Thomas Veneklasen

Even at an event specifically honoring her, Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert has a way of transforming her own success into hope and encouragement for current and aspiring executives and entrepreneurs during the 2017 University of Arizona Executive of the Year luncheon.

It’s hard to overlook what Engelbert has accomplished in the current role she’s had for two years, but here’s a snapshot: 

She’s the leader of 80,000 professionals providing consulting, advisory, tax and audit services for 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies. 

Twice she’s been named as one of Fortune’s most powerful women. 

She’s been ranked one of Glassdoor’s Employees’ Choice Awards for the 50 highest rated CEOs, and name among Crain’s 50 most powerful women in New York in 2015. 

Despite that list, Engelbert is down-to-Earth, witty, engaging and perhaps most importantly for the business-minded audience that gathered to honor her at Lowe’s Ventana Canyon Resort on March 31, she makes you believe you can accomplish anything.

Engelbert portrayed that narrative throughout her acceptance speech, but hammered the message home speaking about some of the obstacles she’s had to endure on her journey to becoming a female CEO, which make up only five percent of CEOs in Fortune 500 companies.

Upon attempting to enter one of her first roundtable meetings for big-name executives, she proceeded to enter the room when she was stopped by another woman.

“She said, ‘Excuse me miss, that’s only for CEOs,’” Engelbert said. “I looked at her and I could have said one of three things: I could say, ‘I am a CEO.’ I could get mad and yell at her, or, I could do what I did, and say, ‘Thank you very much, smile, and walk into the room.’”

And while the event itself was geared more toward honoring her achievements than it was a discussion of gender equality in the executive role, Engelbert didn’t dodge the subject when fielding questions from young female students in the audience seeking advice.

“I recently had a position on my executive team open,” she said. “Nine men came and knocked on my door and said, ‘I want that job, Cathy,’ and zero women. So, my advice is raise your hand if you want to do something, and you want to build your capabilities more broadly. Have confidence.”

Engelbert’s captivating acceptance speech went before large numbers, and the event itself has continued its prestigious pattern, having honored in past year such CEOs as Frederick Smith (FedEx), Sam Fox (Fox Restaurant Concepts), former governor Janet Napolitano and Howard Schultz of Starbucks. 

Engelbert, who also manages the role of a wife and mother of two, took over as CEO in 2015 after leading the U.S. audit practice for Deloitte & Touche LLP. 

“Cathy Engelbert’s career trajectory has been remarkable,” said UA Eller College Dean Paulo Goes. “Not only did she become the first female CEO of one of the big four accounting and consulting firms, she changed the Deloitte’s corporate culture to emphasize the importance of mentorship, inclusion, and work-life balance.”

In her recognition on behalf of Fortune, Engelbert was called “a paid-leave champion, instituting a major policy change that will allow employees—men and women—16 weeks of time off to care for family members.” 

Engelbert helped Deloitte grow to $17.5 billion in revenues and more than 78,000 employees in 2016, up from $16.1 billion and 70,000 employees the previous year. 

Still, she says she never had her sights locked on becoming a CEO, identifying her success to five key leadership areas:

1. Get the small things right, and the big things come easier.

Start simple, Engelbert said. Gain trust. Master the minor details before making the big, bold moves in your career and life. 

2. Shoot when you are open.

“Fear of failure is one of the biggest impediments to success,” she said. “No one shoots 100 percent, but you will miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. In business, I think there is a big difference between caution and paralysis. Big shots – the buzzer beater game-winning type are never a sure thing, but if you don’t take the shot, you won’t win.”

3. In order to be your best in your darkest moments, you must be your best in your most ordinary moments.

“You don’t wait for the pressure to build your capabilities,” Engelbert said. “When the chips are down, you have to be prepared, you have to have practice.”

4. Prioritize people over tasks. 

“Find the people behind you, and develop them to be successors,” she said. “Our plates are all so full, we could prioritize tasks over people because we feel accomplished when we complete a task, but once we do that, we don’t develop the next generation of leaders.”

5. Never graduate.

Keep learning, keep changing, keep gearing toward success, Engelbert said. “Be unrelenting. Believe in your goals.”

The University of Arizona Executive of the Year program was established by the Eller College National Board of Advisors in 1983 to honor individuals who exemplify executive qualities in private enterprise.

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