Deloitte’s Ellen Derrick: how passion and purpose beat self-doubt

Imposter syndrome remains a common phenomenon even at the highest executive level. Deloitte’s Ellen Derrick explains how passion and purpose can help overcome your self-doubt

In the high-pressure world of business, confidence is often touted as a critical ingredient for success. However, even the most accomplished individuals can struggle with feelings of self-doubt. Studies of executive women have found that many (75 per cent) experienced imposter syndrome at various points during their careers. Research has also found that women of colour are the most susceptible to feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome in the workplace. 

While there are various explanations regarding the root causes of imposter syndrome, one thing is certain. When individuals speak candidly about their struggles with self-doubt and imposter syndrome, we move closer to establishing work environments that foster an inclusive and supportive atmosphere where all employees can flourish and feel appreciated

Ellen Derrick, Managing Partner, Consulting, at Deloitte, has consulted for over 25 years, specialising in working with the public sector, driving strategic policy outcomes and implementing technology-enabled reform programs. Although she is highly accomplished in her career, Ms Derrick says she has also struggled with imposter syndrome during her career, which is why she says developing self-awareness is crucial to succeeding in high-pressure team environments. 

Read more: Alison Telfer: five leadership skills to accelerate your career

"Know your baseline and core skills, and learn from there. Do whatever learning you can on the way in; be very explicit on what you don't know when transitioning into a new role or industry," said Ms Derrick during a recent AGSM Director’s Lunch hosted by Nick Wailes, Senior Deputy Dean and Director AGSM @ UNSW Business School.  

During the event, Ms Derrick spoke about how her personal and professional purpose has evolved from her focus on creating an impact through the public sector, particularly in the health and social services sectors. She also encouraged individuals to embrace their unique strengths and weaknesses and to be open about them to foster better relationships and connections with others, adding that what we often think of as our biggest “mistakes” can often transform into the magic of possibility.

The secret to success, she says, is to cultivate strong self-awareness. “There are choices in how we spend our time. When you're really feeling it, you’ve got to pay attention to that. What is this telling me?” 

Ellen Derrick, Managing Partner, Consulting at Deloitte, says young professionals must follow the path that imbues them with the most energy..jpg
Young professionals should follow the career path that naturally imbues them with the most energy, according to Ellen Derrick, Managing Partner, Consulting at Deloitte. Photo: Getty

How to connect with passion and purpose

Ms Derrick's impressive record of accomplishment spans all sectors in her role as Managing Partner, while she started her career with a focus on transformation in the health and human services, social policy, and regulatory sectors. Her passion for digital transformation, operational efficiency, and improving service delivery outcomes has earned her a reputation as a leader in her field. Today, she sits on the UNSW Business School Business Advisory Council, using her extensive knowledge and experience to guide and inspire future business leaders.  

When asked for advice, Ms Derrick said she often suggests people follow what they love. What gives you the most energy? At the same time, she said it has been important for her not to look too far ahead at what new role might be coming along next – if you are being true to yourself and following your passion, the opportunities will naturally flow your way.

“As my career has evolved, I’ve allowed myself to get much clearer on my personal and professional purpose, and you're always hoping those can come together, and they don't always. I work with a lot of people where they can be separate. But seeing that come together for me has been exceptional and a real privilege. But again, that can evolve over time,” she said. 

So, finding your path may be about taking advantage of opportunities as and when they arise (as long as they feel aligned with your purpose).  “If I look too far ahead, it's a little bit scary, so I bring it back. Doing what we love and working through day to day and working hard, those things happen,” explained Ms Derrick. 

“My professional purpose now is all around how we build high-performing teams, how we build the most meaningful careers or our 6000+ teammates, and how I can create new and different opportunities for the teams that are around me,” she continued.

“[But] for a long time, my purpose was about creating the greatest impact through the public sector, at a systems level, for where it matters most for our country. I have always had a focus on health and human services, social services, and the core of government; how we can leverage that platform to really drive change, and see that in a meaningful way, not just for our clients, ultimately for our communities and our society,” she said. 

Read more: How women can adapt for success in performance evaluations

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

Ms Derrick highlighted the importance of recognising imposter syndrome, leaning on strengths, and working on weaknesses to build confidence and improve skills. "The first challenge is actually recognising that that's what it is because imposter syndrome doesn't feel like imposter syndrome; in the moment it just feels like I'm terrible and I should leave," explained Ms Derrick.  

She said our ‘weaknesses’ can be improved, without necessarily turning them into strengths. "Work on your weaknesses. If you're working on it, you're going to get better," she said. 

Additionally, she said it is helpful to be adaptable and to construct your schedule to leverage the activities that give you the most energy. "You start to get very good at recognising where the energy comes from, what gives it to you and what doesn’t. That's how I construct my schedule now," she said. 

Much of the above can also help guide you on a new career path, and to pivot when the time is right, explained Ms Derrick. Shifting careers and moving into a different industry can seem daunting, and so Ms Derrick talked about the importance of upskilling oneself and understanding one's core and unique skills. "The single greatest thing you can do – and this is very difficult I find for most people – is to get very clear on your true core skills and your unique differentiators," she said. 

"I really believe in setting clear goals, and intentions. Know what those are because no matter what role you move into, those core strengths are the things you lean on. If you're clear on those, there isn't a single role that won't leverage them. Use your core skills and your differentiators as the things that you lean disproportionately on as you evolve.” 

Find a mentor with whom you share an affinity.jpg
Following passion and purpose will help you attract mentors with whom you can share a natural affinity. Photo: Getty

Find a mentor with whom you share an affinity 

Utilising passion and purpose has meant Ms Derrick has been able to stay true to herself and allowed her to find the right affinity with mentors at the right time, rather than forcing a relationship, which she said should always be a two-way street. 

“Everyone talks about the power of mentors, but I believe strongly, like most people, in the power of the two-way service relationship of a good mentoring relationship, how you serve up for your mentor, what you can get from a mentor, and in how you respect that over time, and how those relationships can change over time,” she said. 

"I would say, just don't hesitate to ask people. People do enjoy being asked. The clearer you can be to form those relationships, and to see them evolve over time as well,” she said. 

Subscribe to BusinessThink for the latest research, analysis and insights from UNSW Business School

“I will always bring it back to be true to yourself, even as you evolve and learn who you are,” she added. 

As a leader and mentor, Ms Derrick acknowledged that learning how to help others lean on their strengths is also an important part of their growth. 

"The single greatest thing in helping people meet their own expectations, let alone their ambitions, is to help them be excellent at what they're doing now, for them to feel great meaning in what they're doing, and to help them make the pivots when that doesn't feel right," she concluded.


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy