Fostering A Culture of Excellence: An Interview With Mike Fenlon

As a global consulting leader whose success depends on client trust, PwC puts a high value on talent with passion, grit and vision. From the vantage point of an extraordinarily lengthy career at the company, Mike Fenlon talked with The HR Digest about how PwC’s “reimagining the possible” motto has helped forge an outstanding performance culture.

Interview With Mike Fenlon

Mike Fenlon PwC Global HR Leader

Interview With Mike Fenlon

The HR Digest: PwC is said to have a passionate work culture fit for the industry’s most driven workers. To what extent is that down to a successful ‘Culture of Innovation?’

Mike Fenlon: We are a purpose-led and values-driven organization. One of our values, “reimagining the possible,” is at the heart of our culture and is an obvious imperative in the digital innovation economy of the 21st century. We’ve invested $3 billion to transform our services, build new product development groups that are building products such as a Digital Fitness app for re-skilling, and a recent app for COVID-19 Contact Tracing – and deliver value to our employees, clients and communities.

Fostering A Culture of Excellence

However, innovation is not just about the investment – it’s a form of continuous learning, upskilling and the novel application of new tools and knowledge, requiring a culture of empowerment. While many view this term as “management jargon,” it goes beyond encouraging people to speak up and share ideas. Empowerment includes equipping employees with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to be successful.

Diversity & Inclusion is at the heart of our citizen-led innovation culture so all employees can contribute their ideas, to have a voice, and to be fully engaged. We built a platform called “digital lab” which is a mechanism by which all employees can go to crowdsource, assess ideas and drive quality assurance with rapid scaling. We have leaderboards and recognition for contributors and users of this lab. 

The overarching goal is for our people to be empowered to solve important problems both at PwC and with clients. We also want them to use their innovative skillset to address the urgent needs in our society, especially in areas that support inclusion and equity for all people.

Can you tell The HR Digest readers how the cultural initiatives promote change within the company in practical terms?

We believe that to be your best at work, you need to embrace practices that energize you and be your best self at home and in your community. That’s why we launched Be Well, Work Well long before the pandemic and it has become even more important. Part of that effort is for each team to create a plan for how they will manage their energy and well-being.

These types of activities help create a culture where our people are encouraged to bring their best selves to work, have a sense of belonging and are supported through policies of flexibility and consciously working to better physical, mental, spiritual, financial and emotional well-being.

Mike Fenlon PwC Quote

Our innovative benefits packages are leading in the business world along with employee resources that include flexible work arrangements and unprescribed sick time. We were among the first companies to provide a student loan paydown benefit in the US, which for example disproportionately impacts Black students, and to date we’ve paid nearly $40 million of student debt for our people.

We’ve also been able to adapt quickly throughout the pandemic and provide employees with enhanced benefits based on their unique situation. For example, we increased our back-up dependent care reimbursement program limit from $1,000 to $2,000 twice when COVID-19 first began, and again to offset the cost of emergency back-up child/family care no matter if the care comes from an agency, a friend or a family member.

It can be used for child, spouse and adult/elder care when your usual care provider is not available. We are also offering new tools for families working with kids at home, new virtual mental health resources and coaching as well as a range of flexible work arrangements.

HR as a business partner or HR as a business driver?

Our People team at PwC are members of our business leadership teams in driving the strategy forward both for the long- and short-term. Now, more than ever, HR functions have an opportunity to accelerate talent strategies that support a culture of diversity and inclusion at all levels, accelerate innovation and adaptive change – and we advise clients in their Workforce of the Future.

A timely example of this is the adoption of remote work arrangements and flexibility. Digital transformation of processes and service delivery is essential, including talent acquisition, onboarding and learning & development. These are enablers for driving speed, value and lower cost for clients. We are also building a vision and strategy for the future of work, incorporating insights from our experience during this pandemic.

Finally, the development of inclusive leadership skills is the essential leadership attribute for the 21st century, and understanding what that means in the context of virtual collaboration and relationship building.

How is PwC responding to COVID-19 crisis? What are your top priorities as you navigate through this crisis?

As a leadership team, we’ve committed to be guided by our purpose and values. In the response to COVID-19 that means prioritizing safety and well being, and supporting our clients in a period of massive disruption. We also told our people that we will only consider laying off employees as a last resort. We knew that grasping to protect profits this year may force us to lose out in both the short and long run by sacrificing our culture, values and innovation.

The health and safety of our people has always been a top priority at PwC, and throughout the pandemic that commitment has remained. We are actively listening to our people, remain transparent and are pivoting quickly to address urgent needs. Specifically, we have increased our support in areas like well-being resources, caregiver support, flexible work arrangements, and the tools and support to work remotely.

What is one leadership practice you wish to start as we buckle up for the new normal?

Inclusive leadership is essential. Inclusive leaders create belonging, support all voices being heard in meetings (especially virtual ones!), build trust and deliver the best team outcomes. None of us should feel we’re going through this situation alone. These new circumstances can be stressful and make people feel uneasy for so many reasons.

With all the uncertainty, inclusive leadership also means displaying empathy and building personal connections by taking a moment to celebrate small wins, opening up and sharing a personal story or some humor will help the team recharge. Respecting the need for down-time and flexibility helps build trust and foster a culture of caring at any time, but is especially important right now – and can enable us to be at our best in times of disruption.

Practicing inclusive leadership and building trust also requires transparency – as an individual leader, and as an organization. For example, we recently released our PwC Diversity and Transparency Report to all our people and the public. We share our strategy, 14 data points and our aspirations. And, finally, inclusive leadership includes recognizing our societal responsibilities.

For example, PwC co-founded and launched CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion – and it’s been a great privilege to work with other business leaders to build more inclusive workplaces – and a more inclusive and equitable economy and society.

What is your personal approach to decision-making? Would you call it more analytical or intuitive?

Working at a professional services firm means that everything is looked at through an analytical lens and data-driven decision making. But I believe the best decisions are made when you take a human-centered approach. By combining data with what your people are telling you matters to them — how they feel — you have a much better chance of meeting their needs and keeping them engaged.

I strive to constantly get input from not just our leaders, but our people, to make sure we are continuously listening – that’s when we get the best outcomes. 

What do you consider your most rewarding experience in professional life?

Nothing tops the opportunity to work with and learn from my amazing colleagues and team members, including those across our global network, which spans 280,000 people and 158 territories. It’s a great privilege for me, and I’m continuously inspired by the work we collectively do. Together, we’re driven to make a difference for all of our people, clients and our society. 

Mike Fenlon Chief People Office, PwC

Mike Fenlon Headshot

As the Global Talent Leader for the PwC network, with offices in 157 countries and more than 276,000 people, Mike drove technology-enabled talent processes to support growth at scale. He founded “Aspire to Lead: PwC’s Global Series on Leadership & Gender Equality,” and led PwC’s Impact Sponsorship of the UN HeForShe initiative.


A version of this interview appeared in the October 2020 issue (p. 54) of The HR Digest. 

Priyansha Mistry
Currently editor at The HR Digest Magazine. She helps HR professionals identify issues with their talent management and employment law. | Priyansha tweets at @PriyanshaMistry

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