Julie Howard rises to the C-suite by learning to adapt and face challenges head on
If you were handed a résumé or saw a LinkedIn page that belonged to Julie Howard (BBA ’85), it might look like a textbook path of How to Become a CEO.
After all, the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Navigant Consulting, Inc. worked her way up from consultant to leadership positions at the Chicago-based worldwide firm. Each step was a learning experience that prepared her for the next one, culminating as the leader of a company with nearly 6,000 employees in 60 offices in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
But a standard path to success?
“It’s been anything but,” Howard says.
Her path was a little more complicated than it looks, but the end result is no less impressive. Since 2012 she has been CEO of Navigant, a consulting firm that specializes in health care, financial services, and energy. In 2014, she was named chairman of the board. Last year, Forbes named Navigant to its list of America’s Best Midsize Employers for the third consecutive year and the magazine recognized Navigant as one of America’s Best Management Consulting Firms. In Howard’s time as chairman and CEO, the company has significantly transformed its business portfolio, innovated new service offerings, developed technology-enabled solutions, and nearly doubled in employees. In 2018, Navigant had revenues of $743.6 million.
Howard was named one of Chicago’s 25 Most Powerful Women by the city’s Make It Better magazine and was recognized by the organization CEO Connection on its national list of Most Influential Women of the Mid-Market. She was named a Woman of Achievement by the Anti-Defamation League. She is also a champion of women’s leadership development and is a co-founder of the Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Alliance.
“I talk to a lot of women’s groups and I often get the question of, ‘How did you do this?’” says Howard, a former member of the WSB Dean’s Advisory Board. “It wasn’t textbook. I tell people I’ve worked full time, part time, and no time over the course of my career. I had three children and sought to integrate my personal and professional needs in a way that worked for me and my firm over time.”
— Julie Howard,
Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board, Navigant Consulting, Inc.
‘You just have to face it’
That it all worked out wasn’t a stroke of luck but a testament to the core values that Howard has held since the beginning of her career: adaptability, a desire to challenge herself, and holding fear at bay—as well as a commitment to supporting women’s career development.
“When our former CEO was passing the baton to me, he said he’d never met anyone as fearless as me, and that’s probably true,” Howard says. “You just have to face it. Figure out if you are going to participate in the challenging opportunity or not. Everybody has a choice.”
The world of consulting wasn’t Howard’s specific choice when she was in college, though she knew she wanted to pursue business and majored in finance. Her father was a professor in the School of Education at UW–Madison, and her mother was a nurse. Growing up in an academic household helped shape her goals.
“I was always around really bright people and was challenged at an early age,” Howard says. “My dad used to run my sister and me through literacy tests they were developing for students. I think that’s why I gravitated toward consulting. I wanted to be around people who were well-educated and incredibly bright—MBAs, PhDs, economists, scientists, and so on.”
Learning teamwork at WSB
Her time at WSB cemented the appeal of surrounding herself with smart people. Business school projects shook up the routine of individual study, Howard says, and connected her with classmates in a variety of disciplines. She realized the power of teamwork and has held firmly to it throughout her career.
“I really learned that to be successful you have to recognize the things you don’t do well and then fill the gaps,” she says.
Upon graduation, Howard received offers in finance, trading, banking, and consulting, ultimately choosing consulting because of the flexibility and problem-solving nature of it. She joined Peterson Consulting and eagerly headed off from her Madison-area home to start life in Chicago. Right away, there was a slight hiccup to that plan. Her first consulting assignment required her to spend 18 months in central Michigan, and she got on a plane every week to go there. It wasn’t the exciting assignment she had hoped for in San Francisco or New York, but she quickly learned a lesson that continues to serve her well: be adaptable.
“I wasn’t a whiner, I just said, ‘OK, this is my situation, what can I learn from this to leverage into my next opportunity?’” she says.
The opportunities came. She helped open an office in Detroit. Her work caught the attention of a partner who recommended her for consulting work in New York. She was on a steady career track, but stepped away from it to raise her three children. Eventually she went back to consulting part time and working a flexible schedule, which was a less common option in the early 1990s.
“I never looked at going part time or taking time off as a career-limiting move, and I also knew the only person who was going to judge that was me,” she says. “I tell young people today—men and women—that their career is long, that to take a couple years off or switch course is okay. So many things will come along that you have to adapt to and you have to decide if it’s an opportunity or a roadblock.”
— Dorri McWhorter (BBA ’95),
CEO, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago
Working toward the C-suite
In 1998, Navigant Consulting acquired Peterson Consulting. Soon afterward, Howard was tapped to join the corporate team. It was a risk to leave consulting, but she saw it as a chance to try something new and the move launched her executive career. She was the company’s chief operating officer from 2003 to 2012 before becoming CEO.
Though Howard worked for a progressive and supportive company, she was the only woman in the C-suite for many years, and began working to build more opportunities for women inside and outside her organization. She began at her own firm, creating the Women’s Leadership Forum, an annual invitation-only event for Navigant clients to build relationships with other women leaders. With two women she had met at the forum, Howard founded the Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Alliance (WLMA) in Chicago. It now has four regional branches throughout the U.S.
“It’s just creating an avenue for women who are early in their career, middle of their career, or in transition to network with each other and build business relationships across industries,” she says.
Dorri McWhorter (BBA ’95), CEO of YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, was still working in the private sector when she met Howard through WLMA and got a firsthand look at what her fellow Business Badger was doing to support women’s leadership development.
“She’s a great role model not just because she’s a woman in leadership, but because she chooses to lead the way she does,” says McWhorter, whose organization honored Howard as an Outstanding Leader in Business in 2016. “She’s a great example of how you can be a leader but still represent your values. It’s difficult to do that as a public company CEO, but she navigates that very well.”
Failure as a learning experience
While Howard is a solid role model for success, she emphasizes to young people the importance of failure, and she knows this from firsthand experience. In 2007, a business within Navigant did not perform as anticipated and the impact to the company was significant, a situation for which Howard was accountable as the company’s COO. It was, she says, a public and embarrassing mistake that resulted in a demotion, and she considered leaving the company.
She took a walk on Chicago’s lakefront with a mentor she had met through a consulting assignment 20 years earlier. As Howard talked about things she thought the company could do better, he suggested she step forward with a plan to lead an area of need. She did exactly that, and landed a role leading the company’s strategic plan development and growing its international operations. A year later, she was once again Navigant’s COO.
“At first I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and people thought I would leave the company,” Howard says. “But you swallow your pride and figure out how you are going to redirect from what you thought was your path. Failures will happen, and they’re a good thing because you learn from them. I don’t know how else you learn.”
That chapter was proof again that the textbook for Howard’s career isn’t the list of positions she’s held, but how she got to them. That’s a topic she eagerly shares with anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps.
“You have to learn to roll with the punches and be willing to raise your hand and step forward for work that makes you uncomfortable,” she says. “If it’s not on a prescribed path sometimes people don’t accept the opportunity. There is no 10-year plan, a lot of things are happenstance. Have goals, for sure, but be willing to adapt and flex.”