How I Got Here May 17 2012

Punit Renjen on Succeeding as Deloitte's Chairman

By Julie Steinberg

Punit Renjen, chairman of Deloitte, had never been on an airplane before until he traveled to the U.S. in his early 20s. He won a Rotary Foundation Scholarship to study at Willamette University in Oregon.

"I came to the U.S. sight unseen," says Renjen, who was born and raised in a village 40 miles west of New Delhi, India.

Some 25 years later, Renjen is responsible for the overall strategy and vision for the professional services firm, a position he attained after climbing the ladder since 1987 at Deloitte's predecessor, Touche Ross. He joined as an associate consultant, then became a senior consultant, manager and senior manager. He was elected to the partnership in 1996 and served clients in M&A until 2009, when he was appointed chief executive of Deloitte Consulting.

In 2011, he replaced Sharon Allen as chairman of Deloitte. FINS caught up with him to discuss the importance of building your craft, why getting experience at a young age is key to your career and how he intends to build his own legacy.

Julie Steinberg: How are you feeling at this point in your career trajectory?

Punit Renjen: I'm 50 and I kick. I run. I live on a hill in Portland, Oregon. One day I ran down the hill, one and a half miles down, same distance up. I saw this younger person overtake me and I kept running, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Halfway up that hill he was panting and I overtook him. I made it a pact: "I'm not going to let this guy overtake me." I knew he was trying to overtake me. It was the highlight of my year.

JS: You were elected chairman last year. How did that process work?

PR: Our elected positions, chairman and CEO, are just that. They're not appointed. We go through a very rigorous nominating process. We've got about 3,000 partners and all of them are polled. We spent five months polling the entire partner-directorship, about 5,000 people, to identify the destination they'd like to take the firm in and the characteristics they're looking for in their leaders. Out of that comes a slate of individuals that are vetted and then an independent body nominates a slate of candidates and the chairman and CEO are voted on.

I'm the first Indian chairman of a big professional services firm. Our American CEO is of Hispanic origin. It's a powerful testament to our firm that individuals with these types of backgrounds can be deemed appropriate. It says less about me and more about the firm.

JS: What do you actually do as chairman?

PR: My responsibility is to leave the firm better than I found it. There are a few key areas I'm going to describe that fall under my job description.

Under governance and oversight, the board and chairman provide independent oversight to the actions of management to ensure the interest of the partnership is front and center.

I'm not charged with the day-to-day management of the firm, as the CEO is, so I can focus on my role as strategist. I can look beyond the annual cycle to ensure decisions made today will hold us in great stead going forward. Every exceptional organization does two things--they clearly articulate a strategy and answer the fundamental questions: where are we going, how are we going to get there?

JS: How you plan to distinguish yourself from your predecessor, Sharon Allen?

PR: Sharon set a very high bar. I wanted to make sure to continue all of the things she did over the last eight years in corporate governance and transparency. My goal is to continue many of the things that she did and do a few more that are unique to me.

We have an independent chairman. It's a best practice not only for our firm but in the governance area across the board. I'm independently elected by the partners and I'm evaluated by the board and not by the CEO. I'm compensated by the firm and not the CEO. It's a term-limit position, four years, that can be extended by the partnership.

I want our partners to state I was a really good steward of our partnership. As a partner, I have capital. When I leave the firm I get my capital back, not a cent more. You don't get a stock appreciation like you would at a normal firm. By the time I finish, there's a lot of sweat equity into building the firm. The firm is very different 25 years ago but when I leave I'm not going to monetize that. That's what makes our firm special. We leave behind our sweat equity for the next individuals that follow in our footsteps. As a chairman of the board, I'm very cognizant of that.

JS: You live in Oregon but you have an office in New York. How does your travel schedule work out?

PR: I don't have a typical week. I spend about a third of time being chairman of the board and a very large portion of my time in client service, mainly in an advisory role. I spend quite a bit of time traveling to various client locations. I also spend time on the global board. I'm chairman of the U.S. board and a member of that global board. There's no typical week. One Tuesday I'll be in and come back to Oregon on Friday night. Then the week after I'll going to be in New York then San Francisco.

I live in Portland and I like to get home every weekend. I have an 8-year-old son. He's the joy of my life. I try and get home every weekend. A really good week is three nights out and four at home.

JS: You've been at Deloitte for 25 years. Would you recommend staying at one firm or hopping around?

PR: The most important thing is you've got to have multiple experiences, whether at one firm or at multiple firms. The beauty of a firm like ours is it gives someone an opportunity to do different things. I've been a consultant by trade, but I've done different things like strategy and operations consulting. Then I moved to M&A and had an opportunity to consult with world's most prominent firms and do various different things.

What I do is really a craft. It takes time, effort and mentorship. That's the recipe for success. You can get it from one firm that gives you all sorts of opportunities at a relatively young age. I got a chance to consult with very senior executives when I was young.

I worked on putting together the first electric gas mergers in the U.S. in my early 30s. I worked on a large pharmaceutical merger. I helped put together a large technology merger that was a defining merger for industry. A very large synergy had to be achieved and there were complexities in terms of cultural differences. It was a fascinating case.

JS: So you could work on important cases even if you were relatively junior?

PR: It's a very flat firm and titles don't really matter. Partners own the firm but what really matters is how good your thinking is and how good your team is. When I have a group of individuals focused on addressing client problem, it doesn't matter that I'm the partner and there's an associate. What really prevails is the creativity of the idea and the best thinking to bear. I do have certain advantages. I've spent the 10,000 hours getting good at something, I've seen the multiple situations so I can bring that perspective, but that doesn't entitle to me all the good ideas.

JS: Deloitte laid out ambitious plans for hiring at the end of 2010. How are those going?

PR: We will add about 18,000 jobs this year in America in risk, strategy, operations improvement, financial consulting, technology consulting, assurance and others. Nearly every industry is growing. Health care, financial services, consumer products.

For 18,000 positions we will look at 440,000 resumes. It is harder to get into Deloitte than it is to the University of Pennsylvania. It's a very special place.

JS: What's turnover like in the consulting business?

PR: In the consulting business we grade on a curve. We've got a scale of one through five. It becomes really difficult. Only a certain number of individuals will get a one. If you get a five, you're given chance for improvement. We do have a certain amount of turnover; generally the norm within industry is 15%. Our turnover is significantly lower than that.

JS: What makes someone leap out to you and give them a second look?

PR: Your academic and professional accomplishments are a given. You need to have met a certain threshold. But what distinguishes individuals is the ability. I'm looking to see how they address a problem. How creative they are, how agile they are in responding to problems. I'm looking for high interpersonal capability as well. It's really those intangibles that distinguish people. Everyone I interview is incredibly smart. They have the academic qualifications and the professional qualifications.

It takes probing but I'm looking for individuals who subscribe to our value system. I'm looking for people who will try to put the interest of their clients ahead of theirs, who work well in a team setting and who will become very good mentors.

JS: Have you had good mentors along the way?

PR: I've really learned a craft. The way that someone gets good at their craft is through mentorship.

I've been lucky to have individuals who have mentored me and have taught me their craft.

We approach it very programmatically. Every individual has a counselor from whom they get feedback multiple times a year. As an example, when I did my first merger engagement, I was lucky that the partner took me under his wing. When I took him an idea, he said, "well have you thought of this? Based on my experience, you may want to consider this."

Just before I made partner, I had worked incredibly hard in the preceding seven to eight years and I needed to take a break. The firm was very amenable to me taking a sabbatical. I took a five-month sabbatical. I had the chance to travel and I met my future wife. We now do that programmatically through our career customization process.

I get emails nearly every day from someone asking me to be their mentor. It's very gratifying and many partners like me get that sort of request. The counselor relationship provides that opportunity. I can't provide one-on-one mentorship but I do remind them of the importance of that career counseling. I tell them to seek mentorship from specific people they're working with.

JS: Do you have any career advice to impart to people just starting out?

PR: It would be amazing if I knew then what I know now. Picking your spouse is a very important decision, it impacts your life. My wife raises our son. I will be defined by what I accomplished at Deloitte and what my son thinks of me when he becomes a man. Those are the two things that define me. Frankly, what my son thinks of me when he becomes a man is a life-defining act. What I do here at Deloitte is a life-defining act. This is my life's work. I think about that often. Many of the actions that I take I try and do the best I possibly can.

JS: You travel often. What do you do to amuse yourself on airplanes?

PR: I don't own an iPod. Airplanes give me a chance to think. I sleep and catch up on work.

Write to Julie Steinberg at

Write to Julie Steinberg at

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