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“Assume and expect positive intent”, With Janet Foutty and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

The greatest myth is the notion that a C-suite executive or senior leader stands at the top of the pyramid. I think about leadership exactly the opposite. If you flip a pyramid upside down and the point is at the bottom, I view the role of a senior leader as being at the bottom, and […]

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The greatest myth is the notion that a C-suite executive or senior leader stands at the top of the pyramid. I think about leadership exactly the opposite. If you flip a pyramid upside down and the point is at the bottom, I view the role of a senior leader as being at the bottom, and their job is to do whatever they can to hold everybody else up.

That is why one of my leadership philosophies that I’ve shared with my leadership teams over the years is that our only real job is to make sure everyone else is successful. A large component of how you achieve that is how you build your leadership teams. Is it made up of diverse perspectives that both complement and challenge your thinking? Does your team have a shared vision for a common outcome, but not necessarily a uniform way of getting there? These are all sets of things I believe contribute to a strong leader, and more importantly, a strong leadership team.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Janet Foutty, US Executive Chair of the Board, Deloitte.

Janet Foutty is executive chair of the board, Deloitte. She leads the board in providing governance and oversight on critical business matters including strategy, brand positioning, risk mitigation, talent development, and leadership succession.

Janet is also a member of Deloitte’s Global Board of Directors, and chair of Deloitte Foundation, the 90-year old not-for-profit organization that helps develop future talent and promote excellence in teaching, research, and curriculum innovation.

Janet’s leadership experience includes most recently serving as chair and chief executive officer for Deloitte Consulting LLP where she led a 10B dollars business comprised of over 50,000 professionals in helping Fortune 500 companies and government agencies translate complex issues into opportunity. She previously led Deloitte’s federal practice dedicated to improving the efficacy and efficiency of US government agencies; as well as Deloitte Consulting LLP’s technology practice, which achieved exponential growth through acquisitions and the launch of businesses including Deloitte Digital. She has also held leadership roles on client programs that span retail, technology, government, energy, and financial services industries.

Janet is a frequent author and popular public speaker. She regularly communicates with executive-level audiences about the changing business landscape, technology disruption, and leadership. Janet is a passionate advocate for inclusion in the workplace; women in technology; and the need for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. She has founded Women in Technology groups in India and the United States.

Janet serves on the boards for Bright Pink, a nonprofit dedicated to women’s health, Catalyst, a global nonprofit working to build more inclusive workplaces, and NYU Stern’s Tech MBA program. She is also on the executive committee for the Council on Competitiveness, and serves on the advisory board for Columbia University’s Milstein Center for Global Markets and Corporate Ownership. Janet holds a Bachelor of Science from Indiana University, and a Masters of Business Administration in finance from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. She is an inductee of the Kelley School of Business Academy of Alumni Fellows, and a member of the Kelley School of Business Dean’s Council.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Janet! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up the child of a scientist and an artist — so my business background is less typical than most. At the dinner table growing up, authenticity and original thinking weren’t just encouraged, but expected, which helped to shape my career.

I completed my undergrad and MBA at Indiana University. I was a quant by background, but thought I’d spend two years post MBA in consulting given the exposure it provides to several different areas and industries and then I would decide what I wanted to do from there. Nearly 30 years later, it turns out I have spent my entire career at Deloitte.

What has guided my journey is repeatedly asking myself two questions: 1) Am I doing interesting things with interesting people? 2) Am I making an impact? Fortunately, Deloitte has provided me with the opportunities to help solve some of the world’s most interesting and complex problems with some of the world’s smartest people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Of my nearly 30 years in business, it is absolutely what is transpiring right now. Leading an organization during an intersection of three crises — health, economic, and social. A collision that business and broader society has not faced before in modern history.

Response to the global pandemic required fast action and fast decisions with no off-the-shelf playbook to follow, based on a future that is entirely unknown. I leaned on some of my tried and true leadership principles of vision and clear alignment and the importance of communications to navigate.

Some early actions led by me as executive chair and our CEO when we were elected into our roles a year prior included having clear alignment between the board and management and to base it on a shared agenda. This approach helped set us up to respond successfully as a firm. For instance, prior decisions around technology and talent investments allowed us to pivot overnight to a 100% virtualized environment for our 100,000-plus workforce in the US while continuing to serve our clients at a time when we are needed most.

Clear communications and empathetic listening have also been a constant and critical component to navigating this time, especially as it relates to the physical and mental well-being of our people, and as we plan for what our next normal will be. As management is focused on the operational aspects of sustaining the business, as executive chair I have taken the lead on responding to the call for social justice and ending systemic racism. It requires a pressure-test of all aspects of organizational culture. It’s based on continual listening, learning, and transparent communications. It is what will lead to creating a mechanism for momentum to enable lasting change for the long-term.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A very clear, early mistake I made as a junior consultant was being too overconfident in my ability in getting a client deliverable done and telling the person I was working for, ‘I got it, I got it.’ It resulted in a couple of very sleepless nights because of the amount of work and the lift that I and the partner I was working with had to do to get it to be client ready. It was a great cautionary tale in terms of asking for help. As I moved into leadership roles, I absolutely led in a way that asking for help was seen as courageous and strong as opposed to a sign of weakness.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

While professionally, I’ve been fortunate to experience support and advocacy from a number of colleagues along the way, it is my husband Kent who has been my true anchor. We’ve been married 29 years, we married the same year I started at Deloitte actually, and we are parents to 23-year-old twins. He has made his share of sacrifices and career pivots to remain rooted in our hometown of Chicago in order for me to live the life of a consultant — traveling the world, being away from home 5 days out of the week, and just remaining flexible and most of all supportive as new career opportunities arose and the twists and turns that come with that. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, and get to the role I’m in today, without his true partnership.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I am someone who likes to have a very simple but effective morning routine. I have found that by taking time for myself in the morning allows me to make clearer decisions and be that much more present with clients and colleagues. I always try to do some form of physical exercise before I start my day.

In terms of stress relief, I enjoy hiking, walks with my dog, reading, and cooking. Particularly without travel splitting up my days right now, I aim to dedicate time each day to some of these hobbies that keep my mind and body engaged and allow me a chance to step away, even if it’s just for an hour during lunchtime. These practices allow me to recharge and act as a more centered leader for my team and give me the proper work-life integration I need.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Deloitte has been on the journey of helping shape Corporate America’s inclusion landscape since 1993, when we became the first professional services organization to establish women’s and diversity initiatives. Inclusion and diversity are central to our values and embedded in our culture as a core competency for leadership. Our clients need us to be critical thinkers, and we believe diversity of teams supported by an inclusive culture brings many benefits from increased creativity to stronger governance and improved problem-solving abilities. Ultimately, diversity equates to better business outcomes. Diversity and inclusion as a corporate priority is as important strategically as disruptive issues like cyber risk and the future of talent.

Now — that is all true, but it is deeply rooted in me that it is also the right, fair and just thing to do!

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

We need to be thinking about and acting on inclusion in bold ways in our organizations and with the collision of two crises — the pandemic and the race inequity unrest and the disproportionate effects on the Black community, it’s time to accelerate. This moment has been a wakeup call for Corporate America to look again at their diversity and inclusion practices and pressure-test all aspects of organizational culture.

Accountability as leaders starts with the disaggregation of workforce data to truly understand not just representation, but the extent to which diverse workers are in a position to exert both formal and informal influence. It continues with listening, really listening, to others in order to start to understand how we can effect change for the long-term. I have been profoundly impacted and humbled by the stories of my Black colleagues shared through town halls, small groups, 1:1 conversation, and email exchanges. These past two months changed a lot for me. I truly came to appreciate all I don’t know; all I don’t understand and to listen louder than I speak. It is what will lead us to creating real mechanisms for continued momentum.

I will add that as a chair of a board, boards have an outsized role to play in creating a culture of inclusion through its own governance of inclusive behaviors of the board and of the management team, while also influencing management in the development of future inclusive leaders. Deloitte has created the first board inclusion framework, which I applied to my own board to understand and authentically address where we were on our inclusion governance maturity journey, and our priorities in achieving greater strength to that end. Through our collaboration with the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD), we have made this available for other boards to adopt as well.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

As someone who was elected to executive chair of Deloitte’s board in the US after serving as chair and CEO of Deloitte Consulting, our largest business, I can briefly try to explain the difference in those two roles. While there are specific intricacies that relate to our business model of being a private partnership, there are also some fundamental differences that transcend no matter what organization you are with. As CEO, you run the company. So, you are ultimately responsible for your organization’s profit and losses, talent models, and all major, strategic decisions related to the direction and growth of your business. This is the role I played for many years for Deloitte Consulting. Executive Chairs lead the board of directors in its governance and oversight of the CEO and management team’s running of the business, has a fiduciary responsibility for the long-term financial health of the business, and responsible for decisions related to CEO succession, and compensation practices. A very famous phrase in corporate governance is “noses in, fingers out.” It’s a simple way of describing the role of the chair of the board — you ask the tough questions as it relates to maintaining the priorities and strategy of the business, but you are not managing the operations of the business. What is the same — accountability — just through a different lens.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

The notion that a C-suite executive or senior leader stands at the top of the pyramid. I think about leadership exactly the opposite. If you flip a pyramid upside down and the point is at the bottom, I view the role of a senior leader as being at the bottom, and their job is to do whatever they can to hold everybody else up.

That is why one of my leadership philosophies that I’ve shared with my leadership teams over the years is that our only real job is to make sure everyone else is successful.

A large component of how you achieve that is how you build your leadership teams. Is it made up of diverse perspectives that both complement and challenge your thinking? Does your team have a shared vision for a common outcome, but not necessarily a uniform way of getting there? These are all sets of things I believe contribute to a strong leader, and more importantly, a strong leadership team.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Self-advocacy. I think women have a harder time expressing confidence in their abilities and asking for the things they want. We tend to take the roles we are ‘given’ and do the best work we can in that role, without thinking bigger, or more importantly expressing our desire to take on more responsibility in a senior leadership role.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

When I look back at my career, I look at it as “chapters” rather than one long linear journey. Over the years, I’ve found that the biggest surprise is how much my personal experiences have impacted my professional career. When I became a mother, that changed my entire outlook on leadership and professionalism. It made me open up more and become more empathetic. When you think of executives, I don’t think you always expect them to be so open about their personal experiences, but I have found that those experiences are crucial to my philosophy as a leader and as an executive.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I will list out a few:

Strong communication skills — especially written communications as a way to effectively communicate and build personal connections at scale during a time of increased virtualized work for many organizations.

The ability to gain followership — it’s one thing to have a clear vision, but you need to be able to bring your leadership team along on the journey with you.

A dedication to lifelong learning — early in my career, continuous learning wasn’t part of the conversation, so it was much harder to stay fresh on emerging trends that may impact skills development. In the age of tech disruption, where the only constant is change, continuous learning is essential. I led the formation of a tech savvy learning program at my firm so professionals could stay fresh on the technologies that were impacting change and growth for business.

An inclusive mindset — attributes such as collaboration, curiosity, and cognizance of bias needs to show up in how leaders lead, and how they cultivate that with the next generation of leaders as well.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

That no matter how crazy, intense, pressure-filled your environment becomes, to always remember to maintain a focus on whatever gives you energy, personally, and keeps you healthy. As a leader being strong and healthy is the most important gift that you can give to your teams and to your organizations. I don’t believe that was always a commonly held view in business. But I deeply believe that taking the time and space for what’s important to you and what gives you strength and keeps you healthy is more important than one extra turn of a PowerPoint deck, one extra meeting. I think this is an invaluable dimension of how you create successful teams and how you are a successful leader.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Something I’m extremely passionate about is spending meaningful time with those starting out in their careers, because those are the leaders of tomorrow. I really try to be as accessible as I can to undergrads, MBA students, and those just out of school and joining Deloitte in their first year because from what I have seen in my own teams and in my own children, they are passionate about making a real difference with their work. I learn from them just as much as they from me. The data tells us that members of Gen Z are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, they are on track to be the most well-educated generation yet, and they are digital natives. Those facts combined with what I’m already experiencing from my time with them has me extremely optimistic about the future.

To that end, I am also very passionate about supporting and enabling the next generation of STEM careers, especially for women and other underrepresented minorities. So, I spend time on what’s going on at the grade school and high school level in this regard. I’m chair of the Deloitte Foundation, the 90-year old not-for-profit organization that supports education through initiatives benefiting middle/high school students, undergraduates, graduate students and educators to develop future talent. I’m also intimately involved with The Ella Project which is inspiring a new generation of STEM enthusiasts through comic book series featuring a young, female superhero named Ella the Engineer who solves various challenges using science and technology.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

A leadership principle of mine that is well known amongst my colleagues is, “assume and expect positive intent.” I think this belief transcends the business world and is quite applicable to a number of larger societal challenges we need to solve for amidst a very polarized climate we find ourselves in today.

It seems self-explanatory, but in the business context, when faced with a large decision that will have transformative effects on your organization or for the client organization you are serving, I’ve always found that assuming positive intentions can be the true north star in the most difficult of times. It’s about recognizing that exponential benefits can come when you focus on the potential collective results as a full leadership team vs. focusing on what it may mean at the individual level. When you minimize that individual mindset, it can truly lead to more impactful outcomes for the good of your people and organization as a whole. If you apply that to massive societal challenges such as a global pandemic, climate change, or racial inequity, the same holds true — you have to leave self-interest at the door and lead with a mindset of positive intent.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“How you do anything is how you do everything” is a phrase I first heard from a figure within the sports industry when talking about a particular baseball player. He used it to essentially explain how every interaction this player had on and off the field was with the same level of intensity, clarity and directness.

It truly resonated with me that day because the concept is one that has been a lifelong learning principle for myself, I had just never heard it described in such a succinct, powerful way. As a professional, as a human-being, are you bringing consistent energy, focus, and care to all your interactions in a given day? Be it a peer, a manager, a client, or the person preparing your to-go lunch? It’s simple but profound especially if we think about it in the context of the collective fight for inclusion and equity.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I’ve been fortunate that my career has presented me with opportunities to collaborate and spend time with so many men and women I admire and respect across business, non-profit, government, and academia. If I could name just one to put out into the universe, I would say it has to be:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the embodiment of a women’s rights warrior. Through all her battles, and all her accomplishments, it is her prevailing wit, humanity, and humor that would be a pure honor to experience first-hand.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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