Date posted: 01/12/2016 8 min read

PwC Australia CEO Luke Sayers on leadership challenges

Luke Sayers FCA discusses adversity, diversity and leadership for the future

In brief

  • Sayers became PwC Australia CEO in 2012 and is passionate about diversity
  • He has appointed an external diversity advisory board of indigenous, women, Asian and LGBTI leaders
  • He believes Australia must reform education and take an active leadership role in Asia

Photography by David Silva 

“I can talk about my screw-ups all day,” says Luke Sayers, CEO of PwC Australia with a chuckle. We are discussing our unconscious biases. We all have them even if we don’t like to admit it.

“One that lots of women are calling me on is the action-based language I sometimes use.”

His talk about “hard charging” and “figuring out ways to break through the barriers” isn’t getting results.

“Just an hour ago, one female leader quite rightly told me, ‘Luke, that’s very masculine language that just doesn’t work for me or most women’.”

Since taking over the helm of PwC in 2012, Sayers hasn’t been afraid to tackle other issues of company culture that he thinks aren’t working. On his arrival he banned staff meetings between 10am and 4pm to boost productivity and create a more client-centric environment.

Last July he welcomed 64 new partners to the firm. While happy with the talent, he is openly disappointed with the gender split. 

Currently only 17 per cent of partners at PwC are women. Like Deloitte and KPMG, PwC has now introduced targets.

At PwC the split is 40:40:20 for future partner intakes; with a minimum of 40 per cent women, 40 per cent men and the remaining 20 per cent of either gender. The company is also aiming to increase the cultural diversity of partners to 30 per cent by 2020.


We are sitting in the boardroom in the PwC Sydney office and, as if to emphasise the point, each chair around the table is a different bold bright colour. While global research now indicates the compelling fiscal arguments for diversity and difference, Sayers has a personal motivation. He puts this down to having a child with a disability, having four daughters and because ”creating an equal playing field is the right thing to do”.

Two days after his daughter Alexandra was born, Luke and wife Cate, found out she had Down Syndrome.

“This has guided me profoundly. I think adversity and overcoming shocks in life create people… This takes time, it takes learning, it takes changing belief patterns that you used to have. You work your way through to seeing and believing and respecting that you’ve got an amazing person who has unlimited potential. I feel very fortunate to learn and grow as Alexandra learns and grows.”

While he hopes his passion from the top will make a difference to the 6,500 colleagues he must bring with him, he’s quick to emphasise that “people are motivated by different things.” Some to do the right thing, others by what will earn a dollar or help the brand.

For real change and real inclusiveness to take place, especially in the face of “diversity fatigue”, targets aren’t enough. In April, Sayers appointed an external diversity advisory board made up of indigenous, women, Asian and LGBTI leaders, and former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes. The company is now rolling out a series of accountable measures such as a gender pay audit, metrics and targets that are aligned with partners’ personal plans, and an all-roles flex approach.

Sayers admits that his 10am-4pm mantra backfired.

It took some time, he admits, to recognise that he needed to shift his mind-set to encompass a more flexible work environment.

We don’t know what we don’t know. We all have unconscious bias and the smallest things can create the biggest negative perception or impact.

Targets not quotas

This may have influenced why PwC has introduced targets not quotas: to ensure the tone isn’t one of regulation “because if it’s legally driven it will go underground. People just won’t have those conversations”.

Sayers is the first to admit that these conversations are hard. As part of the programme of change, the advisory board is mentoring him and his executive team; and all partners will then have this inclusive leadership training.

“Because we don’t know what we don’t know. We all have unconscious bias and the smallest things can create the biggest negative perception or impact.”

So, what’s another he can name? He thinks about this. “I thought it wasn’t a leadership trait if people with Asian backgrounds didn’t speak up. So I’d be thinking, why is this individual sitting through an entire meeting and not saying anything? The reason being, in most Asian cultures, until people are asked to come forward, out of respect, they won’t. In my head, it was that they weren’t adding value, not being a big enough leader. Instead it was all about me inviting him or her to participate.”

Stoking the pipeline

Like other professional service firms, the challenge lies in not only securing new female admits at partner level but stoking the pipeline — and giving them the extra 10 per cent to excel.

“If we just get women into the partnership and then they fail, you’re almost worse than not doing it at all. You kill the confidence of the new female partner. The cultural terrorists turn on you and say, I told you so. And the organisation doesn’t get the benefit which is to create magic through difference.”

Currently the company is losing “too many women in and around the transition to manager,” says Sayers.

“We basically need to flow the 40:40:20 from the partner to the director to the senior manager to the manager.”

Sayers is a great believer that today’s problems can be resolved through difference — of mind-set, technical and industry skill set, and global knowledge. Not only in PwC but also across the country. A vocal critic of previous governments, Sayers is cautiously optimistic about the new Prime Minister.

“Malcolm has started very well… The challenge will be, can he build that into sustainable change? I think he’ll have one hell of a go and I think he has lots of courage and perseverance. A big part is how does he bring the country with him? He needs Australia to understand why… We’ve missed that narrative — the vision of the country, where we are going, why we need to change.”

Sayers has no doubt that if Australia fails to embrace innovation, introduce education reform and take an active leadership role in Asia, “we will fail as a country.”

What’s needed is the same “have-a-go, can-do, equality for everyone attitude” that he’s looking for among his staff.

“This goes back to diversity and inclusion.”

And it’s not all down to the government.

“It’s my responsibility as a business leader and it’s all our leaders — political, corporate, family, religious, not-for-profit and union leaders — who’ve got a role to play.”

Being an authentic leader

Sayers joined PwC in 1991, took a four-year secondment to the firm’s Washington office in 1996, becoming an Australian partner in 2001 before taking leadership roles to become National Managing Partner in 2010. He’s also a Male Champion of Change — a coalition of high profile men of power and influence working to achieve change on gender equality issues in organisations and communities.

For Sayers, leadership is about being genuine and having humility.

“Not thinking you have to be something you’re not.”

And who is the biggest influence on his life?

There is a long pause. He sighs audibly and tears up. “Sorry it’s a bit of an emotional one, my Dad passed away four weeks ago. It would probably be the combination of Mum and Dad, my wife Cate and Alexandra. That push and prod, support and whack, and love — yeah, they make you who you are. I think life probably teaches you more than anything.”

He pauses, lost again for words.

As part of the family’s commitment to trying out new experiences, his family has currently relocated to Italy for a year so the four girls can live “in a totally different environment to the Hawthorne bubble”, he laughs.

Meanwhile he’ll be “hard at work baking the accountability” for the new targets into the various businesses of the organisation.

“With all due respect — and I’m one of them — white Anglo men don’t have all the answers to everything in Australia, with our clients and to the world. So how do we create greater difference to find those answers? I’m looking at this as an opportunity. This is not a nice to have, this is a must have.”

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.