5 Leadership Lessons From a Partner at Deloitte Who Races Cars in Her Spare Time

Photograph by Neil Leifer—Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Four to six weekends each year, you will likely find Nikki Etherington climbing behind the wheel of her silver and pink Mazda RX-8, putting her foot on the gas pedal, and hitting speeds of up to 125 mph.

That might seem reckless for someone who spends her days in a leadership role at one of the world’s largest accounting and management consulting firms. But Etherington balances being an accomplished race car driver with her position as partner at Deloitte in New York City. 

Etherington has been racing for 25 years with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), an auto club that sanctions road racing, rallies, and autocross. Within a few years after she began autocrossing—racing on courses created with cones in large parking lots—, she graduated on to two- to three-mile race tracks, some meant for club racing and some professional tracks used for NASCAR. While autocrossing was divided by gender, her road races were not. “Once you get onto the road course, it doesn’t matter what your gender is,” she says. “It just matters what your car is.”

Earlier this year, Etherington won the SCCA Western conference championship. And while the fast-paced, risky world of auto racing may seem wildly different than the measured, meticulous world of accounting and auditing, her hobby has helped her professionally, too.

These are the five lessons learned in the tracks that have helped her at the office.

1. Preparation mitigates risk

Although she’ll never aspire to be a Formula 1 driver, where speeds can reach 200 mph, Etherington admits she’s done her “fair share of wrecks.” Racing is, in the end, a risky hobby. However, proper equipment and preparation beforehand makes it less so, she says. Her car is outfitted with a roll cage and a five-point harness, and she wears a special racing suit and gear. She’s also taken her time to train herself to be a safe competitor on the track.  

“I don’t necessarily think of me doing an unsafe type of hobby just because I’m making sure that we are mitigating risks,” she says. During a race, she has to be looking ahead while also thinking about how she just performed. That mindset is similar to when she’s at the Deloitte office .“Those things align with what we do in public accounting,” she says, “as far as the need to be focused, strategic, and always knowing what’s coming ahead while evaluating ourselves for what we’ve just done.”

2. Disconnecting is essential

Weekends of racing may mean traveling with her race car from Henderson, Nevada, to other states, then spending a day qualifying before she races for a win. When she is in “race mode,” she is fully focused on the events of the weekend –no dashing off to check email or getting some work done between events.

Disconnecting from the office allows her to remain more focused when she does get back to her desk. That way, she’s forced to set boundaries about when she is and isn’t available for work. “As I’m open about what I’m doing on my weekends, my clients and people that I work with have always been very respectful and ]supportive of what I do,” she says. 

3. Your team makes all the difference

When Etherington races on the weekends, she is surrounded by family, including her husband, children, brother, and parents. “The family is my crew,” she says, and that extends to her day job as well.

By building a sturdy network of support to ensure both her and her family have what they need, she has been able to rise through the ranks at Deloitte. No small feat since 23% of Deloitte partners are female, but Etherington finds that some women think they can’t have a successful career in public accounting because of the demands of the role. “That’s just not true, but it does take work and effort and making sure that you have that agreement about the focus of the spouses’ careers,” she says.

4. Authenticity wins

Etherington drives an RX-8 and previously drove Miatas, which aren’t exactly the car of choice SCCA members. But while the model is a little slower, she liked the handling and the fact that they’re “momentum cars”. “So as long as you’re keeping your RPMs at the higher momentum, then you basically are able to keep that going,” she says. So, even though a Ford Mustang or other model may have been the favorite, she went with the car that worked best for her.

And being open about her unconventional hobby has helped her forge deeper relationships, she says. “Really talking to my clients about my hobby has allowed me an opportunity to connect with [clients] in a way that I didn’t necessarily think I’d be able to,” she says. When her clients learn about what she does, they often share their own love of cars or racing —it becomes an immediate way to deepen the relationship, she says. “It’s definitely helped in my career.”

5. You deserve to be there

Early in her racing days, Etherington pressured herself to prove her ability. If she didn’t have a good weekend of racing, it felt like perhaps she didn’t belong there. Not before long, she stepped back to re-examine what she liked about racing and what her goals were. She set goals for her own progress, rather than comparing herself to others –and when she stopped putting so much pressure on herself, she became a better competitor.

During her career, she’s been through similar experiences. She was worried about not being the most competitive professional, but then she came to the realization that, “no matter what you want to do, you deserve to be there, and your progress is your own”. And, just as in racing, her success came when she stopped worrying about what’s in the tracks and concentrate instead on where she is steering her wheel to.

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