‘Your Career Is Not Linear’: Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert On Her Rise To The Top

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When you walk into the sun-soaked office of Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert, it’s impossible to ignore the view. From the 33rd floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the Empire State Building is so close it looks like a photograph, the window a frame. But Engelbert, 53, is not nearly as taken with the art-deco sight as she is with those she can share it with. “I just went on Snapchat, because my kids are big Snapchatters,” she says, describing the shot of the landmark she sent them earlier in the day. The caption: “Long week, great Friday morning view.”


And yet, it’s a great Friday morning view that almost wasn’t, at least not for Engelbert. During the first week of April 1997, Engelbert, then five months pregnant with her first child, Julia, resigned from Deloitte. “I just didn’t have confidence,” she says, recalling how she questioned her stamina. “Can I be a great professional at Deloitte? Can I raise children, be a good wife, mother and family member? Can I do all that?” The answer, she thought, was no.

A client offered her a position in his company’s treasury group, a chance to work in the same office, on the same schedule, day after day. For the soon-to-be mother with dreams of a big family, the prospect of predictability was alluring. But that vision wasn’t for her, and William G. Parrett and William Ehrhardt, then-senior partners in the New York region, knew it. “They took me out and said, ‘You have all this potential. Why would you give that up?’ It was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” says Engelbert. “Men have to be part of the conversation in helping a woman envision she can do it. Those two became huge mentors and sponsors to me.”

Since then, Engelbert has been paying it forward. In March 2015, she was elected the first female CEO of Deloitte and any Big Four professional services firm. And in October 2017, Engelbert became the first female board chair of Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on advancing women in the workplace. Both are achievements made even more noteworthy by the fact that women still hold just 6.4% of CEO positions and 20.2% of board seats at Fortune 500 companies. But before she made headlines in corporate America, Engelbert made waves in a different kind of arena.

“I was actually the first female coach of a middle school travel basketball team in my town,” says Engelbert, proudly. It was a role she had been unknowingly training for since childhood when growing up as the middle child in a family with five brothers and two sisters meant sports were everything. The family also valued a strong work ethic. Engelbert’s father held down three jobs in IT, while her mother worked as an office manager in a pediatric practice next to the family’s Collingswood, N.J., home. “My mom was doing work-life balance when we didn’t even talk about it,” she recalls. Engelbert attended Lehigh University’s business school, and in 1986 Deloitte recruited her on campus.

She spent the next 32 years climbing the ranks at that same firm. Her rise was not without stumbles, the first in 1987 when her father passed away, leaving her, the eldest sibling still at home, to help her mother through the loss. But it was Deloitte’s range of opportunities that kept her reaching for more. “I have had five different careers within the firm,” she says of her roles in financial institutions/manufacturing, research, financial investments subject matter resource, technical accounting and pharmaceutical/life sciences. Now, she’s in the C-suite—somewhere she never thought she’d find herself. “When I became the first woman CEO . . . I had no idea what a big deal it was going to be,” says Engelbert. “I got hundreds of handwritten letters from grandfathers to CEOs to college students to deans of universities saying, ‘Cathy, you inspire me.’”

As the firm’s first female CEO, it’s no surprise that accelerating women has been a focus of her tenure. She’s built upon the foundation laid before her, promoting initiatives like Deloitte University, a six-year-old leadership development center offering opportunities for feedback and sponsorship, the kind of support that changed the course of her own career. “No one is thinking about your career as much as you are,” says Engelbert. “If you don’t go find those mentors and sponsors . . . you’re going to end up leaving.” But she’s also championed projects of her own, like developing what she calls a “culture of courage.”

The concept, Engelbert explains, emerged about 18 months ago, well before #MeToo captured the attention of boardrooms across the nation. Conversations around diversity and inclusion got her thinking about corporate culture and how Deloitte might harness it to foster an environment where her workforce of 85,000—43% of whom are women—would feel empowered to speak out about anything. “We didn’t define it exactly. We said if a culture of courage to you means diversity, great. If it means feeling entrepreneurial, great,” says Engelbert. “Stand up for something you believe in . . . and give us feedback.”

Perhaps one of the greatest beneficiaries of Deloitte’s culture of courage has been Engelbert, who needed a dose of bravery when proposing what is now the firm’s 16-week paid family leave program. “Not everyone thought it was a good idea. They said, ‘Our retention is high, we’re great to our people, they get lots of time off.’ And I said, ‘This is the right thing to do for our people . . . when they have a sick parent, sick sibling, birth of a child, that’s when we need to be there,’” says Engelbert. “That took courage.”

The culture she has created and the initiatives she has implemented have already left their mark on Deloitte. But those Engelbert leads may very well remember her legacy through the examples she’s set off the clock. As a rising partner, she coached her children’s sports teams, and as a newly elected CEO, Engelbert made it to 85% of her daughter Julia’s high school lacrosse games. “I would tell my clients what I was doing, and [they] would come to me and say, ‘Thank you for sharing . . . I wanted to coach my son’s little league or go to my daughter’s dance recital, and I didn’t think I could, but you do it, so I can do it too,’” she says. These days, evenings are spent with her son, Tommy, playing ping pong and watching NCIS. “When you work full-time, you’ve got to find those moments,” she says.

Next year, Engelbert will have the opportunity for another first: to become the first Deloitte U.S. CEO to be re-elected since J. Michael Cook in 1999. (Unlike most public companies, Deloitte’s CEOs are elected via ballot by the firm’s partners. CEOs serve for four years at a time and may not serve more than two terms.)

Until then, she’ll be planning a vision for the future. “In four years you can only do so much,” she says. “I have a plan that will take me out further than that to continue the momentum around the relationships. No matter what technology and shiny new tools we use in our business, we should always come back to relationships.”

Engelbert may not know exactly what the post-Deloitte future has in store, but she has some ideas, ranging from serving on boards to mentoring emerging leaders. “What I’ve learned is life is not linear,” she says. “Your career is not linear, and the things you’re going to do are not linear.”

Originally posted on Forbes.com, By Vicky Valet.

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