Episode 42: Julie Sweet

Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.

We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined, “Culture, Tech & the Future: A CEO’s Sweet Spot” with Julie Sweet, Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Accenture, the largest professional services organization with over 700,000 employees globally.

Hear a dynamic game-changing conversation with Julie Sweet, repeatedly named as one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business and Forbes’s 100 Most Powerful Women in the World. As an innovative business leader, she shares thought provoking ideas to enhance cultures, tools to drive innovation, and sage advice to leaders who aspire to dream big.

“There is a plaque that hangs in my mudroom that encapsulates my career ‘if your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough’ – when I look back on my career, I made a number of choices because I didn’t feel like I was dreaming big enough.”

Julie Sweet began her career at Accenture, the largest professional services firm with over 700,000 employees globally, as General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer. In 2015, Julie was promoted to be CEO of Accenture North America, and in 2019 to CEO and Chair in 2021.  Prior to Accenture, Julie was a Partner at the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.

It is our privilege to share this episode of Leadership Reimagined “Culture, Tech & the Future: A CEO’s Sweet Spot” with Julie Sweet!

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Today’s Guest: Accenture CEO and Chair Julie Sweet

Julie Sweet is Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Accenture, the world’s largest professional services firm with over 700,000 employees worldwide. Julie began her career at Accenture as General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and Chief Compliance Officer, and was promoted to CEO of Accenture, North America, and in 2019 to CEO and Chair in 2021.

Prior to Accenture, Julie was a partner at the law firm, Cravath, Swaine and Moore LLP. Julie serves on the World Economic Forum board of trustees. Additionally, Julie is board chair of Catalyst and serves on the board of trustees for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and for the Marriott family established nonprofit, Bridges from School to Work. With many recognitions, Julie has repeatedly been named as one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women in Business, and Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women in the World

Accenture CEO Julie Sweet on Her Career Trajectory

I didn’t start off saying I wanted to become a CEO. It certainly hasn’t been a straight line. When I really think about what drives me, there’s this plaque that my husband hung in our mudroom. It really encapsulates something about my career. The plaque says, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” And when I look back on my career, I made a number of choices over the time because I didn’t feel like I was dreaming big enough or that I could see what was going to happen. So, for example, I came to Accenture, not because I didn’t love my job as a partner at Cravath, but because when I got the call from Accenture, I could say, “I know my future. I know what I’m going to do if I stay at Cravath, and this allows me to dream bigger.”

Julie Sweet on Dreaming Big vs. Taking Risks

It’s not so much about what’s the line to being a CEO woman or not, but really what is challenging you? What makes you excited? What gets you out of your comfort zone? And I don’t think of it as just taking risks, because who wants to have their career be about taking risks? That’s not inspiring to me. Dreaming big, that’s inspiring.

Julie Sweet on The Future of C-suite Diversity

I’m only 54. I hope in my lifetime, I will see a time where we don’t have to talk about women CEOs or African American CEOs because we reach a scale, and it becomes natural that you don’t have to have separate lists because it’s so unusual. And that is of course the kind of world that I hope for, not only for my daughters, but really for all kids today. And I think every generation brings with it a different perspective. I look at the generation of my children and I think diversity of all kinds, whether it’s LGBTQ, racial, gender. They’re much more at ease. Now that may be where I live, it may not be ubiquitous, but I do think that there are generational changes that I hope will be a part of us getting to that point.

Julie Sweet on Meeting Accenture’s DEI Goals

Janice Ellig:
You are a trailblazer… in many ways, including gender equality in the workplace at Accenture. And you’re committed to getting to that gender equality level by 2025, with over 700,000 employees. How will you hit this target? How will you make that change at Accenture?

Julie Sweet:
The first step is deciding it’s a business priority. Back in 2013, when we were looking at a business that was less than 20% digital cloud and security in a world where we had just said, every business would be a digital business, we had a business priority to change our culture, to become innovation led. And we knew we needed to be more diverse.

The second business step is that you set goals. And then you have accountable executives in plans underneath them, just as you do for your revenue goals.

Julie Sweet on How to Fix the Gender Pay Gap

One of the things that drives me crazy is when people say it’s going to take them years to get to equal pay. I have no idea why that would take years. You absolutely should not pay people doing the same job differently based on any kind of diversity.

You look at things differently, like how many years of experience. But if you just say apples to apples, of course you have to pay them the same. That shouldn’t take years. And our research still shows that many, many companies don’t have the systems and the data in place to actually even know whether or not they have equal pay. When people talk to me about how it’s hard to reach diversity targets, I always start with the basics. Is it a priority? Do you set goals? Do you have the data? Do you have the basic foundational elements in place that aren’t hard? Because none of those things are hard.

Then how you do it can be hard, and there’s a lot of work that you’ve got to do, but so much of it has been pioneered that you don’t even have to reinvent it.Over the last decade, and we’ve been a very successful company. We’ve grown at a 10% CAGR, we are a leader in sustainability, a leader in diversity and we hired in the last 18 months in the tightest labor market in history, 200,000 people. So, in many, many dimensions of how you think about success, not only financial success, which we clearly have, but also we believe that our commitment to diversity and the fact that we are diverse is inseparable from other elements that have helped us be successful.

Julie Sweet on Phygital Onboarding and Innovation

You mentioned in the last 18 months you’ve hired over 200,000 new employees. That’s incredible to assimilate that many into your organization. And I understand the term or expression is used as phygital, which is combining the physical and the digital when onboarding new employees. And you also train them in the metaverse. So how has this positively impacted employees, your culture, and your clients when onboarding this enormous number of new people?

The way I think about this is, what does it mean to be an innovation led company? And innovation is not only about products and services. It’s about how you run yourself, so one of our leadership essentials is actually that we need leaders who are innovation led. And when you think about the pandemic, when you could no longer physically meet to onboard employees, many companies simply moved on to Teams. And you just did it in that way. And of course, all of us did that in the first few weeks, because that was the only alternative, but we were actually already pretty remote. But we as well always did some portion of that onboarding physically in an office. And so we actually took a small team and took a step back and said, “How do we innovate? How do we make this move to onboarding [such that it] not just sort of works, sort of satisfies the needs, but actually enhances the onboarding experience?”

And then we also took a deep look at what is different. And so that really led to, in the first case, saying we need to have a new kind of experience in onboarding. And that’s why we built One Accenture Park, which is the largest enterprise metaverse we believe in the world, where as a part of onboarding, you actually go to our metaverse. It’s where you experience our business. You get to experience our TQ training, you do it with others. You now have a bonding experience just like you might have had a team building experience in person. And the science says that with immersive learning you retain longer. We’re getting better onboarding, we’re building an experience, we’re building connections. And oh, by the way, if you want your employees to be innovation led, you can’t imagine the impact of getting to join a company and have part of it be in the metaverse. Like it really feels innovative. So that was about really improving, enhancing, and doing something really new that you actually couldn’t achieve in the old way, even if we could go to the office.

Phygital is slightly different. Phygital is understanding the new world, and to say, when someone went to an office, they did have a physical attachment. And so we had people shutting their computers from one company and opening up our computers with no attachment or sometimes just sitting in the same place. And so what we started doing now for all of our new hires is we send them a recyclable box and it does have the laptop in it, but it also has swag from Accenture. It has little posters that would be like the kind of poster about our commitment to sustainability and our leadership essentials, which you’d see if you were walking in the door on your first day, to go to your onboarding. And so that physically their workspace has changed and built a connection from day one with Accenture that’s not simply we handed you a laptop. And I think those are principles that you can apply in every aspect of your business and for many companies who are transforming, starting with the person and the experience or the customer and the experience, and then working backwards.

Julie Sweet on Accenture’s Leadership Essentials

Well, let me tell you a story. When I first became CEO on September 1st, 2019, at the time I knew that I was going to be putting in one of the biggest operating model changes in our history. I knew a lot of change was coming. I didn’t know a pandemic was coming six months later, I have to say. But I did a lot of reflection on the future, because we were at an inflection point. Our strategy to rotate to digital cloud in security had been successful and was in its last year. Change and reinvention always begins with leadership behaviors. And so in my very first month, working with my global management committee at the time, I put out our leadership essentials. And I used the opportunity of a new CEO and that to talk about what leadership means. And those leadership essentials were created in very plain language, really to be the guidepost. Because especially at our scale, you can’t change by direction.

Let me give you a few examples of those essentials. One, of course, is “do the right thing”. And that is absolutely core. But my second leadership essential is, “lead with excellence, confidence, and humility”. And humility is really important because leaders with humility are learners. They don’t feel like everything needs to be built by them. So [instead of thinking], “Oh, I have to build it myself,” they’re willing to look outside. They partner, they build great teams. And I knew that as we moved forward with the pace of change, with the importance of our ecosystem partners and the more and more complex business, I needed to underscore that all of my leaders needed to be learners. They needed to have that humility. They needed to be externally focused, not always internally focused.

That carries through with what we do at my global management committee meetings. For example, we do a lot of learning. I mean, my basic rule is if I need to learn it, then I can’t imagine that my entire global management committee doesn’t need to learn it. And so the leadership essentials really get to the core of what you need to have in terms of the kinds of leaders, not just for the program you’re driving today, but as you look out the longer term. And I think it’s really important because oftentimes I find clients can’t articulate that. Or, [the client has] leadership principles, but they’re old. And they haven’t been thought about in the context of the environment, the strategy, and what’s there for the future.

Julie Sweet on The Ideal Qualities of a Leader

Our number one quality is, “Are they going to be learners?” And we ask a very simple question. If it’s to a college kid, we say, “[Other than in school,] what have you learned in the last six months?” And we don’t care if the answer is, “I learned how to make paella, I learned to ski,” or, “I got a new certificate in another kind of technology.” The point is we believe that learning agility is absolutely critical for our workforce today. If you think about the pandemic, in the first six months after the pandemic, we trained a hundred thousand people in skills that were in much more demand. So, cloud exploded. The need for collaboration tools like Teams exploded, and we needed more people who could work with clients on those skills.

At any given time, we are asking and needing our people to be skilled. We spend a billion dollars a year on training and development. Therefore I believe that’s important, not just for an Accenture… We’re all about change and we’re constantly learning new things for our clients. I think that’s true in all clients today because the life expectancy of skills is much shorter today. So something like 30% of skills in 2017 in the Fortune 500 companies are no longer relevant today. And so you really need a workforce that is able to learn and has a thirst for learning. And it doesn’t have to be that complicated, as you can see from the way we do it, in terms of getting at, “Am I hiring someone who’s a learner?”

Julie Sweet on Global Talent Hiring Priorities

We believe over the next decade, the companies who can do three things around talent are going to be the ones that succeed.

The first is their ability to access talent, which requires you to have the ability to attract diverse talent, to look at more broadly talent. For example, not limiting yourself to four year degrees so you can have a larger pool. So to access talent.

The second is the ability to become a talent creator, not just a consumer. When you need new skills, the answer can’t always be, “I’m going to go hire the skills,” as I just talked about, because the [skills needed are going to change]. Not everybody has a learning organization like I do. But really thinking about how to become a talent creator.

And then the third is how do you unlock the potential of that talent? And that’s everything, [starting with] how you operate. What’s your operating model? A lot of companies live today still in silos, which does not allow you to unlock the potential of the great talent that you’re either hiring or creating. It’s also, what’s your philosophy? So, at Accenture, we have a very clear framework where we say we want our people to feel they are “net better off” because they work at Accenture. And that has the dimensions of everything from career pathways and financial security, to health, to emotional wellness, to a sense of belonging, to knowing you have a purpose. And it really does strategically guide us in how we think about everything from benefits to how we rotate people in their careers, to how we organize Accenture. If you are a CEO or running a business unit, or you have any kind of a team, being able to say, “How am I accessing the best talent, how am I a talent creator? And what am I doing to unlock the potential of that great talent that I’m investing in?” It’s a very simple way of thinking about talent, and, I think, quite a powerful one.

Julie Sweet on Accenture’s Long Term Business Strategy

The world no longer exists in five-year strategies. So you have to maintain a long term view, while at the same time asking yourself, what’s changing in the environment. And of course, as you know, the environment continues to change. We thought the pandemic was unprecedented and we’re living again in unprecedented times. And so one of the things we did recently is to take a step back. Because everything we do starts with our clients. And back in 2013, we were the first company to say that every business will be a digital business. And that really shaped a decade of what we did for clients and therefore our own growth. In two years, post pandemic, we took a step back recently to say, “What does the next decade look like for our clients?”

And keeping in mind all of the external macro and geopolitical environment, we really believe there are five forces that successful client companies must harness over the next decade. And those forces are total enterprise reinvention. And so not simply looking at technology to be part of your company, but really having a complete tech data and AI [strategy] and new ways of working, engaging with employees and customers and new business models. We’re seeing that today. The second force is talent, which I talked about, unlocking, creating and accessing talent. The third force is sustainability. Every business must be a sustainable business. The fourth is the metaverse continuum, which is really working both in the physical and digital world seamlessly. And if you haven’t seen it, our tech vision this year is a really great plain English description of the metaverse continuum.

And then the fifth is the ongoing tech revolution. We were investing a decade ago in the technologies that underline the metaverse. Our cloud business today is a 26 billion dollar business. A decade ago it was a billion dollar business. We had started investing five or six years before that. So, we are always looking at a decade out. And sitting here today, we’re doing science technology. We actually have a space business. It’s super small, but we’re doing paid work in space. So as a leader, making sure you understand that the tech revolution, both for total enterprise reinvention, is continuing, but also into new areas. And so, we really are pivoting our business around helping our clients harness those five forces in a very industry specific way.

Julie Sweet on Accenture’s Rebranded Digital Agency, Accenture Song

If you buy a Jaguar Land Rover, you are having a personalized experience that Accenture is both helping create and run. And Jaguar announced last year that they wanted to provide deeper engagement with their customers. And to do that, you need technology, you need data and insights. And Accenture Song brings all of that together to enable a leading company like Jaguar Land Rover to create a new kind of experience for their customers, a new way of engaging and building loyalty and therefore also growth. It’s interesting, 90% of executives that we recently surveyed have said that they cannot keep up with the changing expectations of customers and employees. And what Accenture Song does is really does everything you need around the customer to remain relevant at what we call “the speed of life,” which is much faster.

Another great example is if you buy pet food. So, we worked with a major pet brand that pre pandemic was all about in-store. So if you went into the store, you would buy it. There you’d have these in-person advisors. And of course, all of that changed in the pandemic. And so we help them create an online, engaging community where pet parents can track the activity of their pets. They can connect with other pet parents. They can connect with advisors that once upon a time they would meet only in the stores. Underneath that, of course, is the technology, the cloud, the data, and then the creativity to [address the question of] how do you interact with those pet parents? What’s the experience? What do they need? Accenture Song operates at the intersection of creativity, technology, and industry to really do everything that in the B2C or the B2B world a client needs to be relevant to their customer and to be able to change as those customers do.

Julie Sweet on Leadership in Times of Change

Change is about bringing people along a journey. And at Accenture, we believe in transparency and also being able to communicate in a way that people can understand. And sometimes I say simplification is the new innovation. And so, as an individual leader, working on your communication skills, being able to tell stories, to bring things to life, to simplify, but also to have communication that’s empathetic, that understands what the person receiving it [needs to hear and needs you to hear].

I do work every year to hone my communication skills. And I think it’s absolutely vital. And whether you’re a very junior person or very senior person, consciously working on communication skills is really important.

Speed doesn’t happen unless you change the way you’re doing things. And I’ve spoken to a lot of C-suite executives, post pandemic, who were rightly very proud of how quickly their organizations shifted to adjust to the pandemic. And what I’m seeing two years in is that the organizations then made systematic changes, in other words, you can’t have speed be based on a crisis. That’s not sustainable. And what you saw happen is that people say, “Oh, I can move fast.” But then they often didn’t say, “So what do I have to do to [move that quickly in the future]?” Do I need to change procurement? Do I need to partner differently? Do I need to change the operating model, which I did in the heat of the moment in the crisis where I just said, “That person’s in charge,” and we’re going to cut through the bureaucracy. Did I then go back and say, “Well, why wouldn’t we do that always?”

And so I challenged myself in the way I run Accenture [along those same lines]. Like, “What did I change?” For example, [since] the pandemic started, when I set my fiscal year priorities, I don’t set them all as 12-month priorities, because we’re not living in a world where you can run some of your most strategic things on a 12-month cycle. [Doing] that just reinforces old thinking and not speed.

I think [it’s crucial to understand] that speed requires working differently. And if you cannot articulate how you’re working differently, then most likely you’re doing speed only by brute force and that is not sustainable.

Julie Sweet is Chair and CEO of Accenture, the world’s largest professional services firm.

Janice Ellig is CEO of Ellig Group, a New York City executive search firm leading the industry in diversity, equity, and inclusion-driven executive search and consulting.

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