04/11/2014 09:26 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2014

Women in Business Q&A: DeAnne Aguirre, Senior Partner at Strategy&

DeAnne Aguirre is a senior partner with Strategy& based in San Francisco. She is the co leader of the global Katzenbach Center and an expert in culture, talent effectiveness, leadership, and change management. She advises senior executives globally on organizational topics.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I am a leader who believes success comes when those around me succeed. This takes honesty, even if it means delivering bad news; respect for the value that each individual brings to the table; fearlessness in asking for what I need to be this leader; and hard work in every aspect of my life. I grew up on a ranch outside a small Texas town ("small" may be an exaggeration given my high school graduating class totaled 11 students). Everyone worked hard. Everyone's contributions were needed and valued. I had no idea that in the "real world" of the 1960s and '70s, discrimination and biases existed.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as a partner at Strategy&?
My first job after college was in Southwestern Bell/AT&T's management program. On my first day, my boss, Delbert Dewitty (an African-American leader who to this day is one of my favorite managers), asked me to take on a different supervisor role given the prior leader had left following a union grievance. I was introduced to my team--12 individuals ranging from ages 21 to 64. I will never forget the calm within the storm inside me when I met these talented people. I humbly told them that they knew more about this work than I could likely ever learn and that I looked forward to getting to know each of them personally and professionally. I shared my belief that each individual brings real value to a team and I hoped they would give me that chance as well. Three months in, the union decided to go on strike. For two weeks, a colleague of mine and I worked their jobs 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Nothing is more of a learning experience than walking in another person's shoes.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Since 1997, I have never separated work and "life." My life has been work, family, and personal passions. My days are not separated but seamless. Being in the moment no matter what I am doing is my balance.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Strategy&?
My passion is helping others succeed. I am fortunate to do this every day with my clients and my teams. My challenges always center on making the hard choices on how to spend my time.

What do you hope will be the implication of your recent study that investigated business culture and how business leaders engage employees?
In our latest culture and change survey, 84 percent of executives said they believe culture is critical to an organization's success, yet only 53 percent said they saw it as an important topic on the leadership agenda. Sixty percent of respondents said they believe culture is more important than strategy and operating model. Our experience indicates that focusing on a few critical behaviors at the top of the company and in key populations can evolve a culture and sustain change. We believe you "act your way to a new way of thinking," not "think your way into a new way of acting."

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I have witnessed countless women in my 30 years in the workplace simply not standing up for what they believe or what they need. Maybe it was that small-town Texas childhood, but I have always asked for what I needed even if it had never been done before at my company. Pay my base salary and tuition as a principal to attend Stanford Business School at age 33? No problem. Pay for me to relocate from San Francisco to Brazil to New York and back to the San Francisco office for an opportunity that my husband wants to pursue--and ensure I have new roles and added responsibilities along the way? No problem. Give me a management team role when I have a 2-year-old at home and am pregnant with twins? No problem.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I read Sheryl Sandberg's book and watched her TED talk. I have never had the privilege of meeting her. Yet, I can tell you we are kindred spirits. Her whole self was brought to bear in that book. I laughed at so many stories that were exactly what I had done or what I had experienced. Her words also put me in a very reflective mood. When have I leaned in and when have I leaned out? How can I take more responsibility to speak up and lead more beyond sitting on the Catalyst Advisory Board, staying connected to the Hidden Brain Drain work, and mentoring many women at Strategy&? Have I thanked my husband, Al, for being the kind of partner that Dave has been to Sheryl? It is time to lean in more.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Like Sheryl, I cannot remember a single time in my 30 years of working when I reported to a woman. My mentors and sponsors have always been men at Strategy&. I was the first woman elected to the senior partnership in our strategic consulting business during our 100-year history. These male mentors were excellent at "approving" all of my outside-the-box requests and have supported my development in the client-facing areas. I have relied on several senior women leaders outside my company for different needs. Most notably Ilene Lang and Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I find the story of the CEO sisters Maggie Wilderotter and Denise Morrison fascinating, given I have four daughters, which I can only say must be fate! The importance of another woman setting an aspirational bar and belief for those close to her is compelling. My daughters have this built into our family, but many don't. We have an obligation to be that sister to all talented women.

What are your hopes for the future of Strategy&?
We are in an exciting time in the consulting industry. Our clients have told us for the past decade that they want strategy through execution capability from their consulting partners, and they want results, not simply great ideas. We believe that with our combination with PwC, we will create a "category of one" that can truly deliver this to our clients. Pure strategy firms have been trying to build their detailed design and implementation capabilities for years, with several restarts. Likewise, implementation firms have tried to move into the strategy space. We intend to lead the consulting industry transformation with our combination.