From CA to Chief Digital Officer: How Manpreet Singh Ahuja drives PwC India through the waves of digital transformation

  • Meet Manpreet Singh Ahuja, a chartered accountant (CA), Partner, and Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at PwC India.
  • Manpreet joined PwC as a CA fresher, went through the ranks, and eventually became part of the leadership team of the firm.
  • In his role he leads PwC India through the next wave of digital transformation by driving the firm’s bold ambition of disrupting its traditional business model, offering a differentiated experience to clients and teams, and building a digital culture to drive citizen-led innovation.
  • As part of the Digital Transformation Series powered by DELL Technologies, we spoke to Manpreet to understand his journey as CDO in this technology-driven world of business.

Can you go back in time and tell us why you decided to become a CA? Was it always a career plan?

My generation only had two real options - engineering and medicine. People frowned when a high performer would opt for Commerce.

Growing up, I used to read business magazines and I would get excited reading articles featuring CEOs, CFOs and always aspired to walk the corporate hallways and be amidst the boards.

When it was time to pursue a career path, I had the impression that engineering was not necessarily the fast and exciting route to get to a corporate boardroom and so I chose Commerce.

(I was mistaken, the world has changed and in today’s day and age engineering is a very solid foundation for practically anything under the sun.)

I spoke to many people around me and in my exploration, I figured out that CA was perfect for me because it offered a good blend of academics and practical work experience at a young age.

At the young age of 19, I was doing my articleship and getting to work with large listed companies across different sectors. Here I learnt how different businesses and functions operate with hands-on experience on various commercial aspects...since then there has been no turning back! 

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Was PwC your first role? How did you become a Partner at such a young age?

As a fresh CA, it was a dream come true to work with the Global Risk Management Solutions group at PwC in 2002.

To work with the best of teams and clients was a humbling experience. I started enjoying the constant run on the treadmill....moving from one project to another…one client to another…re-skilling myself to be relevant at all times.

In about 10 years, I became a Risk Consulting Partner. I will be honest, I had this crazy ambition of becoming a fast track partner and in 10 years I made it!

It was a very satisfying milestone to have made a Partner, but soon one realized that this was only a platform for unlimited opportunities that lay ahead. It felt like the real journey of self-development, growth, and ambition and it felt like the beginning of a new journey in a new world.

As a Partner, I got an opportunity to run and manage my own books of business, have my own portfolio of clients, groom and grow teams, manage relationships, service delivery, operations, and markets.

In 6 to 7 years of becoming a partner, I was given the opportunity to lead a business unit - I became the Leader of the Risk Assurance Business Unit.

In 2021, the board appointed me as the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) at PwC, India.

Dream, Believe, and Execute has been my secret recipe at PwC.

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How did you transition from Leader of the Risk Business to CDO at PwC India? 

When I became a Leader for the Risk Business at PwC, I got my team of partners and I was managing a 1000 people team - our team consisted of CAs, Engineers, Architects, MBAs, process experts, etc.

As always, my team was excited to make a difference, our ambition of shaping what this business could do, and how we could differentiate ourselves in the market.

As we got into the zone of differentiating ourselves in the market, I realised the importance of technology was playing and the winds of change that were coming in and fast! 

As risk consultants, we give advice, we identify risks, we monitor these, but we don’t take the ownership to manage them. As you get into that zone you can’t operate without technology.

We may be a bunch of CAs, engineers, MBAs, or process experts but at end of the day, these capabilities have to come together to deliver value to clients on a tech platform.

The focus needs to be not just on solving the problem, but on also ensuring that it never occurs again. To name a few, the media sector is facing piracy as the biggest issue. To think of tech-enabled processes that will not only minimize piracy but also fully eliminate it.

Similarly, how can the pharma sector solve for the risk of counterfeit drugs, how can food companies solve for traceability across the entire supply chain? All this needs tech-enabled processes.

The more we got exposed to technology, the more we realize that there are opportunities to address, thus building a unique proposition for our business.

My 19 years at PwC helped me earn trust and credibility as a leader and in 2021; the firm gave me the opportunity to become the Chief Digital Officer.

The mission is clear how do we democratize access to technology for the talent to deliver an improved digital experience to clients along with higher value at a lower cost. The key is to enable this ambition at scale for the entire organization including all businesses and teams.

It was a humbling experience to have gotten this role and I am on a steep learning curve here. I’d say that I am quite lucky to have been given opportunities that push me to excel.

Why a CA in a Digital Transformation Role? Does it mean you are a technologist?

I must say I am not the best technologist; there are smarter ones available. Having said this, we do not need to be technologists to have a far-reaching vision in the role of CDO.

My role is disruption. If a CDO’s aim is to take big and bold disruptive enablement or steps, then disruption is a team sport. In the team sport, one has to have a handshake of two or three capabilities coming together.

Either we can have deep technologists run the base with critical support from a business / commercial mind or vice versa. In my case, I am a business mind who understands the market, with a knowledge of how technology works. However, I am not the best coder, but I can hire one.

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It would be exciting to know what your role as a CDO is?

I lead the firm through the next wave of digital transformation by driving the firm’s bold ambition of disrupting its traditional business model, offering a differentiated experience to clients and teams, and building a digital culture to drive citizen-led innovation through our community of solvers.

To give you a perspective, my role involves internal and external transformation – It basically calls for re-imagining how we can disrupt through technology by creating a future that is led by our community of solvers, powered by technology.

This requires digital upskilling of teams, inculcating innovative mindsets, and having the right technologies in place to drive a culture of micro innovation that will, in turn, help us deliver on our clients’ two-pronged needs of building trust and delivering sustained outcomes.

Goes without saying my day job includes a lot of strategy building, a fair amount of change management, building many business cases backed by technology.

I would say the role gives me the opportunity to dream.

Literally speaking I have to go back and think about what the firm is doing. both internally and externally. In addition, how is it that technology can deliver quantum value for its clients and communities?

To give you a perspective, my role involves internal and external transformation – It calls for re-imagining how we can disrupt through technology.

Is there a difference between the CTO, CIO, and CDO?

Roles can vary from one company to another.

If I put it simply, companies that have an inherently strong engineering footprint with technology at the heart of everything they do, there will be a Chief Technology Officer (CTO). This role has elements of hardcore infrastructure and technology coming into play.

On the other hand, a Chief Information Officer (CIO) plays a role in leveraging those technologies and systems and creating insights for the organisation.

Lastly, a CDO is like the osmosis membrane between technological advancements that exist in the market and what the organisation needs.

Essentially, a CDO is no technologist, but a businessperson trying to make a business impact by leveraging technology and emerging a cloud ecosystem.

Some organisations can have all three of them, thus allowing the CDO to work with the CTO and CIO to deliver net business impact to the ground.

Technology is rapidly advancing; how do you stay up to date? Are you always upskilling yourself?

In a world of rapid change, technology, risks, and business models are also changing. Thus, people need to constantly upskill themselves to keep up with the rapid changes.

Having said that, I registered for MIT Sloan School of Management’s executive program a couple of years before my appointment as CDO. The program was around design thinking to reimagine other non-linear and unconventional problem-solving techniques.

As I got into the role of CDO, I did a curriculum around digital strategies for business from Columbia Business School.

The certifications came in handy and they gave me time to reflect and adapt the learnings to my clients’ environment.

I keep my team technologically updated by making them aware that yesterday’s dreams are today’s reality. Application of the use cases in a business world through digital acumen is vital.

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What sort of organizational cultural changes do you think are required to bring about digital transformation adoption?

In any digital transformation, one needs to dream and then enable. The real impact will come when the whole organisation begins to start adopting that enablement.

To drive the adoption, we need to deliver a culture change where the organisation at a large scale believes in what the CDO is doing.

The forefront of the culture change is through upskilling. This is because the organisation cannot obtain quantum leaps without a certain level of Digital IQ.

Lastly, climbing from CA fresher to partner and then CDO – what is your advice to CAs?

For CA or finance aspirants, there are two parts of our career:

  1. Don’t let depth and expertise be a bottleneck broadening your horizons. At some stage, convert depth into breadth. Keep learning.
  2. Never hesitate to dream, for even the greatest walls are from the ground. When I look back at my career, I feel it is the ability to dream and bringing lots of energy behind the dreams that made a big difference. Never hesitate in sharing your dreams and seeking help from seniors and peers and equally important to have diverse teams engaged, inspired, and excited. Then there is no stopping.

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