Julie Howard, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer at Navigant

It only takes a few moments in Julie Howard’s presence to register that she is a calm, collected, and serious person who takes pride in her “what you see is what you get” ethos. Given her admirable self-possession and extraordinary success, it would be easy to assume that she carefully planned and executed every step of the 30-year career that has taken her to the top of Navigant. And so it’s a little bit surprising to learn that there was no grand plan and that she doesn’t think you need one either. “I hate the question, ‘What are your 10-year goals?’” Howard tells us. “It’s great to have a vision, but you have to have enough flexibility, fortitude, and spirit to move with the changes that come your way.”

It’s great to have a vision, but you have to have enough flexibility, fortitude, and spirit to move with the changes that come your way.

When Howard graduated with her business degree in the mid-1980s, she knew she wanted to do something “a bit entrepreneurial”. A consulting career was a perfect fit, as it provided opportunities to take on a wide variety of roles and gain exposure to nearly every major industry while travelling all over the world. After a few years of early-career success at Navigant, Howard decided she wanted to pursue her MBA. If at this point Howard had a plan, it was undoubtedly very much on track. But that was soon to change when she became pregnant with her first child.

“That happened very early on in my career, and it kick-started me into thinking differently about my path,” Howard says of this life- and career-changing moment. “You can’t accept that anything needs to be one way or the other. I had planned to get my MBA and I thought I knew where I was headed afterwards, but instead I was going to have a child.”

Howard assumed her career would remain a top priority, and she became one of the first women at Navigant to propose flexible working to help her better juggle family and work life. But six months into motherhood, Howard found that her priorities had changed. Instead of working flexibly, she decided to take a break from work entirely. “I loved this person with all my heart and wanted to spend more time with her,” she gushes, expressing a feeling every new mother knows well. Over the next few years, Howard’s family expanded further before the mother of three decided it was time to go back to work—this time on a part-time basis that she hoped would allow her to add the excitement of a fulfilling career to her rewarding family life.

Be at peace with what you can offer—there’s a right time for everything

One might assume it would be difficult to return to work after a lengthy absence, finding one-time peers promoted to loftier positions while struggling to rediscover your footing, but Howard’s level-headedness and self-possession gave her the perspective needed to navigate reentry with aplomb. “I wasn’t in a rush,” she says. “I truly believe that your ability to be successful has a lot to do with your attitude, and I took one of, ‘It’s okay, this is what’s working for me right now.’”

Indeed, it’s an attitude Howard encourages in other young professionals, whom she counsels to be patient and true to their priorities while figuring out what works for them. “You have so many years to prove yourself and find your passion, and there are so many different opportunities—even to have multiple careers. It used to be that a person did one thing their whole life, but that’s not the case any more. So, I just think that you have to set the right expectations for yourself, and constantly touch base on those, and say, ‘I’m okay with the expectations I’ve set.’”

Still, patience and managed expectations do not equate to “easy”, and Howard confirms that juggling a demanding career with the needs of a young family requires a fantastic amount of work and organisation. While Howard’s initial part-time schedule saw her technically working three days a week, she explains that she was also doing a lot of work “around the edges”—a situation familiar to many part-timers. Despite being unable to adhere to a strict work-life split, Howard says that a part-time schedule and other accommodations gave her the flexibility she needed to be there for her children, and for that she is very grateful.

“I was fortunate enough that the firm knew my capabilities and the gifts I had to give. I knew what their expectations were, so we were able to find client opportunities that were Chicago-based, where I didn’t have to travel extensively.”

Being an advocate for women—in words and action

While Howard greatly appreciates the support she has received at Navigant, she’s quick to point out that nothing was handed to her, and that the work-life situation she achieved was, first and foremost, the result of her own self-advocacy. She strongly encourages other women to do the same—to speak up about the accommodations required to make working life work for everyone. “I didn’t wait; I advocated,” she explains. “We need to do more of that, for ourselves and on behalf of others.”

Taking her own advice, Howard has been an active participant in Navigant’s internal networking and learning groups for women and minorities. She’s also proud to have started the Women’s Leadership Forum—an annual event 15 years strong that brings female clients and Navigant female senior partners together for four days of intensive leadership development: “We bring in professors and other speakers, we talk about cutting-edge leadership tools and techniques and ideas and have a ton of fun together over a four-day weekend.”

In 2005, Howard also co-founded the Women’s Leadership & Mentoring Alliance (WLMA), which is open to women in all professional services. After launching in Chicago, WLMA expanded to include thousands of women meeting quarterly in chapters across the US. With members ranging from entry-level to senior professionals, it’s proven a great resource for women looking for guidance as well for those looking to help others up the ladder. The opportunity WLMA affords to develop mentoring relationships in a casual, pressure-free setting is key: “I’m not a big fan of formal mentor programmes,” she explains. “I think mentorships should come through the connectivity that you find with somebody that you value.”

Finding the opportunities in the setbacks

Howard also notes that the counsel of mentors isn’t just essential in plotting one’s upward trajectory; mentors are at least as important when it comes time to navigate life’s inevitable setbacks—and to find the opportunities hidden therein. Howard recalls the important role a mentor played in helping her weather one of the most trying moments in her career, when in 2007 she was asked to step down from her role as Navigant COO following a company-wide slump in performance.

I think mentorships should come through the connectivity that you find with somebody that you value.

“It was probably the hardest moment in my professional career,” Howard recalls, “because it was also very public to the entire organisation.” It was the advice of a long-time external mentor that allowed her to see beyond the immediate crisis and to view the development not as a defeat, but as an opportunity to build a different kind of value and emerge stronger on the other side. “So that’s what I did,” says Howard. “I went to the board and asked to spend time thinking strategically about our next path. In the end, I spent two years focused on strategy and international growth. At the end of that two years, I was reinstated as COO, and two years later, made CEO. What seemed like a humiliating and difficult experience turned out to be a gift and an opportunity.”

A time for teamwork and a time for leadership

Perhaps this experience of being lifted up during a difficult time helped cement Howard’s dedication to teamwork and her belief in the importance of colleagues supporting each other in pursuit of a common goal. Indeed, teamwork is something Howard recognises as being key to both her firm’s and her own success: “I’m a big fan of the saying, ‘It takes a team.’ Even though I’ve made it to CEO and Chairman of the Board, I know that I don’t have all the skills and capabilities to run the entire thing by myself—you rely heavily on others to be your partner in that. There’s a level of humility that you have to adopt.” But while there’s a time to rely on others, Howard is clear that, once you’ve made it to the top, there’s also a time to step up and take ownership of key decisions and outcomes. After all, Howard says that at the end of the day, “the buck stops with me”.

Spoken like a true leader.