that attracts them?
We have a great brand and we offer great career paths. Today’s young people want challenges early, and they want diverse experience in different lines of services. Over the last few years we’ve implemented a number of new initiatives for our co-op students. We have introduced opportunities for them to fast track their careers. For our seniors we have introduced “DR!VE”, which is a concept that allows them to steer their own career and gain experience across lines of service within the firm allowing more diversity in their development. We have a culture of life-long learning at PwC. We are constantly looking to give our staff opportunities to expand their skills and experience and progress their careers.

What’s driving PwC’s growth in Canada?
We have three very strong lines of service at PwC: assurance, tax, and consulting and deals. All are well positioned for growth. From an assurance perspective, our growth over the next few years will be primarily driven by our services in risk assurance and capital markets accounting advisory. From a risk assurance perspective, this includes areas such as internal audit, enterprise risk management, governance risk and controls, cybersecurity, and data analytics. From a capital markets accounting advisory perspective, this includes supporting our clients’ initial public offering and assisting them in the implementation of new accounting regulations like IFRS 9 and 14.

What are your main goals going forward?
We’re well into our three-year growth strategy for the Canadian assurance business.  We are focused on driving market growth and providing increasing value and insights to our clients and a better experience for our people. To enable this, we are investing in transforming our systems and processes and ways for working. By transforming the way we do our audits, we add value to our clients and create a better experience for our people. We have made significant investments at a global level to technology to enable our audit. With the new role that I’ve been asked to take on in PwC’s network as leader of Asia and the Pacific Americas assurance business, I will be looking at how we accelerate our transformation to benefit our clients and our people across our territories. These are exciting times for us, the clients we serve and the assurance professional in general.

What from your earlier career will you draw on to do that?
I’m excited because a lot is coming together. I’ve shown the ability to find a way to effectively collaborate across teams, practice areas, and countries, and I’m excited to do that across a much larger network. In today’s world, we need to share what we do best in certain territories so we can leverage those things across our global network. We need to be quick in adopting and implementing new initiatives across people, approach, and technology—whether they are developed globally or incubated in local territories.  For me, this new role is just another opportunity to add value to our clients and people at PwC. These types of challenges and the teams I have the opportunity to build and work with are what has kept my career challenging and rewarding—and what has kept me at this great firm for so long.