After just a few moments with Cathy Engelbert, it becomes crystal clear that women can have it all. As the CEO Deloitte, she leads the largest professional services organization in the United States with nearly 80,000 professionals. Engelbert not only knows what it is to lean in at the head of the table, she knows how to wield that power.
Since she took office in 2015, Engelbert has grown the accounting and auditing firm successfully in the face of Brexit, “job-stealing robots” (as she described automation recently), and the competition that is nipping at her heels to transform consultancy. That adds up to $17.5 billion in US revenues in the fiscal year ending May 28, 2016. But beyond the dollars and cents, Engelbert’s work has earned her a 94% approval rating among employees and a spot on Glassdoor’s Highest Rated CEOs list this year.
Her secret to success? “Building a team that brings you solutions instead of challenges, listening to and collaborating with them—that ultimately prioritizes your focus on issues where you can have the most impact, not just scratch items off the to do list,” Engelbert tells Glassdoor. “To me, productivity is directly related to the personal relationships you are able to build.”
To summarize Engelbert’s brilliant leadership strategy in one sentence:
“Prioritize people over tasks.”
Engelbert talks to Glassdoor’s Amy Elisa Jackson about the future of work, employee engagement and what she looks for in Deloitte job candidates
Glassdoor: What does leadership mean to you?
Cathy Engelbert: Leadership is a set of choices, not a title or a box on an organizational chart. It means stepping up and being proactive to take on challenges, at any stage of life. To me, it’s about relentlessly pursuing the best interest of our people, clients, and community. And it’s impossible to lead well unless you know what’s on the minds of clients and professionals. So, I spend a lot of time in the in the field with clients and with our teams serving those clients.
Glassdoor: What’s been your most rewarding moment as CEO? Your most challenging?
Cathy Engelbert: One of the most rewarding moments for me was when, nearly a year ago, we announced Deloitte’s Paid Family Leave Program, which allows our employees up to 16 weeks of fully paid family leave to support a range of life events impacting them and their families. We had been studying family leave over the course of last year, and we wanted it to focus on the life cycle of our people, from the moment they join our organization to the day they retire. So, I said we need to have something that is more inclusive than just parental leave. We did analysis after analysis and came up with this inclusive model—a program for women and men for taking care of family members. One of the best messages I got when we announced the program last year was, “I hope I never have to take it, but it gives me peace of mind to know it’s there.” It’s really about how we come together as a Deloitte family to support each other through both the good and hard times.
Instead of calling it the most challenging component of being CEO, I’d say that one of the biggest surprises has been the sheer velocity of business. It’s moving exponentially, faster than anyone could’ve predicted, and we need to be at the forefront helping our clients navigate it in order to keep up and help them differentiate themselves. And this has meant that we’ve had to shift and transform, and that can be challenging with more than 80,000 people.
Glassdoor: What do you do to foster employee trust and engagement?
Cathy Engelbert: On trust, it’s really about authenticity and transparency. We live in a world where people can sense insincerity or corporate-speak from a mile away. Companies and leaders have to be authentic in tone, voice, and action. It’s not just about “saying the right thing” but talking about what matters most to your company and your people, and backing that up with action.
On engagement, it’s about purpose and meaningful work. It’s finding assignments for people that stretch and challenge them, and make a real impact for our clients and our communities. It’s making our people feel entrepreneurial and that they are making a difference. In our organization, you’re literally one phone call away from being able to solve almost any problem that a client could face, in a way that I believe is really unique in the marketplace. That’s an energizing prospect as you come to work every day!
Glassdoor: How do you help build a great organizational culture here?
Cathy Engelbert: We are very deliberate about fostering an inclusive culture at Deloitte. My appointment as CEO was an outcome of that inclusive culture. It’s also about our professionals feeling connected to their work environment, that they feel a sense of belonging and actually want to grow their careers here.
About a year ago at Deloitte, we introduced the concept of a “culture of courage.” It’s a concept that resonates with a multi-generational workforce. It’s about driving a culture of innovation that gives us the freedom to experiment, try new things, or take a different approach to solving a challenge. This promotes diversity of thought and perspective, and creates an atmosphere where we try to shift to where bold thinking is the norm, not the rarity or one-off.
Glassdoor: Your employees love working here as we see the strong rating on Glassdoor – How do you make this a great place to work day in and day out?
Cathy Engelbert: There isn’t a more essential asset at Deloitte than our people, and I think the answer here is twofold. First, it’s about the culture of courage I just mentioned, and empowering our people to bring their best to work every day. Second, it’s about thinking of investing in our people as our R&D. We foster ideas about supporting our people at every stage of their careers—providing access to what’s important to them during their life’s journey, like fitness subsidies, continued learning opportunities (through Deloitte University, our professional development facility in Texas), paid family leave, mentorship programs, community opportunities, retirement and pension benefits, and so on.
Glassdoor: What are some of your productivity hacks or ways that you manage your time?
Cathy Engelbert: A couple of things. One is certainly taking “moments of recovery,” even if they are small. This includes not looking at my phone first thing when I wake up, and taking moments throughout the day.
Cathy Engelbert: Another is prioritizing people over tasks. It may sound counterintuitive, but building a team that brings you solutions instead of challenges, listening to and collaborating with them—that ultimately prioritizes your focus on issues where you can have the most impact, not just scratch items off the to do list. To me, productivity is directly related to the personal relationships you are able to build.
Glassdoor: Any advice for burgeoning leaders?
Cathy Engelbert: Life doesn’t go in a straight line, and you can’t predict where it will take you. But if you raise your hand, have confidence to do different things, take risks and build your capabilities, you will be seen as a leader
Glassdoor: What was your first job?
Cathy Engelbert: I worked in a pediatrician’s office in high school and college; but Deloitte was my first job out of college in 1986. Our scale, depth, and breadth, which I mentioned earlier, has given me so many opportunities to reinvent my path and stay constantly challenged over the last 30-plus years. I’ve had multiple careers within Deloitte.
Glassdoor: List three fun things about yourself.
Cathy Engelbert: I grew up one of eight children. From an early age we were competitive, whether that meant over breakfast cereal or 2-on-2 basketball. My three older brothers picked me to play, and they didn’t let up on the intensity just because I was in the game. I was just another player on the court. I appreciated that.
I grew up with a love for sports, playing varsity tennis, basketball, and lacrosse throughout high school. During my time at Lehigh University, I served as the captain of both the lacrosse and basketball teams. Now, I enjoy golf. A highlight was playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
I ran for class president in fifth grade, and my campaign slogan was “Have taffy, vote for Cathy.” I won in a landslide due to handing out taffy!
Glassdoor: Grab your smartphone, what’s the last app you opened and what did you do with it?
Cathy Engelbert: Oh, that’s easy. The airplane apps—I’m always on a plane!
Glassdoor: What are your strategies for dealing with hard days?
Cathy Engelbert: Keeping in mind that you need to get the small things right—and the big things will come easier. And that you must be your best in the darkest moments. I admire grace under pressure.
Glassdoor: It’s clear you inspire many of your own employees – who inspires you?
Cathy Engelbert: My parents. My father worked three jobs. My mom worked while raising her eight kids, and in fact she still does today in her 80s. Together, they sent eight kids through college.
Glassdoor: What type of people do you like to hire and why?
Cathy Engelbert: Among other things, we look for curiosity and agility—people who are committed to what they do and have a mindset of never graduating. With the innovation and disruption today, there’s never a point in time when we can stop learning. And the job you want—the job Deloitte will need someone to do—may not exist yet today. So we look for people who always stay curious, ask questions, and never stop learning.
Photo courtesy of Fortune Magazine.