The former Deloitte CEO on career agility

By Neil Amato

Cathy Engelbert, CPA, the retired CEO of Deloitte and the current commissioner of the Women’s National Basketball Association, had a goal as an audit partner: meet with three clients each week. These days, she’s putting those relationship-building skills to good use in a role that seems well suited to her with the WNBA, which concluded its season earlier this month.

“One thing that’s very clear to me is sports is business and business is about relationships,” Engelbert said. “So I think the best thing that prepared me at Deloitte, especially as I stepped into a number of leadership roles, was how to build relationships, how to nurture the relationships, and how to deepen these relationships.”

When Engelbert assumed the role of CEO at Deloitte, she became the first woman to lead a Big Four firm in the United States. She is now applying more than three decades of business skills to the WNBA, a league that has longevity but needs a boost on several fronts.

Engelbert is focusing on three pillars in her new role, which began officially over the summer:

  • Fan experience, especially an emphasis on making it more tech-savvy. League attendance dipped in 2018, and several teams have moved to smaller arenas;
  • Player experience, focusing on benefits, team travel, and fair pay, but also career development for players’ post-basketball lives; and
  • Overall league economics, focusing on growing the 12-team league’s revenue streams.

“One of the reasons I was brought in was to assess the financial and revenue model of the league,” Engelbert said. “So, certainly, one of my pillars is to expand the revenue base, because if you want to work on player experience and fan experience, you’ve got to expand the revenue base to fund these.”

Engelbert comes from a competitive, athletic family — with five brothers and two sisters, most of whom played sports. “Basketball’s kind of in my DNA,” she said. It’s true; her father was chosen in the NBA draft more than 60 years ago. She played basketball and lacrosse in college, and she sometimes coached her children’s youth teams, even middle school basketball during the height of audit busy season.

Engelbert believes that women’s sports worldwide are at an inflection point, between momentum from the United States’ victory in soccer’s World Cup last summer and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. A 2018 survey by Nielsen supports that notion, showing that 84% of sports fans globally expressed interest in women’s sports. She hopes that momentum carries over to basketball, where the Olympic teams will be full of WNBA talent (the league will halt its season for the Tokyo tournament, where the United States is a heavy favorite to win gold).

“We have this movement around women’s empowerment, and so this is the time to look at momentum and movement and really take advantage of it,” Engelbert said. “That’s part of how I’m thinking about transforming our league, but hopefully also transforming the way women’s sports are watched and supported.”

By support, she means not only fan interest but also corporate sponsorship. She pointed to one study showing less than 5% of corporate sponsorship dollars going to women’s sports.

“Everyone talks about gender equity, but if you could just tick it up to 10% or 15% — I mean, the enormous resources you would have to build national awareness of our league and our sport,” she said.

The league’s players’ association is seeking to renegotiate its collective bargaining agreement, which is set to expire Oct. 31.

The labor uncertainty and other issues facing the league are akin to the defenders on an opposing team’s full-court press: There are plenty of fast-moving obstacles, but ones that Engelbert seems equipped to get past.

She has demonstrated an ability to get things done, especially the ones she views as most important, whether it was improving the family leave policy at Deloitte or making time on a few days’ notice to coach her daughter’s high school lacrosse team. She said coaching was one of the hardest things she’s ever done, but she’s glad she didn’t turn down the opportunity.

“I said, ‘I really want to prioritize this. This is really important to me.’ I think it was important for other moms and dads to see me at games, to be a role model, to tell my people at Deloitte that that’s what I was doing, not hide it. …

“It’s really recognizing that life is not a straight line, balance is not a straight line, that nothing’s linear. And the one thing I used to say at Deloitte all the time is it is not perfect, and if you’re seeking perfection, you’re not going to be happy in your career because there are some times it doesn’t work. But you’ve got to make sure you’re prioritizing the right things that, when you look back, that you’re not going to regret.

“And I was blessed with having a career and a firm that allowed me the flexibility to do things like coach my daughter.”

It was important to her, so she made it happen. That’s the approach Engelbert is taking to make the WNBA better — for fans and players. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to progress at Deloitte, and she believes the league and its fans deserve the same in terms of progress.

“At Deloitte, I met with client after client after client,” she said. “When I started a tour of our 12 [WNBA] markets, it was the same thing: I wanted to start building relationships because I didn’t know anyone in the management of the teams. I didn’t understand the fan bases as well as I do now. So, I think Deloitte really helped prepare me to be — I guess the word is agile — to have the agility to go out and build relationships with the key stakeholders in women’s basketball.”

Neil Amato (Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA senior editor.

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