Voice of Experience: Christie Smith PhD, Principal and Northern Pacific Sector Leader for Life Sciences, Deloitte Consulting LLP

christiesmithBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Christie Smith, Principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, is a passionate supporter of women in leadership, and has been significantly involved in the firm’s women’s initiatives since joining the organization in 2001.

The former professional golfer said, “My advice to women is to be fearless.”

One of the firm’s most senior lesbians, she has also been involved in the Deloitte’s LGBT community for about five years. In fact, she said, being a more visible “out” leader has helped her be more confident in her career. She explained, “Being comfortable with who I am and bringing my whole self to work has been a fantastic experience at Deloitte”

Now taking on a new role building the firm’s life sciences consulting practice, Smith’s fearless attitude and devotion to authenticity have helped her build a notable career.

Becoming Part of the Team

Christie Smith joined Deloitte ten years ago as a direct entry principal. Having working as a consultant in the area of organizational behavior and change management for 15 years prior to joining the firm, Smith was already a recognized leader in the field.

But her path to the top wasn’t exactly traditional, Smith said. “When I graduated from college, I actually played professional golf for a number of years.” While many professional golfers today are making big paychecks, at the time, the sport wasn’t quite so lucrative. To make a living, Smith explained, “I spent much of my time playing in the Pro Ams, playing with C-level executives.”

She continued, “They were very open about their business challenges, and goals, and objectives. It was interesting that they would share with me as much as they did. And I would give them my opinions, and I just developed an aptitude for consulting.”

The youngest of eight kids, Smith said with a laugh, “I grew up in a competitive marketplace. My passion for people and my passion for solving problems came naturally.” Smith went on to earn a master’s degree in psychology from Rutgers, and a PhD in organizational culture from NYU.

After consulting for a number of years, Smith continued, she was asked to join Deloitte as a direct entry principal. In fact, she said, joining the firm is her proudest professional achievement. “Many of the partners had long careers with Deloitte – and I made the decision to join in my late 30s. It was a departure from the small boutique firm where I had played a broader role than just consulting.”

She continued, “I was hesitant to make the decision to come to a big firm. But it was the best decision I ever made. I spent nine months being interviewed by the partners. I remember sitting across from Mike Fucci [during an interview] and I told him I wanted that feeling I had playing high school basketball when I would put on my school jersey and felt tremendous pride of being part of my team.”

She continued, “Mike promised me that by joining Deloitte I would get that feeling back. Ten years later, he and Deloitte have delivered on that for me.”

Recently Smith made a career shift to the West Coast to head up the firm’s Northern Pacific life sciences sector. “The regional managing partner asked me to become the regional sector leader, for all functions and I’m here to work with my Partners to galvanize our talent and to grow out the life sciences sector.”

She continued, “We’ve just announced a collaboration with QB3, part of UCSF and we’ve had double digit growth this year for life sciences. We’re about to embark on a life sciences incubator in our new offices in San Francisco, where we will go to market as an integrated practice, across all four of Deloitte’s business areas that include consulting, audit and enterprise risk, tax and financial advisory services. It’s very exciting.”

Out at Deloitte

“I have always approached my work at Deloitte by being authentic,” began Smith. “That means not changing pronouns, or hiding who I am. I’ve worked in some places where I was out and some where I was not.”

She explained, “With Deloitte, I felt that I was too old not to be open about myself and too proud of my family and accomplishments. There was no reason to hide that part of my life.”

Smith continued, “When I was interviewing, I wasn’t asked about my technical skills as much as I was asked about my family. There was never a hitch in that conversation, and that showed me something about Deloitte’s comfort with the LGBT community. It’s more than tolerance – it’s comfort.”

“It’s been a non-issue both at Deloitte and with my clients. And frankly, that’s the way it should be.”

She continued, “About five years ago, I was asked to take on a leadership role on the board of Out and Equal. I’m one of the more senior lesbians at the firm and it was a real turning point, not only for me personally, but for the firm as well. I engaged Sharon Allen to give the keynote at our conference, and that enabled us to engage a in dialogue with some of our C-Suite clients who were out. To have her embracing and jumping full in to this area of diversity was important.”

“I’ve been involved in Pride for the last five years at Deloitte, and it’s a big month for us. There are a number of events going on in the community,” she said.

This year, for IMPACT Day, Deloitte’s annual day of service she explained, Ken McLean, the firm’s LGBT leader, has asked the workforce to focus on LGBT projects. Additionally, she said, Deloitte is hoping to participate in the “It Gets Better” campaign, and will participate in Pride parades in major cities.

Finally, she said, “for two years the Big 4 Leaders have come together to say, ‘let’s put the community before the competition on LGBT issues.’” The group, the Professional Services Alliance Initiative, is working on changing tax laws and developing and submitting for the first LGBT audit association.

Challenges for Professional Women

Smith said one of the biggest challenges women face in the workplace was highlighted recently by the Center for Work Life Policy’s paper “The Sponsor Effect.” She said, “Women are still underrepresented in the senior ranks, whether in the private or public sector. There is a need for sponsors, and particularly male sponsors, in the senior levels. It’s a key component for women shattering the glass ceiling.”

She continued, “At Deloitte, we’ve recognized this. Our women’s initiative has been very successful, but we’re not resting on our laurels. Clearly something is happening in the workforce. And we’re seeing a different level of need and demand in terms of the programs we need to provide for different generations.”

“Deloitte is doing a fantastic job, but we, and Barbara Adachi, would admit we need to do more. We are still not seeing the level of parity we would like to see.”

Challenges for Lesbian Executives

As far as challenges for women in the LGBT community, she said, “I think discrimination is discrimination. Women and men in the LGBT community are the invisible minority.”

She continued. “For lesbians, the issues that women face are heightened. When you can be your full self at work, you can see greater productivity and impact for the organization than when you’re still closeted. But if you are not bringing your full self to work – it can impact how invested you are, if you have to hide part of your life.”

Because female leaders often face more scrutiny, that spotlight can seem even more intense for women who are out, she explained.

“When you move up in your organization, you become more visible. You might not want to sign up for that and fear facing discrimination more broadly. You may be very capable, but afraid that whomever is looking at you might not support you because of your lifestyle,” said Smith.

Advice for Professional Women

“My advice is ‘be authentic,’” Smith said. “Bring your whole self to work.”

She continued, “Looking at the young women coming up through the firm – boy, I wish I had their gumption!”

“Carol Gilligan wrote a phenomenal book, In a Different Voice and talked about how tenacious and determined and competitive young girls are before they reach puberty and then in deference to social pressures and norms post-puberty they change. But girls today aren’t succumbing to that. I see, in the young women coming into Deloitte, a huge amount of determination and confidence and competitiveness.”

She continued, “They want the challenging assignments and they are asking for them. That tenacity is generational in my estimation.”

She added that young women should work to make their mark early on.“Be passionate about who you are and what work you want to do. Build your brand from day one – from the day you step through that door, you are building your reputation.”

“For women who are more senior, I would add that you have to be fearless. Certainly you have to understand the political climate and culture, and for some women they have been positively or negatively impacted by this but in my view you have to keep your eye on realizing your own potential – everyone benefits from that.”

Smith continued, “It’s all the mentality of being fearless in the face of anything that comes, not fearing failure and making ‘the ask’ in your career. Many of my peers still wait to be asked to fill roles or positions. I don’t think you can wait for that.”

She added, “find the right sponsor and ask for their help and go for it. That’s what I mean by being fearless.”

Smith is the WIN initiative leader for consulting on the West Coast and Northwest Pacific. “I wrote part of my doctoral dissertation on women and developmental relationships and sponsorship, and the ability to help organize and participate in the initiative is something I’m extremely passionate about.”

In Her Personal Time

In her personal time, Smith says she still plays a lot of golf, as well as participates in half marathons and triathlons. She added with a laugh, “I have two four-year olds, and that’s a marathon in itself!”