Engelbert talks about the biggest barrier holding women back in her industry. (Lillian Cunningham, Jayne Orenstein, Randolph Smith and Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

When Cathy Engelbert started at Deloitte nearly 30 years ago, she was hard-pressed to find many female mentors among its top leadership ranks. Only 7 percent of Deloitte’s partners and principals were women at the time, a statistic that prompted the accounting firm to launch a major initiative several years later, in 1993, aimed at boosting its retention and advancement of women.

Decades later, that effort appears to be paying off. Last week, Engelbert officially took over as Deloitte’s new chief executive, making her the first woman to helm any of the country’s major professional services firms. Her election as leader of Deloitte’s 65,000 U.S. employees is, she says, “a testament to what we started back then coming to fruition today.”

Engelbert spoke with The Post about her own career trajectory, and some of the walls she’s seen crumble (or merely teeter) for women employed in an industry long seen as an old boy’s club. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

[Listen to the full podcast conversation with Cathy Engelbert here or on iTunes.]

Q. What do you think has been a key factor in your success?

A. I joined a very male-dominated profession back in 1986. I wanted to work with big multinational Fortune 500 companies, but you don’t come into the firm and automatically get those. So, quite frankly, a key to my success was that I found male mentors and male sponsors. I think some women are afraid to say that.

I also took the opportunity to do different things within the firm. I went to our national office and did accounting research for two years, and that helped me build a niche in financial instruments, which then helped me get certain clients. Then when I made partner, I asked to do something different again and went to the advisory side of our business.

I didn’t aspire to be the CEO of Deloitte, but I aspired to be a leader in Deloitte. And sometimes I actually said no to things that people came to me with. We have to not be afraid to say no.

Q. What type of things would you say no to? 

A. One was a medium-sized client in another city. I happened to be pregnant with my second child at the time. I knew there was a larger client in the same state I was working in, New Jersey, that was also coming up on a rotation, so I said, “Instead of that client in St. Louis, how about this client in New Jersey?” And they said, “Oh, I never would have thought of you for that.” So I said no to the one opportunity, but it opened up a huge door for me.

Sometimes when you say no, you think you’re taking a risk; but you’re also taking a risk if you don’t say it.

Q. Did you see a tipping point in Deloitte? A lot of companies institute women’s initiatives, but that doesn’t necessarily do much to change the culture of a place.

A. You manage what you measure, so when we started putting measurement around this for our key leaders, that’s when the culture shift started. We built it into the goals of our leaders and, ultimately, made sure we had enough role models that women knew they could do this.

Over the last year, 66 percent of our hires were women and minorities. This is a total imperative for us. In the ‘90s, about 50 percent of our hires were women, but they represented less than 10 percent at the partner level.

Q. Today women make up about 25 percent of partners. When do you think those leadership numbers will reach 50/50?

A. We know the conversation needs to continue. We need more women and people of diverse backgrounds to think “We can do this.” I’m very optimistic, but the percentage isn’t where we want. We don’t set a goal around percentages, though, we set a goal around development, leadership, and making sure men and women have equal opportunity to advance in the firm.

Q. Both you and Jim Moffatt, the CEO of Deloitte Consulting, have spent your careers at Deloitte. Do you think the CEO in 20 years will be someone who’s similarly spent their entire professional life there, or the career ladder is changing?

A. Most likely it will be someone who’s at least here 20 years. It may not need to be 30 years. It may not need to be that they started out of college, like I did. But I think it will be someone who has seen a wide variety of our businesses and our clients. When you’re in professional services, you need to get the gamut of those experiences to ultimately lead an organization of this size and depth and breadth.

Q. Looking across professional services today, what do you think is the biggest barrier for women?

A. The biggest barrier for women is the thought that they can’t have it all. Can they have a high-performing career? Can they have a career that evolves with the way our clients evolve? And can they raise children, or take care of elderly parents, or whatever issue they have in their personal life? That I believe is still the impediment.

I was pregnant with my first child the year I was up for partner. I started to think to myself, can I actually do this? I actually looked at a job opportunity outside the firm. It was really difficult for me to make that decision: stay or go? There’s a level of uncertainty when you think about the future, and you think about the job you have today, and wonder if you can balance it all.

Q. Are there remnants, though, of the old boys’ club that you still notice?

A. I think there’s always going to be some biases in the way certain leaders look at development of men and women and people of diverse backgrounds. The noise certainly isn’t as high as when I joined the firm, but there are still challenges, clearly.

I didn’t always have it easy. Now I do because my kids are teenagers and they practically don’t look at me when I come home from work. They’re a very important part of who I am and, quite frankly, an important part of why I became a leader at Deloitte. People could tell I was balancing it all, and that made me an important role model to our young men and women.

Q. Such a huge part of being at Deloitte is working with clients. What has it been like to go into other companies that don’t necessarily have the same commitment to women in their workforce?

A. I could tell you some great stories—one where I was eight months pregnant and the controller of one of the companies I was working with, who was male, said, “You’re not coming back are you?” I said, “Of course I am. I’ll take my six weeks off and then I’ll be back.” And he said, “Why would you do that? Why don’t you just rely on your husband?”

This was 1997, so I think we’ve evolved.

I coached my daughter’s basketball team for five years, and I had male clients come to me and say, “I’m so glad you actually talk about how you have to leave a meeting to go to basketball practice. Because you know what? I want to go to my daughter’s dance recital, or coach my son’s little league team. And I didn’t think I could do that.”

I used to make up stories if I had to leave early for something related to my kids. I learned my lesson, because a woman who left the firm actually shared that she was leaving because she didn’t have kids yet, she wasn’t even married, but she saw people like me and didn’t want to be like that—always working. From that point forward, and this was a very long time ago, I said, “Oh, people kind of watch us as women role models.” We don’t even know that others are watching us to see what we do, how we manage it. I used to send emails late at night. I changed that totally.

Q. There are a lot of perspectives out there on what ‘leaning in’ means. What has that looked like for you?

A. It meant raising my hand when I wanted to do something different, asking for the flexibility I needed at different points in my children’s lives and my life. It also meant being able to say no, knowing that ultimately I would say yes to the right opportunity for me.

I tell this to our young men and women all the time: Your career is your career. No one is thinking about it as much as you are, so you need to take control of it.

Q. Deloitte has instituted flexibility programs so you can dial up or down the travel, for example. How do you get around employees’ fear that scaling back hours or travel could hurt their advancement?

A. It’s an important question to think about whether you’d be denied a promotion because you didn’t take that job that required a lot of travel. But leadership development is a longer-term proposition. It’s not about a year or two years of your career. It’s about looking at your work over a much longer period of time, which could be 10 or 14 years.

I think sometimes women don’t want to ask for flexibility. I know at certain points in my career, I didn’t. But my advice is to ask for what you need, because if you’re not happy and satisfied, you’re not going to perform as well as others.

Q. Do you think the compensation model at Deloitte needs to change further?

A. There are two elements: evaluation and compensation. Our young people are looking to be evaluated in a different way. Think about Facebook and Twitter, and the feedback that young people coming out of universities today are getting through just their social world. I think we’re going to need to develop a talent model that provides feedback in an evolved way, too.

[Read about how Deloitte is overhauling its evaluation system: What if you could replace performance evaluations with four simple questions?]

Most importantly, people who leave firms today are not necessarily leaving for money. They’re leaving for the value they think they can provide elsewhere. If they feel more value about what they’re doing here at Deloitte, they won’t be out in the marketplace looking.

Q. I’ve heard you describe your leadership style as collaborative. What leadership techniques have you found don’t work for you? 

A. You see some people treat others differently based hierarchy—that is one thing I have learned not to do. One of the reasons I’ve gotten to where I am is by treating everyone fairly, equally. That’s an attribute that I never knew I wanted to have, but growing up in a family of eight kids it was just natural for me to treat everybody the same. I had to compete from the day I was born for everything in the house.

Q. What do you think will be your biggest leadership challenge as CEO?

A. Making sure that we’re investing in the right places. Ninety-five percent of innovation spending ends in failure. We’re going to double our innovation spend over the next three years in our businesses. When we fail, we need to learn from it and build a better service or product as a result. So, the only thing I worry about is, do we spend enough? Do we move quickly enough?

Q. How did you find out that you were going to be CEO?

A. It was a November day, right before my 50th birthday, and I got a call from our chairman of the board to let me know that I had been selected. I was at home, and my son was looking at me like, “What’s wrong with you, Mom?” I put the phone down and I just went, “Oh my gosh! I’m going to be the next CEO of Deloitte!” He was 13 at the time, and he went to the computer and printed out a picture of me with the word CEO with a big green dot, which is at the end of the Deloitte logo. He said, “You’re a modern woman!” and pasted it up on our wall.

Q. Best piece of advice?

A. Listen to what’s going on in the world. Are you hearing about cloud or cyber, or the digitization of education and health care, and you don’t have those skills but you think that’s where business is going? Get your building blocks — and know what capabilities to strengthen — by listening to what’s going on around you.

Listen:

Full On Leadership podcast with Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert

Read:

Deloitte is first of 'Big 4' firms to name a female CEO

What if you could replace performance evaluations with four simple questions?

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