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Accelerating Equality for All in the Workplace: In Conversation with Julie Sweet, CEO, Accenture

Speakers: Julie Sweet, CEO, Accenture

Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture shares the business imperative of accelerating equality for all in the workplace. Leading over 500,000 employees globally, Julie's session explores the topics of the type of leadership needed to navigate innovation, technology’s impact on business, and inclusion and diversity. This dialogue exemplifies the portrait for a "For All Leader" and the impact of using one's personal story to create opportunities for not only all to enter positions of leadership but to also lead in the world through a truly authentic place within one's self.

Show Transcript
Julian Lute:

I would say the last one is around leadership. Now this is the personal journey. I heard some folks talking in the hallway and you could hear people really talking about what it means to lead and how they can lead differently. If you're one of those people who were thinking about your own leadership, can you make some noise? That's perfect. That's what we wanted you to do. All right. Don't forget to come down. I want to see your beautiful faces. You are in for a treat.

Julian Lute:

Our next speaker is a leader on topics just like innovation, technology's impact on business and inclusion and diversity. Julie Sweet is the CEO of Accenture and she leads over 500,000 employees globally. Accenture's number 41 on our 100 best list, up 20 spots and they've been on the list for 12 years. Can you give a round of applause for being on our list for 12 years.

Julian Lute:

Prior to becoming CEO in September of 2019, Julie served as Chief Executive Officer of Accenture's business in North America, which is the company's largest geographic market. Please help me welcome to the stage Julie Sweet. All right, and of course she's going to be joined in conversation with our favorite host, with the most, our moderator that has it all down Cliff Leaf. So let's give Cliff another round of applause.

Cliff Leaf:

Now we'll see another show of hands. How many out here run a company with more than half a billion employees? Anybody? Anybody? Do we have any? Anybody show of hands? All right, we got one. Oh we got one? Great. That is something man. Half a billion employees. How many first names do you know?

Julie Sweet:

That shall go to my grave. Actually what's funny is I only learn first names. Because I think it's actually really important to connect, but if you try to learn both, it's half the names you can memorize. And so I've made a conscious decision that when I meet people, I learn their first name. And so a lot of times I'll say, could you send me an email? Because otherwise I'm going to be like David, you know David and not know who you are.

Julie Sweet:

And so I asked people to send emails and it's a trick that I've learned in order to connect to people and remember them. And then I say send me an email. So that way I have their last name and I can find them and again.

Cliff Leaf:

That's great. It's so different from two generations ago when your prototypical CEO would call everybody Mac or Skip. Hey Mac how's it going? But dealing with a workforce that large and that global is like unlike ... I mean I can't even think of how one would begin to approach that. So when you think about what your priorities are in terms of keeping them engaged, what's the first thing that sort of pops to mind?

Julie Sweet:

Well let me share what I did my first official video as CEO, but I will tell you that the most critical thing in being able to lead a company with over 500,000 people and she's not here, but I just want to give a shout out, is I have an absolutely incredible chief leadership and human resources officer Ellyn Shook. And so that is-

Cliff Leaf:

Ellyn Shook.

Julie Sweet:

Absolutely critical. So I just want to give her a shuck. And you know Ellyn.

Cliff Leaf:

Sure [crosstalk 00:03:30].

Julie Sweet:

She is amazing. When I took post, I wanted to send a video out and I will tell you actually when I was announced, we created a video for the next day and the first time you send something out to 505,000 people, you're like okay a little pressure and you actually hope they open it. And at least at the beginning they will. So you try to keep them hooked.

Julie Sweet:

But my very first video I talked about learning because for us as a company and I think that's true in every company, learning is really incredibly important. And we've done a lot to create a culture of learning.

Cliff Leaf:

Continuous learning really.

Julie Sweet:

Continuous learning, right all the time. And I felt that one of the most important messages and really also incentive and permission was to have my first official message be to talk about learning. And so I shared with all of our people that I have a quarterly learning agenda. So I'm very disciplined. Every quarter I say what am I going to learn about? And we do this incredible kind of learning. We become a learning board. So it's online, you get it on your app. And it's curated content. We have about 3,800 of them.

Julie Sweet:

And so I launched the CEO learning board. So that not only was I sharing that I learned, which is leader led learning means that even the CEO has to learn. It's I think a great message. And then I'm actually very transparent. And so in the first six weeks we had 100,000 learning activities on the CEO learning board as people went to see what am I learning and participate.

Cliff Leaf:

So what are you learning? So what's this quarter's learning?

Julie Sweet:

So first quarter I started in CEO was all about digital manufacturing, which is a big area of change and disruption. And so I was spending time on that and this quarter I'm learning about 5G because that's again cross industry. It's a really important topic and I wanted to go deeper on it because my clients, the CEOs that I'm talking to or asking me to better understand what it means for their business. And so 5G is this quarter.

Cliff Leaf:

So how often do you find that people are embarrassed to say they don't know something. Especially if something is 5G or blockchain or digital disruption and they just think they know, but they really don't want to raise their hand and say something. Is that a barrier?

Julie Sweet:

I think it depends. Sort of inside Accenture no, because I think we've done a good job about creating this culture of learning and asking questions and we're very intentional about saying that we don't know things. I'd say with clients, the more senior actually, the more comfortable. One of the things that I really try to do with our clients when I'm meeting someone who's not in the C suite who works with us is to be really clear. Look, you can ask me anything because oftentimes the more junior person is, the more they feel like they need to know everything. And so I think it's actually a maturing thing. It's something we really consciously try to help teach people is that it's strength to ask questions.

Cliff Leaf:

So I want to talk about one of those terms that we hear a lot about. We've talked about it in previous conversations here about digital disruption and digital transformation. And so I asked you earlier to define it for me and you said, let me define digital first and what that means. So why don't you actually try that here again?

Julie Sweet:

Well for Accenture we look at digital as it's two things and we think they often get confused. Digital refers to a set of technologies, artificial intelligence, using websites and e-commerce and automation. These are technologies, but digital is also about how you use the technologies to change how you make decisions, how you operate yourself, and how you engage with your partners or your customers.

Julie Sweet:

And so when you think about digital disruption, it's really about how the technologies are being used to do those things. And what is that driving? And I think it's really important because like I have the conversation at every company. I've never met a CEO that says I know where my data is. I trust my data and I'm using it well, never.

Julie Sweet:

And the thing is I've met a lot of CEOs who've said, I spent a lot of money trying to find the data, using the data and even sometimes being successful but not changing my business. And for all of you, and I think that as we think about a great place to work, employee data and how we can use it is actually really important and a great tool and source. So there's three questions that you should ask yourself if you want to be effective. And this is what I tell CEOs. I say first, what is the problem you want to solve? Or the opportunity you want to go after that you believe you could if you just had the right data, straight that because clarity of vision, there's a lot of data externally and internally.

Julie Sweet:

But what do you think you could do if you just had the right data. Then the answer to that question gives you the vision. Then you say well is the data going to come from outside or is it something that you have and for the data that you have yourself, like if I could just connect that data, then the two additional questions that you have to ask yourself is, do you know where it is and do you trust it?

Julie Sweet:

Clarity. What data and where is it? And then do you trust it? And once you start answering the questions that way you can start to get to the way to invest and what to change. And too often people either come at it from a really technical place, build a data Lake. How many of you have heard of data Lakes. Like everybody knows about data and they're saying well let me bring all the data together and chances are you don't need all the data.

Cliff Leaf:

This summer I'm bringing my family to a data Lake for vacation. And so the question is though, for the people in this room, these questions, these three fundamental questions are really permeating throughout the workforce here. I mean these are not just things for leaders at the top of the hierarchy to understand, but increasingly we're asking people in the middle of the organization and to some extent, even the bottom of the organization to think about the data they have, to think about the questions they need to ask. And we actually want to skill them to be able to ask these questions and understand the tools at their disposal to answer them. I mean increasingly.

Julie Sweet:

It's true. And look so let me give you an example of what we're doing at Accenture because we actually face the same questions. That all our clients are in terms of technology matters for every department, including very true in HR and not everyone's equipped. So to Accenture, 65% of our business today is digital cloud insecurity. But the most well-equipped are the people who've been in digital or who've been in technology. But if you're advising a CSRO or a CFO or you're creating new business models, you have to understand technology and you're not a technologist. So we just launched this week. We're really excited-

Cliff Leaf:

This week.

Julie Sweet:

This week we just launched something called raising your TQ. So you've got IQ, EQ and TQ, your Technology Quotient. And we partnered with a company that has a great platform and because we actually buy as well as build ourselves. And we've just rolled out the first set of on demand mobile and you can do it mobile training that's designed for people who are not technologists to learn what are these things?

Julie Sweet:

And there's going to be basically a set of basics that everybody needs to know at Accenture, no matter where you are. And then we'll look at our services and build. So if you primarily serve the CHRO, what is the additional things that you need to know to ... the cutting edge technologies, what our partners are doing and as we build it, we then want to be able to practice on ourself and then help our clients. Because we're hearing this from companies.

Julie Sweet:

Like how do you do this? And in many cases it's things that we think are actually universal. That are not they cross industry, there's certain terminologies you need to know. So we have this great video that says can you describe AI in 10 seconds? And so we're super excited about this. Raising your TQ.

Cliff Leaf:

So I've talked about the half a million employees. I mean that's just an enormous amount, but do you see your company having that many employees a decade from now or do you see a significant portion of those beings scaled out of the system?

Julie Sweet:

Well, we've already seen a huge change. And so our growth in numbers is really driven by our growth in business. Once upon a time it was very linear because there was a real correlation between dollars and people. But we're already automating. We our business process outsourcing business, we automated over a three year period, 40,000 jobs. We did it by asking our people. We said, "You tell us what could be automated and then we'll invest a portion of our savings into up skilling you."

Julie Sweet:

So those 40,000 people, no one lost their job in our case. We had a growing business and we had the need for more skills. And of course learning is a core competency of ours. So what I would say is that I can't predict where we'll be in 10 years based on people, but it won't. We don't see that as long as we keep growing, we believe we'll need to ... that the technology is not going to. So out pace growth. It'll be different if we're not growing. But as long as we're growing and what we focus on is what our people are doing. So we have a tool that can predict what jobs will be automated. And so we can plan for that.

Cliff Leaf:

Got it. I hope my job can be automated.

Julie Sweet:

It already has.

Cliff Leaf:

That's true. It actually has. But you've had a conversation with a number of CEOs just in the past couple of weeks and in each one of them asks you this question about how do I talk to my workforce about this impending change, this ongoing change, this disruption that's happening. And what's the advice you give them?

Julie Sweet:

Well, first of all, I always start transparency is really important. And it's quite uncomfortable. And I think one of our jobs as advisors and as a company that's gone through it, is to push the issue. I was just at a client that's going to do a big program and they were asking their people who were going to eventually not be there to help drive the program. And I was like well what's your communication been so far? And what's your plan? Like how are you thinking about can you deskill them? Can you help them go to new jobs at other companies?

Julie Sweet:

And we really want this to be a part of who we are as a company is to help companies have that conversation. And then I'm very committed to finding ways that our core competency of learning and training can be helped. So we're increasingly saying to our clients, why don't you put some of your people on our deals, we'll train them and they'll work as an integrated team. So that first of all, they get excited. It's not Accenture doing something to them, but we're helping up skill your people using our training.

Julie Sweet:

And it has to be worked out because they're not as skilled as if we put them on there. But for companies who care about their employees, it's a great opportunity. And what I find is it's not that companies don't care. They have two challenges. They have an economic challenge often, but as much as they have a competency challenge. How do you re skill, up-skill? And we don't have all the answers and there's a lot of disruption that's happening in the workforce.

Julie Sweet:

But we believe that it's our responsibility, not to try to make money, but because we believe we have a responsibility to help companies solve this.

Cliff Leaf:

When I talked to you, you seem so optimistic. It's actually somewhat infectious about the new look of the workforce 10, 20 years from now where people will have sufficient competencies to sort of handle all of these new digital tools and become expert in them, which is encouraging you feel that way. But I know a lot of people have this pit in their stomach about this digital thing that's coming, whatever it is.

Cliff Leaf:

Actually though our research shows that most employees are actually excited about getting digital. We've done some really good research at various levels where it says people are excited, they fear the unknown. And so that's why transparency's important. A path is important. We've had clients who said well we're all about continuous learning. And then you say, well how do you help your people learn? Do you tell them what to learn? And there's no path to learning. And so to say to people, your jobs are going to change and then not give a path to what does that mean? That's why when we ... in 2014 we created digital for the first time, our business was commoditizing in parts of our business. We saw what was going to happen in the market and we had to rotate.

Cliff Leaf:

And this is where we said we have to completely rethink learning. We can't use the old CBTs, computer based training. It has to be continuous. It has to be appealing. You have to be able to get it from a mobile app and you have to be able to tell people these are the basics. If you want to be literate in the new IT, it's these 12 things. And when you do that, people love it. And then they have an opportunity to use it. It's pretty exciting. And we found that is true at different generations of the workforce.

Cliff Leaf:

With the size and scale of your enterprise, how do you find people that may not fit the mold of going into a sort of hoity toity professional services for? How do you find that-

Julie Sweet:

Hoity toity.

Cliff Leaf:

Hoity toity.

Julie Sweet:

My dad's rolling in his grave.

Cliff Leaf:

Hoity toity.

Julie Sweet:

Like what have you done? My dad was a car painter. If he thought I was hoity toity I'd be-

Cliff Leaf:

It's the world's leading professional services for-

Julie Sweet:

I like that better. Thank you.

Cliff Leaf:

That's nicer.

Julie Sweet:

I like that better.

Cliff Leaf:

No too self.

Julie Sweet:

First of all, we're in over 500,000 people. We are a lot of different people. We go from everything from strategy to operations. And everything in between. So we talk about a culture of cultures because we have people who do design thinking, who are ... the adage of the decade is Droga5. They are part of Accenture. They work in different environments. They have different things. We have a lot of people in our studios don't have the same views of promotion. It's about work. It's like we have a lot of people who are helping our oil and gas clients who work in a very different environment.

Julie Sweet:

So what we've really committed to as a company is that we're going to embrace the idea that you have a culture of cultures, which is also true about individual diversity with a culture or cross that's shared success. So we want to have a culture of shared success that we're going to have shared success as a company with each other. We're going to have shared success with our clients and with our communities.

Julie Sweet:

And that's how when you bring people together, because all of these different cultures, they're not independent silos. They come together to create something for a client. Like for example, we were hired by Kimberly Clark to redefine the relationship between them and the mothers and parents of their babies who use their baby products. Well, that required deep technical skills. So people who code. It requires Droga5. The creativity, it requires people who do analytics to understand the customer and people who have been doing deep industry consulting to understand consumer goods.

Julie Sweet:

They all come together. So you can't have a culture of cultures where they operate separately. And so by having a culture of shared success and then adding on top of that, really is fundamentals, a commitment to integrity, meritocracy, stewardship, you know, our core values that haven't changed since we began. That's how you create something special.

Cliff Leaf:

We talked just to ... you nodded to your background just a little bit here. Your father, you grew up in Orange County, sort of very kind of not dirt poor but working class poor. Your father painted cars. He was out of a job in the Reagan recession. You had a lot of grit as a child. Took yourself to put yourself into college, ended up going and taking a year in China long before anyone else thought that was a good idea. And how do you find people who may not have the diplomas, may not have the pedigreed jobs, but they've got that grit as my friend Ellen McGirt. Is Ellen here in the audience? Oh there she is.

Julie Sweet:

Ellen McGirt.

Cliff Leaf:

Ellen McGirt.

Julie Sweet:

Love Ellen.

Cliff Leaf:

Ellen McGirt.

Julie Sweet:

I've got a role model.

Cliff Leaf:

So Ellen McGirt is the most famous fortune writer and she wrote-

Julie Sweet:

No tell Ellen but that's probably-

Cliff Leaf:

Yeah so she wrote a piece a couple of years ago about finding those kinds of job, those kinds of new workers callings that have that special grit. They've overcome challenges, they're prepared to take on leadership skills, leadership challenges, not because they've got a history of being in the right jobs at the right places. But because they've done it in their lives, how do you find those people?

Julie Sweet:

Well first I want to give a shout out to my mother too, because she graduated from college my freshman year of college. Raising three kids working part time, so I had great role models.

Cliff Leaf:

Studying Computer Science.

Julie Sweet:

And she studied Computer Science when they still use punch cards. So pretty amazing. I'd say two things. One is we look for leadership. And when you look for leadership, that oftentimes gets manifested by people who are multitasking. They're working while going to school, they're on a sports team, they go to a club, they do more than one thing. Oftentimes those kids come from all different kinds of backgrounds. And so I think by looking for leadership, we have found that that really does transcend because we don't look for it just because you're the president of the swim team.

Julie Sweet:

But leadership also comes from people who do multiple things and are able to manage their time and really do something outside of just going to class. Good thing is we find talent in different places. One of the things that we're really excited about are the professional apprentices that we have in the US. So apprenticeships has been something outside the US and particularly in Europe for many years.

Julie Sweet:

Here it's been mostly about the trades. We have 450 apprentices at Accenture and we said we're going to look for people that's primarily high school or junior college jobs that ... particularly for those in junior college we used to ask for a four year degree. And what we've found is we have more diversity and we have just incredible people who are coming in who have oftentimes faced many different challenges. Don't necessarily come from backgrounds that have more similar backgrounds to me, who do show that grit and who might not have been given a chance if we hadn't changed our requirements to not ask for a four year degree.

Cliff Leaf:

Do you ask for a two year degree or do you ask for-

Julie Sweet:

Our apprenticeships are two kinds. They're either in high school or they've started a program and so the one we started in Chicago for example, it's focused on one of the colleges that focused on technology. And so they come their second year. So one year of junior college but it teaches you a lot about how you need to look for different sources of great talented people. And we're doing that more and more in terms of the colleges that we're going to. And by the way, one of the wonderful things which we didn't know to expect it, many of the kids who've come in with two year degrees are now working and going to school because they want to get their four year degree.

Julie Sweet:

And I was talking to this one young woman recently who is kind of worried and I said, "Look I saw my mother work and go to school and you're going to run the place someday. Because if you're able to do that, there's nothing that you can't do." And so I do think it's really important as companies, I think there are more opportunities we can give people who do not have four year degrees. And so it's something that we're really committed to continuing to look at in our own business.

Cliff Leaf:

One of the things that happens when you get named CEO of a company with what 120 billion market cap company is that you're suddenly a role model. You're in a stratospheric level, you were a role model before. But you're now known as one of the "Few women CEOs of the global Fortune 500." And you have made it a real responsibility of yours and a passion of yours to help other women through this navigate the sort of often Byzantine structures of the corporate world. Talk a little bit about how you sort of came to terms with this new responsibility. Did you always feel this need?

Julie Sweet:

Well what I would tell you is first of all I've stayed grounded because I have two daughters who are 11 and 13. The first time they met ... so I'm required to have a security person, which I said I didn't want but I'm required to have it by my board. And the first time they went someplace they were who's this guy? I'm like security. My 13 year old looked at me and like mom you are not important enough for security.

Julie Sweet:

So I stay very grounded. I do feel a responsibility and it's for two reasons. One is I had a lot of people help me, a lot of women and men from the timing. Because when I was young, I'm 52 and when I was becoming a lawyer, if I didn't have men also helping me, I wouldn't have made it. Because there were not that many women but I had some incredible women and I've had even as I've taken this role, incredible CEOs like Marilyn Houston, Maggie Wilderotter, I mean these are women who reached out and have mentored me and so you feel a responsibility to give back and also you have the ability to change things and I think that's what we need to do.

Cliff Leaf:

When you think about change, I mean you've got just a few seconds left, really 30 seconds to sort of give some advice to this audience. What advice would you give them that they can change the world. What's the thing that they could reach into?

Julie Sweet:

In 32 seconds?

Cliff Leaf:

32 seconds. Let's go. And then I'm going to ask each of you.

Julie Sweet:

All right. So when I became CEO, I wanted to use the opportunity to talk about leadership because I think you can't talk about it enough. And so much of what we need to achieve is not about what a consultant tells you or what's on a PowerPoint. It's about leadership behaviors at all levels. And so that was the other thing I did, when I first became CEO was to say here are the seven leadership essentials that I think we need to focus on as we go forward.

Julie Sweet:

And one of them is have the courage to change and the ability to bring people along the journey. And I think you have to have both. And so I think many, many of you are advisors to business leaders who are HR professionals and reinforcing, too often we talk about the courage part, the CEO who has courage.

Julie Sweet:

But it's the bringing people along the journey. And one of the things I'm most proud of, I learned from an amazing CEO Pierre Nanterme who you know and when we decided to really radically change our business in 2014. He said I am going to make a bet on our people. And that is when we said, we are going to train. We're going to bring our people along the journey and have them have the prosperity. And he's just an amazing man and that's something I think about a lot.

Cliff Leaf:

I knew you could do it.

Julie Sweet:

On time. Thank you Cliff.

Cliff Leaf:

Julie Sweet-

Julie Sweet:

As always-

Cliff Leaf:

Thank you much.

Julie Sweet:

Fun.

Cliff Leaf:

Thank you very much.

Julie Sweet:

Thanks. Thank you. Thanks everyone.