Few people decide in their mid-fifties that they want to become an accountant. The hundreds of hours of study required would be daunting for anyone, let alone someone whose day job is running a $23bn-revenue global consulting business.
Yet last year, Mohamed Kande sat the US CPA exam and passed. That earned him a professional licence he would need if he wanted to rise to the role of US senior partner at PwC, where he currently leads the Big Four firm’s global advisory business and is co-head of its US consulting practice.
This week, it turned out he didn’t need the qualification. The electrical engineer turned management consultant is skipping a step and has been selected not as US chief, for which the CPA licence is required, but as PwC’s next global chair.
Kande’s victory was a surprise to some. Tim Ryan, PwC’s current US senior partner, had been widely seen as the favourite to win the top global job, but he withdrew from the race last month.
Kande’s elevation marks the first time PwC has picked someone from the firm’s consulting side, rather than from audit or tax, which still account for most of PwC’s $53bn in annual revenue.
His selection, which must still be ratified by local member firms, is also a breakthrough moment for the industry: Kande would be the first black leader of a Big Four firm when he formally takes on the role next July.
In 2021, at the urging of his daughter, Kande wrote about the challenge and opportunity his race has posed in his career, in a 1,000-word essay on LinkedIn that set out his unique life story.
He grew up in Ivory Coast, with a mother who was half Lebanese and a family that was part Catholic, part Muslim. At 16, he moved on his own to continue his schooling in France, which he wrote “was not always an inclusive place” in the 1980s, citing “encounters with far-right extremists and random ID checks for Black and Brown people”.
After graduate school in Montreal, he found his way to the US for a job at Motorola, helping roll out new wireless networks around the world. Now an American citizen, he described the initial difficulty of adjusting to working in English. “In meetings, I comprehended about half of what was being said,” he wrote of those early days. Today, some PwC leaders still say they must concentrate to understand his French accent.
Language was not his only barrier. A colleague at a Fortune 500 company once told him he was the first black person she had ever had a conversation with. But Kande says his diverse background is what makes him determined to seek out different perspectives on a problem. Colleagues agree.
“He does not come with a pre-determined view like people who come from a single country or single culture,” says Nicki Wakefield, clients and markets leader in PwC’s global advisory business. “There are lots of people who ask questions and solicit insights and then still stick to what they are doing. He is a learn-it-all, not a know-it-all.”
Kande’s LinkedIn essay had a powerful effect inside PwC, says Paul Terrington, European head of consulting, who interviewed Kande about it for an internal video. It “knocked down misperceptions about who can be a leader in our firm”, he said, not just because of Kande’s cultural background but also because he had not spent his whole career at PwC.
Kande was the managing partner for Europe, the Middle East and South Asia at the consulting firm PRTM, a specialist in supply chains and product innovation, when it was acquired by PwC in 2011. In the years since, corporate IT overhauls and supply chain shake-ups have been a boon for the Big Four’s advisory businesses, which have grown in size and power within the firms.
Kande pushed for PwC to take full advantage, flying colleagues for fact-finding missions to discuss the semiconductor industry with Samsung in South Korea, for example, and telling colleagues to read ‘Chip War’, Chris Miller’s book on geopolitical competition in the supply chain. The international travel continued even when an accident doing taekwondo, a sport he learned at age 13, put him in a leg brace for a period last year.
As global chair of the PwC network, Kande will be part businessman, part diplomat. He will be responsible for balancing the interests of locally-owned member firms in 152 countries, some of which had chafed at the idea the chairmanship should automatically go to an American.
Unlike the bosses of most global companies, PwC’s federated structure means he cannot simply order national operations how to act. His in-tray will include repairing the firm’s reputation after a tax scandal in Australia, which prompted his predecessor to take the unusual step of intervening directly in a national firm’s affairs.
He will also need to push PwC to compete harder in the technology consulting market, where its larger rivals Deloitte and Accenture have invested heavily.
At the same time, Kande may need to reassure those who worry that his consulting background could lead him to deprioritise other parts of the business. PwC audits about a quarter of the world’s largest companies, and investors rely on it to do a good job. Audit regulators in the US and elsewhere are taking a harder line against the Big Four.
Kande’s accounting qualification may not be a requirement for the global role, but it might provide some of that reassurance, say colleagues. “I’m always impressed when people invest in themselves, even as experienced leaders,” said Terrington. “I expect it will be an asset to him in the role.”