Why Self Promotion Is Not the Best Route to the Top

self-promotion

Named CEO of Deloitte last March, and listed in Crain’s “50 Most Powerful Women in New York” for 2015, Cathy Engelbert attributes her success to one personality trait above all: confidence.

“I think it dates back to having to compete for cereal with my brothers at home,” she quipped, speaking at the recent Wharton Women in Business conference. One of eight children, five of whom were boys, Engelbert said, “If I can handle that, I can handle any business meeting, believe me.” She added that playing college basketball and lacrosse were confidence boosters as well, tracing these abilities, too, to growing up with brothers: “being thrown in the backyard with them…. My confidence came from always needing to compete.”

For women who didn’t grow up with ready-made, rough-and-tumble male competition (or did, but found it less character-building), Engelbert offered other paths to success, sharing her thoughts as the first female CEO of a Big Four accounting and consulting firm. Deloitte is the largest professional services firm in the U.S., serving 80% of the Fortune 500, with 70,000 professionals in nearly 90 U.S. cities and India.

Self-promotion Is Overrated

“I’m probably a little bit of an outlier for women,” said Engelbert, “because I don’t believe that you have to self-promote to get where you’re going.” She added that research shows that women tend to struggle with self-promotion, so it may not be their best route. “Now that I’m the CEO, I see it. I see men come into my door, and women come into my door. It is really different.”

“I think [my confidence] dates back to having to compete for cereal with my brothers at home.”

She advised women to instead build their capabilities and their confidence, saying that leaders would recognize talent and leadership qualities without an “overwhelming level of self-promotion…. I do believe in ‘the cream always rises to the top’…. At least for me it worked.”

But do women always get the recognition they deserve? “We can all think we’re discriminated against, and I’m sure many of us are,” Engelbert acknowledged. “But I see a ton of optimism in corporate America around the advancement and retention of women.” Deloitte, in fact, is considered a leader when it comes to programs that help women and families in the workplace. It is on Working Mother’s “100 Best Companies” list, and among Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.” But Engelbert believes that programs alone are not enough, and that women can do a lot to further their own professional advancement.

Embrace the Pace of Change

On the subject of building capabilities and confidence, Engelbert encouraged women to expand their knowledge and skills in “hot” areas such as technology and other male-dominated fields. As CEO, she is seeing firsthand just how big a priority technology is for business.

“I’ve gotten to talk with CEOs of corporations like Hewlett-Packard, Southwest Airlines, JP Morgan, Citicorp, McKesson, Allstate, you name it … over 100 CEOs in the past seven months,” she said. “And what I hear is that the world is changing so rapidly, and everyone’s trying to determine how they can use technology and the pace of change not to disrupt their business, but to come out ahead Twitter .” She noted that banks are considering themselves technology companies now, and, conversely, technology companies aspire to become banks. “There’s a blurring of industry lines like I’ve never seen in my 29-year career.”

“I’m probably a little bit of an outlier for women, because I don’t believe that you have to self-promote to get where you’re going.”

If technology is what the C-suite is talking about, said Engelbert, they will want to hire and promote people who are focused on it, too. “Think and be curious about things like cyber, digital, cloud, the sharing economy, the Internet of Things.” Acquiring more capability in these areas will give women more confidence to succeed. She commented that women in business schools should develop their STEM knowledge (science, technology, engineering and math). “I call it STEAM,” she said, adding an “A” for her own field — accounting and auditing. Women in traditional business programs might have to search their university’s engineering department for more advanced courses in these areas. “Go look at whether there is an analytics, big data, data science or elevated-level statistics course, because that’s what employers like me want to see.”

‘Raise Your Hand’

Engelbert also encouraged women to “raise their hand”: to take on varied assignments in order to expand their scope. “I raised my hand and said I want to do different things,” she said, describing how she worked in accounting research for two years in Deloitte’s national office, and became an expert on valuation and accounting for derivative financial instruments. In doing so, she met with treasurers and CFOs from around the country. The position, she said, “opened a whole new door of networks for me that I never would have had.”

It’s also OK to say no to an assignment, she told the audience. But try to have a “yes” — a counter-proposal — right behind it. Engelbert was once asked to work on a project in St. Louis that she felt was not in her skill set. Moreover, she was living in New Jersey and had just had her second child. While turning down the opportunity, she volunteered to take another one which drew on her expertise in the pharmaceutical and life sciences area, and was also much closer to home. “Within two weeks, I was on my way to that client three miles away where I could run home and feed my child and go back. It was actually a pretty fun time.”

Sponsors and Mentors

Engelbert spoke about the importance for women of having sponsors and mentors in business, both formally through corporate programs and informally in working life. She noted that now-retired CEO Mike Cook started a Deloitte program in 1993 called the Initiative for the Advancement and Retention of Women. “We were the first to do that among the big firms,” she noted. “From a diversity and inclusion perspective, it was important to have a starting point.”

“We can all think we’re discriminated against, and I’m sure many of us are. But I see a ton of optimism in corporate America around the advancement and retention of women.”

Engelbert said that Cook — who had two daughters himself — was aware at the time that 50% of Deloitte’s new hires out of school were women, but among the ranks of Deloitte’s partners, fewer than 10% were women. “We’ve made enormous progress, culminating in me being named CEO, but we’re still moving forward.”

Who were Engelbert’s sponsors when she became CEO? She explained that unlike a corporation in which the board appoints a CEO, Deloitte is a partnership in which candidates must be nominated and then voted in by two-thirds of the company’s 3,000 partners. She observed, “Sponsorship is sometimes about people behind the scenes who are sitting in rooms determining your assignments and your next career step, and you don’t even know who they are.” In Engelbert’s case, she found out after the fact that one partner, with whom she had worked “on one project, a couple of days here and there,” had been her strongest advocate, saying things like, “‘We need to get Cathy this leadership role, because ultimately I think she has the potential to be a real high-level leader in this organization.’

“Seek out counsel, and be a mentor to people, because then they learn how to be mentors,” advised Engelbert. “But you also need sponsors: people who will pound the table for you to be promoted, for you to do the next thing in your career.”

Juggling Your Life

“There is stress in high-performing careers, particularly in the business world,” said Engelbert. “When you’re responsible for 70,000 people like I am at Deloitte, it actually is pretty intimidating.”

She emphasized the importance for both women and men of having a full, well-rounded life. Citing author James Patterson’s quotation about the five balls we juggle in life — work, family, health, friends and integrity — she said that the work ball is made of rubber: If we “drop the ball,” as we sometimes do, it bounces back. “You have a bad day, you have a bad project, you have someone you don’t like that you’re working with: You’ve got to keep that in perspective.” But the other balls, she says, are made of glass, and can shatter if we don’t pay attention to them. “Always keep that in mind,” she said.

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