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Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Dan Helfrich, Chairman and CEO of Deloitte Consulting

I spoke to Dan Helfrich, Chairman and CEO of Deloitte Consulting, about his journey and best advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Dan: I’m the oldest of seven in a dynamic, diverse family, including three adopted siblings from varied backgrounds. Diversity is in my blood, and it has shown me that inclusion is the most important value for business and society. This is something I bring to Deloitte as we look to make sure that advancing both diversity and inclusion is the number one priority for our business and our people.

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?  

Dan: This year is my 21st year with Deloitte—I started right after graduating from Georgetown University. Funny enough, I always wanted to be a sports broadcaster but ultimately turned down an opportunity to be in the business after I had already accepted an offer from Deloitte.

My time here has been incredibly rewarding—much of it spent serving clients in government around major transformations in strategy, technology, and most importantly, people. I think the most defining moment of my career was probably working with the Transportation Security Administration, helping this brand-new organization stand up in the wake of 9/11. It was so inspiring to see the private and public sectors come together to rally around a national imperative in a time of intense pressure and undeniable need. I’ve had an amazing journey so far and I’m excited to be in this new role with the chance to impact tens of thousands of Deloitte lives and tens of millions of lives outside of our firm. 

Challenges abound – in many ways – that’s why this profession still energizes me every day. My biggest challenge today: how to effectively reach, engage, and motivate a very diverse team of more than 50K. 

Regarding setbacks, when I was a competitive sports athlete, I always learned more from losses or poor games than wins. The same applies today. Each less-than-stellar meeting, each loss of a customer, each colleague that chooses to leave our team because their experience didn’t match their expectation is a chance to learn – and to improve. But I don’t like the word failure. It has a certain finality and defeatism to it. Challenges and setbacks? Absolutely. Failure? Not in my vocabulary. Fortunately, there are many more wins than losses in this context…and so my perpetual optimism remains.  

Adam: What is your best advice for those working at big organizations on how to best climb the corporate ladder? 

Dan: Relax. Take a deep breath. Maybe practice some meditation. 

Seriously, I rarely see that people who have a single-minded focus on career advancement achieve their definition of corporate ladder success…and even more rarely see it happen with fulfillment and happiness. Try articulating your ambition in terms of experiences you seek to discover, not roles or titles you seek to accumulate. The one predictable ingredient in most successful “corporate” careers I see is a willingness to take on new, uncomfortable assignments that demand creativity and charting a path on “the road less traveled.”  

Adam: What is your best advice for entrepreneurs and those working at small businesses on how to cultivate relationships and sell to large companies?   

Dan: I’m a big proponent of the importance of convening. In today’s economy, convening beyond the traditional ecosystem is what sets the winners apart. A few years ago, we at Deloitte began asking ourselves: How can we be more of a convener? So, we’ve been convening with and investing in accelerators, incubators, and engaging more in the start-up community. 

Our approach to innovation has become known as Catalyst and we’ve set up hubs in innovation hotspots such as Tel Aviv, Palo Alto, and Austin. No matter the industry, convening opens up new possibilities and becomes a force multiplier for the social impact companies of all sizes want to have. 

Small businesses need to be conveners as well. We’ve built relationships with a number of incubator and accelerators in different parts of the country and through those relationships met some pretty innovative small businesses. So, I’d encourage small business owners to seek out ways to convene in your market or your industry.  

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? 

Dan: I’m a huge sports fan and was fortunate to be able to play soccer for Georgetown University. When I reflect on my time back then and more broadly about leadership, I think about captains rather than coaches. Unlike coaches, captains don’t draw their influence from positional authority- but rather from influence and respect. The best captains “show up” as peers (not as entitled) and are able to create a sense of partnership and followership amongst their teammates. 

The consulting business will always be a team sport, and I will always be a captain, which to me, means making sure our people are receiving meaningful feedback, being challenged, feel recognized for what they bring to the table, laugh and have fun, all while doing work with purpose.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them? 

Dan: Over the years, I have learned a lot from my brothers who run a coffee business, Summit Coffee, based in Davidson, NC. There are many universal challenges in business regardless of the size. As they have expanded and taken on new growth opportunities, I admire how they have remained steadfast in their values and in their commitment to the culture they have built with their employees. I believe that their success stems from that focus on their values and on culture – you can just feel it in their stores. 

I read lots of biographies and absolutely love to watch press conferences – both of these things help me learn about great leaders. The former gives me insight into how some of our most successful leaders (former presidents, CEOs, humanitarians, etc.) made decisions and engaged with their teams. The press conferences give me a live view on how leaders respond differently under pressure, formulating answers, and engaging with reporters. Both have helped me think through my own leadership style.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?  

Dan: Something I pride myself in is being respectfully decisive. My biggest pet peeve is a 30-minute meeting with 10 minutes of content. I really prefer huddles—quick, 15-minute, focused, straight talk meetings with a clear goal and outcome. Productive debate strengthens us, and as consultants, it’s important we collaborate and ideate together. But tough, timely decisions also need to be made, or you’ll spend more time talking about the market than actually being in it. My advice would be to remain calm, be confident, and help your team navigate disruption rather than letting it stop you in your tracks.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?   

Dan: A few times each year, pull your team together and ask two questions: 1) How can this team be more diverse? 2) How can this team be more inclusive? There’s always an answer to both questions. Giving space to discuss and debate the answers will unlock myriad improvements and create a culture that people feel empowered to shape.

Adam: What are your three best tips for consultants? 

Dan: First: Take a deep breath. Consultants often put immense pressure on themselves and imagine all of these pressures they think their organization may be placing on them. Worrying about that isn’t worth it. Your mental, spiritual, and physical wellness matters more than anything else—for your clients, for your organization, and most importantly, yourself.

Second, the reason we’re in this business is to deliver impact for our clients, not just to win work. Sometimes in consulting or, actually in any other organization, a new contract or a big new order is what is celebrated. But in my view, winning is the invitation to deliver impact for that client, which should always be the number one goal. It’s so important that we give the “thrill of client delivery” the same or greater fanfare as the “thrill of victory.”

Lastly, something a bit more tangible is to take an improv class. It’s good practice for thinking on your feet, which can give you a greater sense of confidence when you are put on the spot. Being able to think on your feet and project confidence are super important to being a consultant.

Adam: What are your three best tips for business executives and entrepreneurs?    

Dan: Measure your success based on whether your people are achieving their own personal ambitions. The sign of a good leader is a team that is growing, developing, and thriving in an environment where they’re comfortable raising their hands in any situation. The best thing you can do for your organization and your people is to ensure they’re ready and willing to take the helm someday after you. 

Be relentlessly focused on the human experience – for your customers, your stakeholders, and your employees. Those who deliver an elevated, values-based human experience will win and sustain their competitive advantage. 

Finally, no one company or leader has a monopoly on good ideas. In fact, in today’s ever-changing business and economic landscape, we often need to turn to each other to address today’s most complex and pressing issues. While it might be intimidating, we’re living in an exciting time where we have to detonate our traditional practices and forge new ways of doing things. Don’t be afraid to convene with those you might previously have dismissed or overlooked, even a competitor.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?    

Dan: ”There are graveyards full of indispensable people.” Think about it. I see so many people working to what amounts to a pretty self-centered objective of personal indispensability. Make it about a broader team since all of us can (and will) be replaced. 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward?    

Dan: Sponsoring the careers of people who are not as represented in the workforce as they can and should be, and who look different than you. 

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you?

Dan: I am a daily exerciser and a huge sports fan— and for 15 years I have kept my sports broadcasting skills sharp by doing the play-by-play of every Georgetown Men’s Soccer game (Hoya Saxa!). And I plan on that hobby becoming a second career when I hang up the consulting cleats. Sports have taught me so much about myself, what it means to be part of a team, and what it takes to be a leader. 

A lot of the principles that I practice every day at Deloitte have stemmed from a life playing, watching, and loving sports. My wife and I spend a lot of time driving our four kids to their various games. I love to watch them play and to see them learn some of those same leadership principles. I am continuously in awe of team sports and the power they have to open new doors and provide opportunity to everyone and anyone, no matter their background.

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