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Hidden Talents

Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert has spent the bulk of her career in the shadows—which is exactly how she likes it

Author David Zweig Illustration André da Loba

industryShortly before I was scheduled to interview Cathy Engelbert, CEO of accounting and consulting firm Deloitte, I got into a conversation with a guy who happened to mention that his son works for Deloitte.

“Oh, that’s funny,” I said. “I’m going to interview the CEO.”
“Cool,” he replied. “You’re going to speak with him, as a journalist?”
“Yes, but it’s a her, not a him.”
“Are you going to his office?” he continued. “Is he based in New York?”

When Engelbert was named Deloitte CEO in February—the first time a “Big Four” accounting and consulting firm had hired a female boss—the move was hailed as a victory for women. Shortly afterward, the glass ceiling got another crack, as Lynne Doughtie was appointed head of KPMG, thereby joining the ranks of high-powered women such as Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and former HP head Carly Fiorina.

The statistics, however, tell a different story. Among all Fortune 500 companies, a mere 25 are headed by women. Engelbert, while a rare and notable exception to this deficiency, has no intention of trumpeting her coup. In fact, she’d be happy if people paid her no mind at all. Even Engelbert’s office, 41 stories above Midtown Manhattan, eschews the usual power-broker trappings—no Italian marble, no exotic woods. Which, of course, is as it should be. Flash is not the first thing you look for in an accounting and consulting firm. As Engelbert is fully aware, companies like Deloitte really only become visible when something has gone wrong.

“We are OK with not getting outward credit,” she said when I visited her in her office. “We are in a client service business. We serve their mission.”

Engelbert, who has been with Deloitte since the mid-1980s, has built a career out of being OK with a minimum of fanfare. “I am a listener,” she said, “a collaborator.” And her time at the firm has not been marked by an accumulation of power. “I wasn’t a high-ranking leader in Deloitte for a very long time,” she said. “I was a partner in the field, serving clients, leading teams.”

In today’s hypercompetitive environment, this would seem to be an unorthodox path to corporate success. We tend to think of CEOs as big personalities, people (usually men) who command a room. But as business writer Jim Collins points out, the most capable executives generally operate with humility and passion for the work, rather than fluffing their egos.

My own research has led me to a similar conclusion.

In my recent book, Invisibles, I profiled a variety of accomplished professionals who achieved success not through seeking attention, as we are so often told is the path to the top, but by being self-effacing team players. In this regard, Engelbert very much fits the mold. It all comes back to “partnership culture,” she said. “You need to have that collaborative environment.”

Certainly, Engelbert is not a my-way-or-the-highway leader. “We work in teams, and the teams can set the rules,” she said. “We give people ideas, but they decide.” This approach leads to a remarkable degree of individual autonomy, given the size and complexity of Deloitte’s operation.

While Engelbert has settled quite comfortably into her new role, there are one or two wrinkles that still need ironing, such as adapting to life in the spotlight. “The notoriety I’ve gotten so far is a little intimidating,” she said. But Engelbert is also aware that, like it or not, a higher profile comes with the job. “It’s part of being the face of the firm.”

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