Q&A: Beth Brooke
Dispelling doubt and defying the norm is almost second nature to Beth Brooke. As a high school freshman she was diagnosed with a degenerative hip. That didn’t deter her from making it to the bastketball school team and clinching a basketball scholarship to Purdue University. Brooke has continued to trailblaze and produce results beyond expectations with tireless tenacity.
She was named the World’s Most Influential Woman by Forbes for three years in a row, and recently appointed the U.S. Private Sector Co-chair of the upcoming APEC Women Entrepreneur Summit. An inspiration to all, Brooke shares her thoughts on life, learning and leadership.
Journal: How did you feel when you were nominated by Forbes? How has that changed your life?
Brooke: I was surprised. Then I realized it was a recognition of the platform I have and that I use at Ernst & Young to lead in the world. It re-emphasized the value of knowing your platform and using it meaningfully.
Journal: Some would say the financial services industry is something of “a man’s world” and “old boys network,” how do you succeed in an industry like that?
Brooke: I work in a great environment for an incredibly enlightened organization. That is important. And I’m an athlete by background so I know how to compete and I don’t like to lose in anything.
Journal: So is that why basketball was so important to you when you were young?
Brooke: I played all sports. They were all important because I loved succeeding as a team.Doing things alone wasn’t fun.The teamwork made winning a shared effort and much more meaningful. It taught me teamwork and how sometimes you lead and sometimes you follow. You need to know when to do each. Those were life lessons. Basketball gave me a sense of confidence as a young woman. I didn’t need societal approval for whether I was doing a good job—winning was evident from the score. Only later in life did I realize the importance of that. I don’t look to anyone for approval. I know if I am making a difference (winning) and so I am guided by internal satisfaction of whether the world is better off by what I have been able to do or motivate others to do. As a woman, that is important.
Journal: As a result, what kind of leader would you see yourself as?
Brooke: An inclusive one.
Journal: You often speak about the importance of mentors. Who were the mentors in your life and what did they teach you or how did they help you to grow?
Brooke: I had various male mentors early in my career. Jack Shaw—he ran the tax practice in the Indianapolis office in which I began my career. He individually delivered the mail to each of us every day. It was his excuse to talk to us every day. He was a personal leader. He cared and guided me so many times in my career, steering me toward opportunities and away from the rocks. I owe him a great deal.
Steve Miller—a brilliant strategist and visionary. He taught me to challenge the status quo, to never see things as they were but rather to see them as they could be and them get them there. He included me on projects that were revolutionary. Projects which even he didn’t know how to get done but knew where we needed to get to. He trusted in me that I would figure out how to get there. And I did. He created in me an independent spirit, confidence in my ability and passion to change the world. I also learned from him that I had to learn to play within the system. To change the world, you had to be at the table. So you couldn’t be so revolutionary that you got removed from the decision making table. I watched his influence wane as he got kicked off the table. I learned boundaries. Also my chairman, Jim Turley, from whom I learned about the importance of being an authentic leader. You have to behave consistently with what you say or others won’t follow, especially young people today who watch everything.
Journal: Can you tell me about a few milestones or turning points in your career, or in your life?
Brooke: Being selected as a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute in the inaugural class of Fellows. It was a magical experience. With 20 other young leaders, they helped us to discover the depths of values-based leadership. And they challenged us to be authentic leaders and to understand that “significance” in what we were leading was much more important than “success” in its narrow definition. I have since never stopped striving for significance. Also, working in the Clinton Administration. The experience in public service and seeing the societal problems being addressed by a combination of the public sector, private sector and civil society was transformational. I saw the critical importance of the private sector being involved in collaboration with the other sectors. I took that back with me to the private sector.
And, having my best friend tell me I wasn’t actually doing enough for women in the world. While I couldn’t believe her words, as I reflected on her message I knew she was right. I had a platform to do much more for women. While I was doing a lot, I had the potential—due to my platform in the business world—to do so much more. I set out to do it. It changed my life. And more importantly, I hope it changes the lives of many other women.
Journal: And what does “doing enough for women” mean to you?
Brooke: I want women to have an equal opportunity to achieve their potential no matter where in the world they are. That doesn’t imply equal outcomes, but they deserve equal opportunities for education and employment and ultimately leadership. Nothing less is acceptable and society is operating at its own peril not to empower women.
I also believe that entrepreneurs create economies and should be encouraged, supported, and scaled up at all costs. They give so much back to communities in the form of jobs and aspirations and pride. So I am actively involved in many related efforts to support these beliefs.
Journal: What would you change if you could go back in time? What do you want the future to look like, or what do you think it will be like, for the next generation of young men and women?
Brooke: I would change the cultural programming that devalues the contribution women can make to any society. The powerful outcomes that are produced by a combination of men and women working together as equals is undeniable. Yet we continue to ignore this untapped resource in women.
Journal: During your visit to Japan you talked about this, what surprised you during your interactions here?
Brooke: I was surprised at how understanding everyone was of the economic struggles and the demographic challenges. This awareness created a new openness to the power of diversity and the need to involve men and women and other forms of diversity to catalyze the innovation needed in the Japanese economy. Entrepreneurship is key and I saw a recognition that men and women were equally capable.
Journal: Opportunities in the traditional settings, like IQ tests, sometimes set people up for failure, how do you create of opportunities to let the talent shine?
Brooke: Standardized tests often discriminate in their design. Shine in whatever roles you choose. Don’t worry if the standard discriminates.
Journal: How much influence does gender have on the impact of the message that you are bringing?
Brooke: I don’t think who delivers the message matters. What matters if that men and women leaders unite in addressing the issue and care passionately in producing better outcomes for all.
Journal: Are there any other general thoughts that you would like to share with ACCJ Journal readers?
Brooke: Don’t let others tell you that change is not possible. Change is inevitable. The power of diverse perspectives is undeniable. Seek them. Include them. And others who say that change is not possible will marvel at the outcomes you create. Then change will be possible, and the possibilities will be endless.