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Aiming High: J. Michael Cook

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J. Michael Cook

Since 2001, the prominent civil rights organization Legal Momentum has honored the most successful and influential people who advance women in the business community with its Aiming High Award. J. Michael Cook, former chair and CEO of Deloitte & Touche LLP, is one of the five people being honored this year and the first male recipient of the award.

This year’s 16th annual Legal Momentum Aiming High award honorees will be celebrated at a luncheon on June 7 in New York. They are:

  • Lynn R. Charytan, executive vice president and general counsel, Comcast Cable, senior vice president and senior deputy general counsel Comcast Corp.
  • J. Michael Cook, retired chair and CEO, Deloitte
  • Barbara J. Desoer, CEO, Citibank, N.A.
  • Natasha Lamb, partner, Arjuna Capital
  • Tracey T. Travis, executive vice president and CFO, The Estée Lauder Companies Inc.

In 1989, Cook was serving as chair and CEO of the then newly formed professional services firm Deloite LLP, which resulted from the merger of Deloitte Haskins & Sells and Touche Ross. The following year, Cook was reviewing the slate of candidates being considered for partner status and noticed that very few of them were women. When he took a more extensive look at his company’s gender dynamics, he noticed a troubling trend: although hiring practices created a roughly even mix of men and women throughout the company, there was a much higher turnover of women employees—even women who had been with the firm for a number of years. Aside from the negative impact that a revolving door of employees had on maintaining client services, Cook knew that the company was also losing wellsprings of talent.

Not everyone saw the problem as Cook did, however. In a recent telephone interview, Cook recalled how one partner suggested that Deloitte simply hire more men so that the firm wouldn’t feel the workforce fluctuations so acutely. “He was telling me that he wanted the firm to hire less capable people,” Cook said. “I said that we’re not going to do that. We can’t provide high-quality client service by hiring a group of people that is not of the highest quality.”

In his search for a solution, Cook sought help from Catalyst to take a careful look at the organization. It tuned out that company culture was the primary culprit for the high rate of departures. Catalyst first interviewed a pool of women who left the firm and found that they weren’t leaving Deloitte to be full-time parents—they left to work at other companies whose schedules allowed for a better balance between work and home life. This was hardly surprising as dual career couples were becoming more common, but the implementation of Deloitte’s policies wasn’t keeping up with that societal shift.

After extensive research and analysis, Cook responded by launching the Women’s Initiative in 1993. The program allowed all employees flexible work arrangements and programs were implemented to assure that women could have the same career trajectory at the firm as their male counterparts. One result of this focus on fostering an inclusive culture has been Deloitte being named to Fortunemagazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list in addition to being hailed by Working Mother Media as one of the best companies for working mothers. “This was not just progress for women, it was progress for everybody,” Cook says. “The men used some of the flexibility that we provided because they were spouses in dual career families and needed more time for things other than working. Being with family is important to everyone.”

Cook, who retired from Deloitte in 1999, looks back on his six years leading the program and the positive impact the Women’s Initiative had. “Deloitte now has a woman as the CEO of the firm and has a woman who is the CEO of consulting business of the firm, which is the largest component of the firm these days. And they were picked because they were the best qualified person for those jobs, but not because of their gender. The culture of the firm now enables women to become ‘best qualified’ for the very top executive positions.”

Since 2012, NACD Directorship magazine has served as the media partner for the Aiming High awards.