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Believe in Women: Iron Bow Sits Down with Cathy Engelbert, WNBA Commissioner
Francesca El Attrash-UkaejiofoJune 11 20247 min read

11 Empowering Leadership Lessons from WNBA Commissioner, Cathy Engelbert

Iron Bow's 2024 Believe in Women Event was a day of inspiration, empowerment, and unity. The atmosphere was electric as industry leaders, sports enthusiasts, and advocates for women's empowerment came together to celebrate and support this important cause. The highlight of it all was getting to hear firsthand from the formidable Cathy Engelbert, WNBA Commissioner, who not only impressed everyone with her down-to-earth nature and kindness but also wowed us with her powerful life lessons from being a top leader in the corporate and sports world.

This event, made possible by the collaborative efforts of Monumental Sports & Media and the Intel team, showcased the power of teamwork and the unwavering spirit of women. Let's dive into the highlights and relive the unforgettable moments of this special day.

1. Going from Corporate to Sports Leadership

In July 2019, Cathy Engelbert was named the first-ever Commissioner of the WNBA and is charged with bolstering visibility for the sport of women’s basketball and leading the business through transformation. Since Cathy stepped into the role of WNBA Commissioner, she has executed a historic player-first Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2020; built and socialized a new economic framework to drive league revenue growth and stakeholder success; led the longest-tenured women's professional sports league in the U.S. through its 25th anniversary season and through the COVID-19 pandemic; and, raised $75 million capital from outside investors to fund league transformation projects.

Prior to the WNBA, Cathy retired as the CEO of Deloitte in June 2019, after 33 years with the firm. Elected as Deloitte CEO in 2015, she was the first woman CEO in the history of a Big Four professional services firm. In her role as CEO of Deloitte, Cathy led the largest accounting and consulting organization in the U.S. with more than 100,000 professionals.

Cathy is a member of the Board of Directors of McDonald's Corporation, Royalty Pharma, and the USGA Executive Committee. She also serves as the Vice Chair of the Partnership for New York City and is a member of the Business Council, Council on Foreign Relations, and Catalyst, a global non-profit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women.

She has been listed as one of Fortune's Most Powerful Women for four consecutive years, was ranked on Glassdoor's annual Employees' Choice Awards honoring the 100 Highest Rated CEOs, and is one of Fast Company magazine's Most Productive People. In 2021, Cathy was listed on the Forbes' '50 Over 50' list and Adweeks '40 Women to Watch'.

Cathy received a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Economics (Accounting) from Lehigh University. She has two children - earning her the recognition as one of Working Mother magazine's 50 Most Powerful Moms for three years.

Hear more about Cathy's background and her transition from leading a firm of 100,000 to a league of 144 players in the clip below:


2. People First, Player First

During the discussion, Cathy Engelbert shared some of her most memorable leadership lessons from both the corporate and sports realms. The common thread is the importance of relationships. According to Cathy, strategy is critical to success. She took Deloitte's "People First" strategy and applied a three-pronged strategy to the WNBA: Player First, Stakeholder Success, and Fan Experience. Ultimately, her goal is to ensure that it’s never hard to be a player or a fan of the WNBA.

Hear more about her leadership lessons in the clip below:


3. Taking the WNBA From Surviving to Thriving

Getting the WNBA to its current level of success and recognition was no small feat when Cathy Engelbert took it on. She had no marketing resources and had to transform the WNBA from an unknown entity barely surviving to a thriving organization. She credits this success to a strategy focused on small actions of symbolic value to build trust, paying attention to stakeholders, and ensuring it's easier to be a fan.

Hear more about her take on the WNBA's journey in the clip below: 


4. Four Pillars to Business Transformation

Cathy outlined the four pillars of business transformation crucial to the WNBA’s success. These pillars include a strategy centered on the game, a strong brand exemplified by iconic symbols like the orange hoodie and supported by advocates like the late Kobe Bryant, a comprehensive organizational transformation across the team and league, and a focus on the undervalued and under-appreciated ecosystem of women's sports. 

Hear more about the four pillars of the WNBA's business transformation in the clip below:


5. Learning From Crisis

At the time, the League told Cathy Engelbert there was only a 2% chance of success. She had been with the WNBA for just six months. Facing a 98% chance of failure, Cathy chose to do everything in her power to prove them wrong through scenario planning, stakeholder engagement, and building a strong culture.

During the COVID-19 crisis, they were vigilant about player health, ensuring no one got sick. A particularly impactful moment came in the aftermath of the racial crisis. In one particular high-stakes came, the players did not want to play. When Cathy went to inquire, one of the African American players who was a mother tearfully shared, "In 10 years, this could have been my son that was shot." Cathy listened, and instead of playing, they held a candlelight vigil. This moment profoundly impacted Cathy as a leader, teaching her the importance of listening and empathy.

Hear more about this powerful moment in the clip below: 


6. The Three C's: Confidence, Courage, Curiosity

The number one piece of advice Cathy shared is the three c's: confidence, courage, and curiosity. Sports gave a once-shy Cathy the confidence she needed to navigate leadership. She was always curious about technology and how it evolves. There's a major confidence gap between men and women. She encourages women to be more confident, we tend to underestimate our abilities and shy away form raising our hands. No one is thinking about your career as much as you are so tell people what you want. Have the courage to raise your hand and speak up. When it comes to what you want, write three things down on a piece of paper. For Cathy, it was something different, broad women's leadership platform, and something she had a passion for. All of this lead her to becoming WNBA commissioner.

Hear more advice from Cathy for aspiring leaders in the clip below: 


7. Household Names, Rivalries, and Games of Consequence

At its peak, 24 million people watched the NCAA women’s basketball final. Cathy shared that in order for sports to thrive, you need household names, rivalries, and games of consequence, much like March Madness. The WNBA is steadily gaining recognition as both a national and global brand. According to Cathy, the ecosystem is changing, and the momentum has never been better.

Hear more about why more people are talking about women's basketball in the clip below: 


8. Form Powerful Partnerships

Cathy shared that the WNBA is the longest-tenured women’s sports league, and its survival and success can be attributed to its strong relationship with the NBA. NBA players, such as Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, frequently attend games and show their support. Many of them are "girl dads," and their star power significantly boosts the league's visibility. Additionally, media coverage plays a crucial role in amplifying the impact and reach of the WNBA.

Hear more about the importance of the relationship between the WNBA and NBA in the clip below:


9. Proudest Accomplishment as a Leader

With many professional accolades under her belt, Cathy's proudest accomplishment? Being listed as "Most Powerful Mom." 

Hear more about why "Most Powerful Mom" means so much to Cathy in the clip below:


10. It's About Helping Women Do It All

Cathy advises aspiring male allies to support women in the workplace by emulating programs like the MARC (Men Advocating for Real Change) program. Men can make a significant impact by stepping up at home and recognizing the balancing act women perform daily. It's not about whether women can have it all, but whether they can do it all. For example, Cathy played a crucial role in implementing progressive maternity and paternity leave policies at Deloitte, which help men be more present as parents while empowering women to step up as leaders.

Hear more about Cathy's advice to male allies in the clip below:


11. Build in Bureaucracy Busters and SMORs

Cathy saw many women during her time at Deloitte joining boards. One mentor said to her to build samll symbolic things of value and also "bureaucracy busters." One of Cathy's first bureaucracy buster at Deloitte was removing read tape in the travel approval process. Also an instrumental tool in her work-life balance has been building into her calendar Small Moments of Recovery or "SMORs."

Hear more about Cathy's bureaucracy busters and questions from the audience in the clip below: 


Watch the entire discussion with Cathy Engelbert here: 



Francesca El Attrash-Ukaejiofo

Francesca El Attrash-Ukaejiofo is an accomplished professional in marketing and corporate communications, specializing in communications, content development, and strategy, while also overseeing brand and design. With a strong foundation in SEO-led content creation and a passion for storytelling, Francesca brings a wealth of experience across various domains, having written for marketing agencies, government, B2B, and B2G organizations. Francesca excels in strategic thought leadership, crafting compelling short-form and long-form copy, including executive bylines, blogs, white papers, eBooks, ad copy, web, and video content. Her expertise spans diverse topics such as tech policy, marketing, cybersecurity, government, health IT, defense, and foreign policy. Notably, Francesca's ghostwritten work has earned placement in respected publications like the Hill, FedTech, DefenseNews, and NextGov. Holding a Master’s in Public Policy and fluent in four languages, Francesca leverages these skills to excel in storytelling, connecting with audiences, and fostering professional networks for the organizations she serves. Recognized for strengths in empathy and positivity, Francesca brings infectious enthusiasm to teams, contributing to a collaborative and talent-cultivating work environment.