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Championing Women Champions Us All

During a global Solarian Connect session to kick off International Women’s Day on March 8, SolarWinds board member Cathy Benko underscored how meeting women’s needs and ambitions benefits all members of the workforce. A trailblazer in promoting diverse leadership in the workplace, Cathy’s career has been shaped by launching Deloitte’s award-winning women’s initiative, developing her signature corporate lattice framework as a leading-edge model for how modern careers are built, and her ongoing commitment to diversity and creating positive change in the workplace and beyond.

Pioneering Women’s Programs

Although Cathy is now recognized as a pioneer in championing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, it wasn’t what she expected or planned for her career. As a junior partner at Deloitte in the 1990s and the first woman partner in the region, Cathy was initially reluctant to take on the role of managing Deloitte’s women’s initiative when she was first asked.

“What I didn’t appreciate was the more I found ways to say no, the better candidate I became,” Cathy said. “And, in fact, how I wound up leading the initiative became a two-part Harvard case study on negotiation because the more I said no, the more attractive I was.”

Cathy initially approached the assignment by spending 30 days leading a council to assess the current state of Deloitte’s women’s initiatives. After leading a two-day event in Chicago with 30 senior leaders, Cathy knew there was an enthusiasm to continue. That short off-site became the genesis for a program focused on a broad scope of DEI issues and a milestone in the industry.

Career Mobility and Flexibility for Everyone

The digital age has expanded opportunities for where and how work is performed. The traditional corporate life was defined by 9-to-5 working hours and rising through the ranks like rungs on a ladder. Cathy recognized that this lack of career customization didn’t fit many workers, especially women. Her book, The Corporate Lattice, tackles this challenge head-on, making the case for shifting the narrative for the entire workforce, not just for women.

“Never did I make it about women because then you’re exception processing,” Cathy said. “You’re admitting that the base case is that it works [this way], but then we have this whole segment of workers—more often than not women—who have to work this way. And I never wanted to pigeonhole it that way.”

Instead, Cathy recognized that what works for women works for everyone. And, when policies are built to reflect the expressed needs of women, men also benefit.

“The aperture of what a successful career looks like is not one-size-fits-all,” she said. “It’s very individualized and creates a workplace where all kinds of sets of people could thrive individually and collectively.”

Embracing Work-Life Fit

Flexibility and ebbs and flows in careers are often defined as a work-life balance, placing work and life as opposing forces where one needs to identify a middle ground. Instead of accepting this term as the status quo, Cathy prefers to approach the conversation as a career-life fit and to work with life’s changing priorities—rather than against them.

“How do you make your life fit into your work, and your work fit into your life over time?” she said. “One of the things I learned is that as you’re doing all of this career stuff, your life goes on, too. You’re not in freeze frame until your kids are grown and out of the house, so everything has to work in concert.”

Cathy applied this principle during her career, recognizing that when she felt something was out of sync, she needed to enable herself to build in flexibility. One example is when Cathy’s boss and CEO asked her to fly from New York to Atlanta for meetings when she planned to return to California. She said no to the request because she planned to take her four-year-old son to Chuck E. Cheese that weekend and instead would plan to travel to Atlanta on Monday to uphold that promise to her son.

“What’s not OK is the breakdown of the system of trust,” she said. “You said you were going to do something, and if you don’t do it, then you start to get wary. And when that trust breaks down, it’s really hard to get it back.”

Investing in Women in the Workplace

The path to an egalitarian workplace must include everyone, regardless of gender identity. Creating opportunities for men to understand better and relate to women and build commonality with them as clients, customers, and coworkers solidifies the connection between men and women beyond just the professional sphere.

At Deloitte, Cathy would frequently take the opportunity to ask individuals what they thought about the company’s women’s initiative.

“I would ask men that question, and they would say, ‘Oh, totally supportive,’” she said. “But if you pause long enough until they felt like they got to say something else, what they would generally say is, you know, it hasn't really done anything for me specifically, but that’s OK because I’m not a woman.”

Cathy believed that if everyone was truly invested in the program, it would have an amplifying effect. They would feel less like observers and more emotionally connected. To begin this mindset shift, Deloitte conducted primary research to study the differences between men and women in business-to-business (B2B) buying decisions.

“What we learned is . . . on average, there are fundamental differences in decision-making skills, communication, and interpersonal relationships,” she said. “To the extent they can understand these differences in clients, they can better relate to them.”

Beginning by understanding and relating to clients built an emotional connection and investment, which naturally led to the ability to better relate to teammates, coworkers, children, and spouses.

“From my personal perspective, role models are the number one thing I believe in in terms of really making a difference for women and other groups as well,” she said. “But, on average, if you really want to invest in women, you need more people making the investment, which are the people who are not women. Finding ways to enlist them in a way that brings personal gain for them where they really understand what it is longitudinally is the most effective.”

Emily Coleman
Emily is a senior marketing manager at SolarWinds where she is responsible for global customer advocacy programs including case studies, customer stories, and the executive…
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