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Lessons learned: Deloitte’s women’s initiative comes full circle

August 24, 2011

At our 2010 Women in Leadership Summit, we had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Silverglate, a partner from Deloitte and Touche LLP, to talk about the company’s women’s initiative.

Tell me about Deloitte and Touche LLP.

Deloitte is the largest privately held professional services organization in the world.  We’re in about 155 countries around the world and have just north of 170,000 people.  We’ve been around for just over 100 years and we’re a full service accounting, financial advisory services, and taxation management consulting organization.

Who are your clients?      

Our clients are a ‘who’s who’ amongst the Fortune 1,000 companies. We also have a very large client base within our emerging strategic clients and our Deloitte growth enterprise services.  So, we have clients from individual taxpayers all the way through to the largest companies in the world.

Tell me about the women’s initiative at Deloitte.

Our women’s initiative started in 1993 , and it was really a response to what we discovered when we looked at our talent pool.  Being a professional services firm, our talent is our main asset, and we had always done a good job of attracting the best talent from universities around the world.

However, we were not successful at retaining and developing female talent. In 1993, women represented only seven percent of Deloitte’s partnership, even though we had been recruiting women and men at the same rate for over a decade. To find out why women were so underrepresented among our leadership, we examined our workforce demographics.  What we discovered was that women were leaving our organization at a significantly higher rate than men.

Deloitte  conducted research to find out the reason for the high female turnover.  One thing we heard was that many of our women felt they were not being developed and mentored — and therefore had limited chances for advancement. Another reason for turnover, especially for those who were five to ten years out of university – was work-life conflict. People were getting married, people were having children and at the time – the early ’90s – we did not do as good a job as we could have helping people deal with this part of their life.

What was interesting is that these people were not self-selecting out of the work force; they were just self-selecting out of the firm at the time.  So we wanted and needed to do something immediately to make sure that we weren’t losing all of this incredible talent.

Our CEO at the time decided to work with the leaders of our firm to create our women’s initiative.  If you roll the camera forward now to where we are today, our turnover gap at that level has gone down from 7 percent to 2 percent.  We now have 23 percent female partners, principals, and directors.  Last year, women comprised over 30 percent of our new class of partners, principals and directors.  Furthermore, we recently hit the 1,100 mark for female  partner, principal directors. So we really have moved the needle.

That’s great.  What exactly did you do with the women’s initiative?

It was multi-prong.  Our women’s initiative has been rolled out in two phases.  Our first phase, which lasted for the first 11 or 12 years, brought a lot of attention and information to our organization. It helped our organization understand how women and men develop their careers differently and helped us focus on ensuring that we are retaining our top female talent.

Back in 2006, we began the second phase of our women’s initiative; that’s when I joined the initiative and became one of our first male national directors in the initiative. We not only were looking internally – what our women’s initiative could do to help develop our women – but also externally.

The women’s initiative was seen as a way to help Deloitte develop marketplace growth and be a place where the best talent chooses to be.  We changed our initiative to have a lot of national directors who have primarily externally focused roles.

For our initiative to be successful, it needs to be accretive to the entire population of Deloitte, both the men and the women, and it was because of that that I was asked to join our initiative back in 2006 and I’ve been in this role ever since.

Are there certain things that your initiative is doing for women and different things that the initiative is doing for men?

That’s an interesting question.  We have learned that women develop their careers differently than men.  They have different pressures than men have.  These are generalizations, and we certainly understand that any one individual is unique, but overall. In fact, we’ve written a book called Mass Career Customization, and that’s the premise: how to customize a persons’ career to the individual.  When you step back, you can see by gender that women tend to direct and manage their careers differently than men do. Neither is better or worse, but it’s important to understand both of those elements when you’re creating a customized path.

The follow-up book, The Corporate Lattice, recognizes that it’s not just a corporate ladder, where you’re on this one-stop, one-track—you’re either up or out mentality. The Corporate Lattice recognizes that a person’s career is a 40-year unit of time, from the time that you’re 22 to the time you’re 62 years old, and during that 40 years different things happen to everybody in the course of their career.  You may have different changes in your family life, you may start a family, you may have an ailing relative that you need to take care of, you may want to take a quick detour from your career and do something else, but over the 40-year period of time different people’s careers take different paths.

What are the tools that give you that flexibility?

We started doing flexible work arrangements, where people would work a given period of time.  But that was really a point solution and it really didn’t address the overall population of the organization.

So what we created was like a stereo equalizer that has four facets.  One facet is work hours, whether you work full-time or part-time.  Another one is on location, whether you need to work in a specific area or you can work anytime, anyplace.  As a consultancy firm, a lot of our people are on planes every single day and they need to be able to work anyplace at any time.  There are other roles in our firm where you don’t need to have that. There’s an accelerated role where you have your foot fully on the gas and you’re trying to excel in your career at any cost.  There’s another role which is a decelerated career, where you take your foot off the gas because you need to basically deal with something else somewhere in your life. The fourth facet is an external role or an internal role, external role meaning directly client-facing and internal role is something more of an internal contributor to the organization.

Twice a year we sit down with the individual and their immediate supervisor, from very brand-new staff all the way through to our most experienced partner, and we determine where you are on this spectrum.  Are you in a place in your career where you can be anywhere at any time, where you can work five days a week, where you can be on an accelerated path, where you’re facing off with clients, or do you have to dial down in one of those different instances at some other point?

In our women’s initiative annual report, you can take a look at what the graph looks like for our CEO, Barry Salzberg, and you can see throughout his 30-plus years of the firm how he was fully engaged at one point, how he needed to take his foot off the gas a little bit as he went and got his law degree, how he got back fully engaged. So even with the CEO of our firm, you can see that different people have different needs throughout their career and we need to be able to dial up and dial down.

As a male, what drew you to this work?

I have two daughters, and my older daughter has always been interested in working for Deloitte.  When it was presented to me and we wanted to have a male national director so that we could make sure that we were addressing the male elements of the initiative, I started thinking about it. At that point, the initiative was 11 years old. In another 11 years, my daughter would be ready to start working at Deloitte.  So the first thing that came to mind was a personal question of how could I make Deloitte a better place for my daughter.

I can tell you that as a male partner in our firm, it’s just been fascinating to study our people, both men and women, and what helps them be successful. How I can help translate the types of things more broadly to my male colleagues?  It puts me in a unique position within the firm to act as a conduit or as a translator of these types of gender discussions.

I’ve always been very interested in the mentoring and advising piece of our business.  I make lots of use of mentors myself and have had lots of advisers in my 22 years with the firm.

Do you have any advice for people in other organizations who are looking to either create a women’s initiative or to strengthen their existing women’s initiative?

There’s so many different ways to have an initiative, but there are a few absolutes.  Number one: you absolutely need to have the sponsorship of your top executive.  Going all the way back to 1993, we have had complete endorsement from top leadership. Deloitte has always had the complete support of our CEO.

Our women’s initiative leader reports to our CEO.  They don’t report up through HR.  I think that that’s been an interesting dynamic and it reflects how important this initiative is, how it’s really based on our most important asset: our talent.

It also has to make a lot of business sense.  One of our tenets in the women’s initiative is that it’s a business case and not just a social cause.  People will be involved in a women’s initiative because they realize it’s the right thing to do.  People have wives and daughters and aunts and sisters who they love. But where you really get commitment to the initiative is when people can see the business imperative.  Your organization really has to think hard about the return on investment of the initiative so that they get behind it.

Another thing that’s been very helpful is that we have an external advisory board to our initiative.  It’s led by Dr. Sally Ride, the former astronaut, and she has a collection of folks from academia, from the private sector, who serve as an objective third party that looks at what we’re doing to develop our talent and gives advice to our executive team. That’s been very eye-opening in a number of ways.

The last thing I’d say is to follow people’s passion.  It’s pretty clear that I’m passionate about this. It’s like a labor of love. Find the people that are very passionate about it – men and women – and then put them in a position to be successful.


Paul H. Silverglate is the National Director of the Initiative for the Advancement of Women (WIN) at Deloitte & Touche LLP. He is the first male national director of Deloitte’s Women’s Initiative.


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