Deloitte began in 1845, when William Welch Deloitte opened an auditing office in London. Since then Deloitte has grown to a global brand representing numerous independent professional services firms that collectively employ over 225,000 people in more than 150 countries and territories around the world, and which in 2015 earned over than $35 billion.

Deloitte US employs over 65,000 professionals providing audit, consulting, tax, and advisory services to most of America’s top companies, includig 80% of the Fortune 500. One of the Big Four accounting firms (along with PwC, EY, and KPMG), it receives a jaw-dropping 500,000 job applications a year.

Deloitte US is an especially friendly company for young professionals; over 50% of its employees are Millennials. Bloomberg Business has named it the best place to launch a career.

Deloitte US is also especially supportive of its female executives. For example, it made history when Cathy Engelbert took it over in March 2015, becoming the first woman CEO of any Big Four firm. In this interview, Leslie Knowlton told us Engelbert “benefited from being able to work in a variety of different roles in her career and take risks, reinvent herself…She’s a great example of how not just staying in one particular role, but branching out and taking on new things can open doors that perhaps you didn’t even see initially, or maybe were not in your original career plan. But if you take those opportunities as they come along, and you take those branches in your path, they can really lead you to exciting new places.”

Further evidence of Deloitte’s support of its female executives comcs from Deepa Purushothaman, who told us in this interview that as a 5’ 1” Indian woman, “I don’t necessarily fit the mold of what people think a leader and an executive is going to look like.” When walking into meetings she was about to lead, she frequently suffered such questions as, “Are you here to take notes?”

Purushothaman still clearly remembers a high-stakes consultation scheduled to last an hour with the CTO of a large technology firm. When she entered his office, before she even had a chance to sit down he looked at her and said, “‘If I had a daughter—which I don’t, but if I did—she would actually be older than you. What could you possibly have to share with me?’

“If you could see my throat at the time,” Purushothaman said, “it was this big lump. I swallowed to try to find courage from somewhere, and ground myself in my feet so I could answer him back in a strong voice versus the ‘Oh my god, what am I going to say?’ voice that I heard going on in my head.”

Purushothaman managed to calm herself and respond, “Give me 15 minutes. And if I don’t say something that is helpful, I’ll give you back the rest of the 45 minutes.

“In that moment I realized I didn’t have the gray hairs or years of experience that he was maybe expecting; I didn’t have the engineering or technical depth that he was expecting; but what I did have was the ability to tell him things that he hadn’t been hearing. Because of his personality, I think a lot of people shied away from telling him the truth…so I was very direct and open, and he found that refreshing. And he learned some of the challenges his people were facing and the company was facing…He ended up meeting with me for over two hours. And he ended up being one of my biggest clients, and one of our biggest projects for the next few years.”

Finding the strength to say the right thing at the right moment isn’t only a matter of personal character; it’s often fueled by institutional support. Purushothaman credited a program that put her together with other female Deloitte executives five times a year for sessions running 2-3 days each. “For me the big ‘Ah ha!’ was I learned some of the things I was struggling with were the same things these other women were struggling with. (That) gave me such a boost of confidence, I can’t even explain…There’s ‘The Imposter’s Complex,’ a lot of women have it…Realizing that I was placing too much emphasis on what I didn’t know versus what I did know was a huge turning point.”

Purushothaman added, “You can’t really manage how people see you or what they make up about you, but you can absolutely influence what they think when you leave a room. (So) don’t focus so much on what people think when you walk in—control what you can control, and be conscious of it. But focus more on what you say in the room so that changes.”

Purushothaman now shares such hard-won lessons with her colleagues as Managing Principal of the Women’s Initiative (WIN), which is a host of programs, activities, and opportunites sponsored by Deloitte to create environments, conditions, and behaviors that allow women to thrive at any stage of their careers at Deloitte.

In This Episode:

Guests: Deepa Purushothaman, Principal in the Social Impact Practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP and Managing Principal of Deloitte’s Women’s Initiative; and Leslie Knowlton, Advisory Partner in Deloitte & Touche LLP and Managing Partner for Deloitte US Talent Development

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