Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert Enjoys a Commanding Lead Among the Big Four

Cathy Englebert is a featured speaker of Chief Executive’s 2015 Talent Summit, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 2015, in Dallas. Click here for more information


“Running a professional services firm is like herding cats,” Ed Kangas, a former Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CEO, once remarked. “Everyone thinks he is smarter than you and can run it better.” The partnership model of professional service firms sets them apart from most companies. The firm’s “product” is human ingenuity and its knowledge base. It is also uniquely challenging from a leadership perspective. Deloitte Global, with 210,000 employees in over 150 countries, is the largest of the Big Four, with more than $34.2 billion in revenue. It’s also the only one to retain its consulting arm.

Every four years, a nominating committee of 12 partners scours the firm for its next U.S. CEO and chairman. As of March, Catherine Engelbert became its current CEO, the first woman to lead the $14 billion U.S. arm of the firm, which has more than 60,000 people across more than 100 offices nationwide. A 29-year-veteran of the firm, she started with Deloitte Haskins & Sells in its Philadelphia office and ultimately rose to run its audit practice. What caught the partners’ attention was her focus on clients and innovation, particularly investments in Deloitte’s people. “I was a line client-service partner working with large companies mostly in the pharmaceutical industry,” she recalls. “I could see how they were evolving with the pace of change in technology. I thought we could bring some of that inside.”

“What caught partners’ attention was Cathy’s focus on clients and innovation, particularly investments in Deloitte’s people.”

Engelbert, who studied computer engineering at Lehigh University and who is raising a 13-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter, was spotted early in her career by then-CEO Mike Cook, who asked her to join his steering committee. “Mike had daughters at the time who were coming out of college,” says Engelbert. “He said, ‘I see that my own company isn’t really retaining the best women.’ So, this set me on my path and I stayed in touch with him off and on.”

That path hasn’t always been easy. “At times it’s been di cult raising two children and doing this,” says Engelbert, who served as her daughter’s middle school basketball team coach. “But I have had some great sponsors who said, ‘Cathy, you need to go do this because if you do this, you’ll get to the next level in your career.’”

Engelbert believes investing in innovation and expanding the firm’s global footprint are among Deloitte’s biggest challenges. To that end, the firm intends to hire 24,000 people in 2015. Deloitte’s human capital transformation practice is also expected to play a bigger role going forward.

While Engelbert didn’t necessarily anticipate becoming CEO, she has always aspired to be a leader. Her father, an engineer with RCA who worked on various NASA projects, was a major influence on her personal life, as was her aforementioned mentor Mike Cook. Her husband, a West Point graduate, flew helicopters in the U.S. Army and joined Mobil (now ExxonMobil) around the time she joined Deloitte.

A four-year term as CEO doesn’t seem like much time given her long-term goals (Deloitte permits a second four-year term if re-elected.) “For me, it’s about differentiating yourself versus the competitors,” she says. “And it’s not just the traditional Big Four competitors, it’s the consulting competitors as well—the McKinseys, Bains, BCGs and IBMs, even.”

J.P. Donlon :J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.