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Women in Business: Q&A with Cathy Benko, Vice Chairman, Managing Principal and head of Corporate Citizenship at Deloitte

01/28/2014 08:32 am ET | Updated Mar 30, 2014

Cathy Benko is Vice Chairman and Managing Principal at Deloitte LLP. Cathy is renowned for being among the first to design and implement a systemic response to the changing workplace, and holds dual roles as Deloitte Consulting LLP's talent game-changer and leader of Deloitte's corporate citizenship agenda, driving the firm's collective societal impact. She is a U.S. patent holder and the co-author of several bestselling books including The Corporate Lattice and Mass Career Customization (Harvard Business Press). Cathy has been recognized for her professional achievements including Consulting Magazine's "25 Most Influential Consultants" and "Frontline Leader" recognitions, and its inaugural "Leadership Achievement Award" for Women Leaders in Consulting. She earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS from Ramapo College, which recently recognized her with its Distinguished Citizenship Award. Her most recent article is titled 'Disrupting the CHRO: Following in the CFO's Footsteps.'

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My path was a rather circuitous one growing up the middle of five daughters in a single-parent household. Higher education wasn't a realistic or financially practical goal. I just assumed that I'd get a job somewhere and settle into the rest of my life. But the local Lion's Club awarded me a scholarship and that single gesture changed the course of my life. I used the funds to attend secretarial school. Early in my secretarial career, I realized that there may be more out there. I was promoted and started taking college classes while working full-time. It took three semesters a year over 5 years but I did get that diploma. In time, I felt I may have missed out by not going to college and set my sights on an MBA. My choice of Harvard Business School was pragmatic: it had a stellar reputation and didn't accept GMATs.

We are all products of our life experiences. Based on mine, leadership, to me, is about two things: possibilities and followership (after all, what's a leader without followers?). Leadership is the ability to influence, inspire, and draw others in to believe in and achieve the possibilities. Whether being a catalyst for innovation or cultivating the genius of a colleague, leadership is always in active tense.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as the Vice Chairman, Managing Principal and head of Corporate Citizenship at Deloitte?
The roles I've held span from an executive secretary (when there was still such a role), to founder of a boutique professional services firm, to vice president of business systems before going to business school and then onto Deloitte. Looking back across these roles, along with the diverse leadership posts I've held at Deloitte, the common thread is transformational change. It's not like I ever said: "I want to be a change agent," but that's where my career has taken me. I wouldn't be where I am today without some tenacity on my part and a heck of a lot of opportunity on Deloitte's part.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I find the term 'work/life balance' an unfortunate one since it pits work and life as opposing forces and much prefer a term like 'career-life fit', which conveys both interconnectedness and the cumulative nature of growing in a profession. The short answer to your question is one day at a time; the longer answer isn't much different. I have a disabled husband and two children. My personal priorities are clear: making a meaningful difference in the shaping of two young lives, maintaining a high quality of life for my husband, and delivering to my fullest potential for my partners, colleagues and clients of Deloitte. I ask myself everyday whether or not it's all still working. So far (for nearly twenty years now)
that answer has been "yes."

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Deloitte?
I've found that the line between highlights and challenges is a fine one. For example, one challenge is overcoming "dominant logic tendencies," a body of research by the acclaimed C.K. Prahalad that represents deeply held beliefs and assumptions of how things are supposed to work. These views limit our ability to see the way forward. While we know the workplace operates differently and the composition of the workforce is much more heterogeneous than it was at the start of the industrial revolution, so many still hold firm on industrial revolution-era corporate ladder beliefs of how careers are supposed to be built.

Conversely, a highlight is that a "corporate lattice" model for how careers are built in the 21st century has gained so much traction. To think that I had a little and Deloitte had so much to do with the contribution of this insight is rewarding. The sooner we can break the bind of dominant ladder-logic, the better we can open up a more inclusive aperture of the myriad ways people can build successful and rewarding careers.

What advice can you offer women seeking a career in professional services?
The corporate lattice world is an ever-changing calculus, so think in terms of option value actively seeking out opportunities--lateral and diagonal moves along with upward movement--that open up career paths for you not just now but every step forward. With unemployment high yet critical jobs going unfilled, keeping your skills relevant is essential. One way to do so is mark-to-market yourself by continually assessing your capabilities and experiences against talent market demand.

Also be aware that great advice can come from the most unlikely of places. The best advice I've received, measured by succinctness and resonance of the message, came from my teenage children. I was underplaying the significance of an event where I was being inducted into my hometown's Hall of Fame. My two kids called me on it: "Just own it mom--and wear it well." It was both a challenge and reminder. I think women, in particular, have difficulty with this.

What are the strategic benefits of CEOs embracing talent management?
CEOs focus on cultivating assets critical to success--and talent is surely among them. But for reasons from technological advances and demographic trends to the impacts of public policy, companies can no longer assume they can draw on an ample, let alone abundant, pool of skilled talent to achieve growth objectives. Unlike previous tight talent markets where a shortfall in crucial skills reflected overall low unemployment, today's talent shortage is the result of a mismatch between available skills and needed ones. This misalignment is fast-becoming a critical inhibiter at two levels: lack of sufficient levels of talent to devise repeatable game-changing, next-generation offerings, and ability to retain and engage the people who are essential to their current business while attracting talent with the skills to lead future endeavors.

Why are Chief Human Resources Officers (CHROs) so valuable to a business?
In short because CHROs are the stewards of the asset base--people--that yields the organization's currency. They are responsible for envisioning, shaping and bringing to fruition their companies' talent strategies--a very noble and challenging role to be sure.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Sheryl has provided a great service through the lean in movement. But, as she acknowledges in her book, there's more needed beyond what women can do for themselves. Organizations also need to play an active role in breaking down barriers and providing a conducive and open environment where all can thrive. That was the motivation behind The Corporate Lattice and Mass Career Customization, two books I co-authored that explore how career and life are intertwined and what organizations can do systemically to help employees fit work into life and life into work.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
To me, an exceptional mentor is someone who can help you think through what your personal brand says and means to others--and help you assess whether or not it's the brand proposition you want it to be. He or she can help you think bigger and reach for ever greater heights. At times, my mentors have believed in me more than I believed in myself--though in the long run, I think that no one can really believe in you more than you do in yourself.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I'm very fortunate to have benefitted from the example and tutelage of terrific leaders, both women and men. But some who are top of mind aren't necessarily those leading in the board room but rather wise, under-sung everyday people who make the most of their circumstances, however dire or grand those circumstances might be. Mrs. Bitkowski is an example. She worked in a Detroit beauty parlor (no, not an upscale salon, an old-fashion beauty parlor) with six children under the age of 10 when her husband died suddenly. She did what she needed to do to keep it all together as a single mom with a meager income and extraordinary burdens. How do I know her? I met Mrs. Bitkowski at Harvard Business School. Her oldest daughter was my b-school roommate, a bright and energetic entrepreneur who has gone on to create jobs and value for society. I regard with admiration all the Mrs. Bitkowskis' out there.