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Global Dynamo: Meet Ernst & Young’s Beth Brooke

Ernst & Young’s Beth Brooke is one of the dynamos of corporate America, and a role model for women globally. Raised in Indiana and a graduate of Purdue University, she has earned her top spot as the accounting giant’s global vice chair of strategy, communications and regulatory affairs—as well as a seat on its Americas

Executive Board—through hard work, perseverance and sheer smarts during a 27-year career with the firm. (She took a two-year break to work in the U.S. Treasury Department during the Clinton administration.) Brooke is ranked among Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women in the World and she serves on numerous boards, including TechnoServe, The White House Project, The Committee for Economic Development and Partnership for Public Service.

At 49, Brooke has accomplished what many executives only wish they could do: devote equal energy to doing the right thing for the world, her employer and herself. She sat down for a candid conversation on the issues that matter most with Women For Hire CEO Tory Johnson. Prepare to be inspired by Brooke’s vision and her infectious love of life.

Tory: How’d you go from a girl who was told she might never walk again because of a degenerative hip condition, to multiple MVP titles in various high school sports and playing college basketball? Tell me about the impact of sports in your life.

Beth: I really wasn’t an athlete. I was a normal kid until I had the hip thing. I remember coming out of surgery, thinking, “Not only am I going to walk, I’m going to be the best darn athlete you’ve ever seen.” It was a mental thing. That’s when I got serious. My dad was a great athlete. Every night he would hit fly balls to me. We’d shoot baskets on our court, or we’d play ping pong.

At Purdue, I had a really intelligent coach, and that was the role model to me, that you could be both an athlete and an academic. I was a closet academic. I wasn’t sure you could be or were supposed to be both.

To be able to master being in the arena, a tremendous number of hours every day, and in class and on the road, discipline, focus, getting your priorities right—it was an incredible experience. Certainly that discipline, focus and competitiveness helps me today. More importantly, though, is learning how to work with a team, which is everything in business. I was in the Middle East a couple months ago with some women entrepreneurs. One pulled me aside and said, “You don’t seem to have fear. Why is that?” I didn’t even bat an eye. I said, “That’s because I’m an athlete.” I’m conditioned to not fear, to not be afraid, even when you are.

Tory: Are you ever intimidated or insecure?

Beth: Our chairman [James Turley] asked me in front of an internal Ernst & Young audience, “On a scale of secure and insecure, I bet everybody here thinks you’re pretty secure. Where would you put yourself?” And I said, “Oh, pretty insecure on a daily basis.”

Tory: Why?

Beth: Because you’re always trying to be better. My dad used to tell me,

“You’ve been given gifts. Use them.

But recognize that tomorrow you’re probably going to fall on your face, and then you’re going to have to get up and go again.” He instilled in me this sense that you’re never quite good enough, never gotten as good as you could get. Keep working at it. It brings a little bit of insecurity, which is good.

Tory: First job out of college, you veryquickly realized you didn’t pick the right employer. How do you make decisions about fit?

Beth: Values mean an awful lot, and for me in that first job, I had alarm bells going off inside of me, saying, “This is not my value system.” I didn’t know at that moment if that was the business world’s value system or just this place. There was no difficulty in saying, “I’m not doing that.” The scariest thing for me was, will it be better elsewhere? The minute I got to Ernst & Young—Ernst & Whinney at the time—it was, “Thank goodness. That was bad, and I have found home.”

Tory: What are the values and rules you live by?

Beth: Honesty, candor, authenticity. How you behave better be consistent with what you say even when no one’s looking because guaranteed somebody’s looking. I find disappointingly too many people in life who don’t behave as they speak and they lack authenticity. If you’re going to be a leader, people care about whether you’re honest, candid, authentic, and whether you care about them. I’m passionate about what I do, and if I’m not, then I’m doing the wrong thing.

Tory: You’re passionate about championing women’s advancement. What factors make women’s issues, inclusiveness and flexibility a business imperative?

Beth: The cold compelling reality is that by 2016, 70 percent of our incoming workforce will be women, so there’s a huge need to have an inclusive workplace. More compelling to me is every day I see better solutions reached when you have diverse perspectives at the table. With diverse perspectives—including gender, ethnicity, generational and cultural diversity—you get better solutions.

To enable that diversity, you must have an inclusive work force. Those people have to be able to come to work every day. Flexibility is a huge enabler for men and women. Unless we biologically reengineer women, we’re always going to face the life choices that make flexibility even more important for us. Or until we reengineer the social family model and who the natural burden of care falls to. Right now the child care and the elder care disproportionately fall on the women. In any organization flexibility has got to be priority number one if you want to have a truly diverse work force.

As a soon-to-be 50-year-old dinosaur,I’m not going to be able to understand this world in the way that the youngest generation understands it today. Reverse mentoring is huge.

Tory: You don’t have children. It’s impossible to know if you’d have this position or if your career would have take the same path with kids in the house. But do you think not having children has in any way impacted your success?

Beth: I’ve thought a lot about that and I do think that not having children probably made it a little bit easier for me. I probably at times in my life was freer to make work choices that maybe had I had children I would not have been able to make.

I also know as a single person when all the talk would be about work-life balance, which always oriented around children, I was mentally saying, “Wait a minute. Single people have incredible challenges. Nobody’s doing all the household stuff for me. I’ve got it all.”

If you peel back everybody’s onion just one layer, you find out everybody has personal challenges and hurdles to balance. They’re all different, but they’re all difficult.

Tory: Y ou believe strongly that everyone should be able to invest time in public service. Why?

Beth: It’s transformational in the way you think about society and societal challenges. Before I went into government, I somehow thought societal problems just got dealt with by someone, but I really didn’t understand how that happened. I was in government working on Superfund reform, the toxic waste that plagues our society. The toxic waste cleanup wasn’t happening; I was trying to solve that problem, doing what we could from a public policy perspective. I internalized that it was really smart people who have walked away from great jobs to make almost no money because they really care about the challenges this country faces, and were trying to make a difference and do something about it.

I was one of them. I totally got it then, and I understood more about business when I was actually in government. I understood more about what CEOs cared about and how they dealt with government. I started to truly understand how business and government had to work together. Everybody would benefit from that kind of public service because—for me, at least—until you sit on the other side, you think you understand it, but you don’t.

Tory: What kind of negotiator are you,and how do you influence key constituents?

Beth: I’m all about a win-win. I probably learned negotiating the best when I was in government trying to forge compromise. It’s a huge chess set: move one piece, and the other side of the balloon pops out. The goal in any negotiation is that everybody walks away feeling like a winner. The only way you get there, in my mind, is you listen intensely. You understand everybody’s concerns and issues so deeply that you can forge a compromise where everybody may not be thrilled, but not angry. If you can get that, then you move things forward in a positive way.

Tory: You encourage people to dream big. How do you follow that advice to dream big for yourself?

Beth: What I tell people is don’t waste time dreaming about small things. Dream big. Find mentors who can help guide you. I’m a sponge. I’m always taking in information. Right now I’m really focused on the economic empowerment of women around the world.

The data is so clear that when you economically empower women, there’s a multiplier effect. They take care of their children. They take care of their communities. Nations get strong. We started our Corporate Responsibility Fellows Program where we work with micro entrepreneurs and we stick on some of our best people.

That leads me to ask, what if we focus on women entrepreneurs around the world? What kind of multiplier effect could we as an organization create? What if we could put our heads together to actually bring together the right parties to focus on the economic empowerment of women to really make a big difference? That’s what leaders do—have the right networks, be out in spheres where you see things and feel things, and your instincts lead you places to explore.

Tory: Do you ever disconnect? Have you ever gone away for two weeks and had no contact?

Beth: [Laughter] That would not be fun! I disconnect all the time in little ways. I love my kittens. When I’m with them, I’m so disconnected. I have a lot of friends. I have a river place that they all come to and I’m as disconnected as you can get when I’m there. When I’m with my mom, she’s my number one priority, and I’m disconnected. Even just being on an airplane is fun. You can let your mind run wild. The only routine part of my day is an early morning workout and the one phone call I make to my mother. If I had more consistency, then I probably wouldn’t be happy.

Tory: In the last year, what are you most proud of having accomplished?

Beth: I’m most proud of our Corporate Responsibility Fellows program. It’s not only great for the entrepreneurs we help—on average they employ 200 people in their local villages and pay them 10 times the minimum wage. But the impact on our people when they come back from those three months, they are forever transformed. All I’ve done was replicate my own learnings of my very first days in Africa when I had that same transformational impact working with entrepreneurs for TechnoServe, a nonprofit that does great work. As an American, it forever changes how you look at America and what our role in the world could be and should be.

Tory: Your face lights up when you talk about your experience with TechnoServe and now with the Fellows program.

Beth: I traveled to Africa and down to Central America to work on projects with entrepreneurs. My experience was solely focused on lifting people out of rural poverty through entrepreneurship. We saw it work in incredible ways.

This husband and wife had been growing beans on their one-acre farm in Kenya for years. Bean prices had fallen. They’d grown beans too long, so their soil was acidic and wasn’t producing much. TechnoServe worked with them to understand that their farm and their land could be great for growing bananas if they de-acidified the soil with lime and had irrigation. TechnoServe helped to bring that to them.

This husband and wife started growing some of the world’s best bananas. They got thousands of farmers in this village to band together to all convert their farms to banana-growing farms. Now they have this big banana cooperative, and they sell together so their prices can hold up on the world markets.

We go visit and this husband and wife said, “Why don’t you come with us. We want to show you the medical clinic we’re building for the village,” because the nearest hospital is five kilometers away, and when the children are sick in the middle of the night, they can’t walk five kilometers. They say, “We’re using a percentage of our profits in the whole co-op to build this medical clinic.”

We walk with them down in the village, and we look out over the hill, and I’m expecting to see a bright shiny new medical clinic. I look over the hill, and I see a foundation, two cinder blocks high, and it’s the foundation of the medical clinic. They’re building it brick by brick as they earn money from the co-op.

I think, “This is what the world’s all about.” Nobody had to tell them about corporate responsibility. They know what their community needs and they take their profits and do it. That was the genesis of the idea. It’s how we started the Corporate Responsibility Fellows program.

Tory: What do the Fellows say when they return home?
Beth: “I understand now what it really is to make a difference. I was the lifeline for this entrepreneur. I was side by side, making decisions that impacted whether this business lived or died. I stuck with it. It was so hard to leave. But I’m now working on a global, multinational company, and I see how I make a difference for them. I get it. I see it in a different way than I saw it.”
That to me is huge because they came back, and it translated. Even before a company can afford to pay us, we’re committed because we know all of the global multinational companies of today started as this little micro entrepreneur at some point, and that’s where it all begins.

All photos by Allyson Lubow.