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The secret to retaining a diverse workforce

Carol Sawdye, CFO of PwCCarol Sawdye, CFO of PwC
Carol Sawdye, CFO of PwC

Leadership Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you encourage diversity in the workplace? is written by Carol Sawdye, CFO of PwC.

Last year, my firm recruited a young associate named Jerrell Thompson, a graduate of Sacred Heart University where he was a point guard on the school’s Division I basketball team. Although Jerrell passed up a chance to play professional basketball to work at PwC, he was still able to combine his passion for sports and business: he joined our firm’s basketball team and was recently voted the MVP in PwC‘s network global championship tournament.

He majored in accounting — something too few African Americans do — and was highly motivated to succeed. Today, businesses around the world are counting on millennials like Jerrell to help build our future, because a more diverse talent pool gives a company a competitive edge. One of the ways PwC enforces diversity is by encouraging more black and Latino students to major in accounting and STEM subjects. Another is by engaging in frank and honest conversations about race. Recently, Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments, appeared with PwC‘s U.S. Chairman Bob Moritz to discuss her controversial TED Talks“Color Blind or Color Brave?”

Despite our commitment to diversity and Jerrell’s passion for PwC, he came very close to leaving us for one important reason: his daughter. He was commuting several hours a day to the office and needed to be closer to home. Jerrell is a single father in his early twenties with serious responsibilities. His personal circumstances were making it hard for him to stay at the job he loved — the job he had chosen over pro basketball.

That’s when I met Jerrell, completely by chance. Though Jerrell and I technically work together, it was my good friend John — a writer who lives in New Jersey — who introduced us. John plays basketball in an adult league with Jerrell on weekends and found out he worked for PwC. He immediately connected us via email and encouraged Jerrell to follow up. Jerrell and I chatted and discovered we have a lot in common: we both grew up in New Jersey, we are both certified public accountants (Jerrell recently passed his exam) and we both have deep connections to basketball. (I was previously executive vice president and CFO at the National Basketball Association).

Not long after we met, our firm found a better fit for Jerrell in an office closer to home. This simple adjustment made a huge difference for Jerrell and his family. It also meant we were able to keep him on our Assurance team.

This is not a story about preferential treatment. Most leaders will admit their success has depended in part on support from advocates, coaches, mentors or sponsors at critical points in their careers. When you look different or have different life experiences than the majority — as I did starting out as a woman with C-suite ambitions 30 years ago or as Jerrell does now — having an advocate is a necessity.

Mellody Hobson said that to succeed in today’s global economy, businesses must acknowledge diverse talent pools, understand them and make them part of their strategy. “If you want to survive, this is not a question of, again, the right thing to do. This is a question of a must do,” she said. “If you were trying to solve a really hard problem, the best way to do it is a group of diverse people, including diverse intellect,” Mellody said. “Invite people in your life who don’t look like you, who don’t think like you, who don’t come from where you come from.”

When we recruit diverse professionals, we need to be open and creative about retaining them. That means understanding there’s no longer just one road to success, a road where everyone tries to look and act the same way. It is vital that we make our work environments flexible, inclusive and culturally aware that once our MVPs are in the game, we never want to let them go.