‘It’s all about confidence’ for USC Leventhal commencement speaker Cathy Engelbert

The first female CEO at a major accounting firm talks about family, career, leadership and learning the next big thing

May 13, 2016 Julie Riggott

Cathy Engelbert is practically a celebrity in the business world. Named one of the “Most Powerful Women in 2015” by Fortune, she made history by becoming CEO at Deloitte LLP — the first woman ever to lead a major audit and consulting firm.

Engelbert never set out to be CEO, but she did aspire to lead. She reached the highest rung of the corporate ladder while being an involved parent of two children, and, in the process, became a role model for women and men alike. As such, she promises to be an inspirational speaker at the USC Leventhal School of Accounting commencement.

Why did you want to speak to USC Leventhal graduates?

I am honored to be invited and excited to share a little bit of my own story with Leventhal graduates. Obviously, we have had great hires to our firm from the Leventhal school, including Joe Ucuzoglu, the CEO of our Audit practice, who succeeded me in that role. When I look out at a group of students, I don’t see students or graduates or soon-to-be-graduates, I see the future of our profession, the future of business leadership. I see them as future CEOs, CFOs, treasurers, partners in the profession, and that’s why I’m excited to talk to them about the workforce they’re entering.

What do you plan to tell them?

They’re joining a profession that is dynamic, that is innovating very quickly. I wish I were entering the workforce at such an exciting time, where the pace of change is exponential in this fusion of our physical, biological and digital worlds. I’m going to talk about the world they’re coming into versus the world I came into almost 30 years ago and how important it is for them to show leadership right off the bat — and there is so much opportunity for that. The skilled people coming out of the Leventhal school will be perfectly positioned to lead in a workforce that is on the verge of the fourth industrial revolution.

In March 2015, you instantly became a major role model for women. What does it mean to you to be the first female CEO of a Big Four accounting firm?

I was surprised at all the attention, but as I reflect back now, it totally made sense because we still have a long way to go with the number of women in leadership roles in organizations. Frankly, it’s time that my position, and the positions of other female leaders are the norm, not the novelty. Last fall, the S&P Capital IQ report noted that one additional female CEO joins the S&P 500 index every two years. If you do the math, we’ll be waiting 40-plus years just to double our current number. But I’m optimistic as I meet with senior leaders at companies around the globe and see the next generation of talent, which includes many strong women. The female CFOs, general counsels and treasurers of today are in positions that are feeders into future CEO roles.

How did it make a difference that you were at Deloitte, which launched a special initiative to boost the advancement and retention of women in 1993?

[Then-CEO] Mike Cook was ahead of his time. He created a culture of inclusion and diversity before people were even using those words because he said it was the right business thing to do. We were seeing 50 percent of our employees coming in who were women, but when they got to the leadership ranks, they were dropping off in alarming numbers.

The initiative introduced the idea of sponsorship, which is having a person with the power of advancing someone’s career sitting in the room and saying, “Cathy needs to build this capability, let’s give her this opportunity.” Whatever skill set someone believed I needed, they sponsored me through our women’s initiative. If we hadn’t started that initiative, I don’t think that I would have had that opportunity to feel confident, to raise my hand and to take on different responsibilities.

What are your personal keys to success?

My personal keys to success are the combination of competition and confidence. I was one of eight children and had five brothers, so I’ve been competing from the time I was born. I played college athletics, and I captained my basketball and lacrosse teams in my senior year. As I look back, that really provided a foundation of early leadership and helped me develop confidence.

Do you have any special advice for women entering the profession?

It’s all about confidence. I speak to a lot of women’s groups at the university level and in corporate America, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a group of women or women and men, and the men raise their hand and confidently ask questions, but the women raise their hands and sometimes start with “I’m sorry.” In any profession, not just accounting, this is about not apologizing but being confident.

You talked to The Washington Post about your honesty at work about making time for your family. How have you been able to balance family and career so successfully?

Family and career is not a linear path. It changes over time. If you’re not happy with something, it’s going to change. Your kids will get older and will need different things. I always joke that when my kids were toddlers, I would come in the door and they would come up and cling to my leg. They’re teenagers now, and they don’t even look at me when I walk in the door.

This isn’t about “having it all,” as that is defined by someone else. You have to think about, “Can I do it all as defined by me?” That’s why I was able to coach my daughter’s basketball team for four years. At that point in my career and life, I could integrate those two and be honest about what I was doing and be a role model at the same time. You need the right support system. You need to take advantage of the flexibility and predictability the world offers. But you have to understand: It’s not linear. It’s not perfect. And if you recognize those things, you can do it all as defined by you.

What’s your leadership style?

At Deloitte, we have something we call “business chemistry,” which helps you understand your personality as a leader. I’m a “pioneer-integrator,” which essentially means that I tend to be collaborative and a listener. I’m personally never looking for the limelight, but I want to make sure the team is driving to success together. I am a great reader of body language. When you listen to words, and couple that with body language, I think that helps you to sense when someone’s uncomfortable, when they need more mentoring, when they need advice or direction.

What other advice will you have for USC Leventhal graduates on commencement day?

“Never graduate.” I think the world is changing so exponentially that you want to have a mindset of “never graduating” — always learning about the next big thing, whether it’s artificial intelligence or big data and data analytics.