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CEO Dialogue Series

CEO interview

Julie Sweet: why it pays to never stop learning

8 June 2022 in CEO Dialogue Series

Julie Sweet has made huge strides since taking over global operations at Accenture. She speaks to Jean-François Manzoni about why the company was so successful during the COVID-19 crisis and the importance...

Julie Sweet has made huge strides since taking over global operations at Accenture. She speaks to Jean-François Manzoni about why the company was so successful during the COVID-19 crisis and the importance of learning new skills. 

“I have an amazing job,” says Julie Sweet, CEO of IT consulting giant Accenture. “I work with great people doing super-exciting work. I get to talk to the CEOs of the greatest pharma companies in the world. Yesterday, I was with CEOs of some of the best energy companies in the world. Tomorrow I might be with fashion and consumer goods. I’m learning every day. I love my job.” 

It also helps that, since taking up her post in September 2019, Accenture’s business has surged as clients worldwide have scrambled to adopt the technologies needed to cope with the disruptions caused by COVID-19. 

“In the last two years, we’ve had 156 clients, who in a single quarter have had bookings with us of $100 million or more,” said Sweet. “That’s a 50% increase over the two years prior to the pandemic.”  

The outcome was a 14% jump in revenues in 2021, sending turnover past $50 billion for the first time, a market valuation now standing at $175 billion, off a peak of $261 billion at the start of this year, but still up 50% from when Sweet took up her post, and an astonishing jump in worldwide staff numbers, up 200,000 in the last two years to 700,000. 

Sweet’s arrival at Accenture’s helm marked the start of a sharp change in career. After training as a lawyer at Columbia Law School, Sweet spent 17 years at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, where she became only the ninth woman partner in the firm’s 180-year history. 

For us, the pandemic wasn’t the beginning of remote work. We haven’t had a headquarters in three decades. My entire leadership team was already virtual

In 2010, however, Accenture tempted her away to become its general counsel and chief compliance officer. Five years later, she became head of its North American arm, and then, in September 2019, its global CEO.  

Less than six months later, COVID-19 hit. The crisis was one that Accenture had spent nearly a decade preparing for. As Sweet pointed out, as far back as 2013 the company was declaring that “every business is a digital business”. 

“For us, the pandemic wasn’t the beginning of remote work. We haven’t had a headquarters in three decades. My entire leadership team was already virtual. We probably already had, if not the biggest, one of the largest remote workforces in the world. We were the largest user of [MS] Teams. We used video already. We had the collaboration tools.” 

“The pandemic accelerated the needs of our clients to transform,” said Sweet. And as that happened, she continued, those companies also found themselves moving faster and having to do more than ever before. As companies underwent this “compressed transformation”, they were able to create new platforms, help businesses, find new customers and accelerate their growth.  

Underpinning Accenture’s approach lies the purpose: “to deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity,” realized by combining deep technical expertise with talented people. “We think about our services as helping our clients harness five forces to be successful in the next decade,” said Sweet.  

“The first of those forces is total enterprise reinvention” – that’s using technology, data and artificial intelligence (AI) to find new ways of working, engaging with customers and business models. “The second is talent. The third is sustainability. The fourth is the metaverse continuum. And the fifth is the ongoing tech revolution.” 

One of the sayings that I talk about with clients and our people internally is simplicity is the new innovation

The breadth of Accenture’s work brings with it enormous complexity. Indeed, many of its competitors have spun off some of their activities in order to focus on doing fewer things better. Yet at the center of what does lies one basic idea, said Sweet: helping businesses build their digital core. 

“One of the sayings that I talk about with clients and our people internally is ‘simplicity is the new innovation’,” she said. “At the root of what we do is we bring deep expertise around technology and really talented people to change the ways you work in the context of your industry.”  

That doesn’t mean that complexity is something that can be ignored – working with Global 2000 companies means bringing solutions that require expertise. “From a leadership perspective, we take away a lot of that complexity by, instead of focusing on a client’s different business lines, we concentrate on solving their needs,” said Sweet. 

“From a leadership perspective, we have very clear essentials: being focused on our clients and our people.” She believes that Accenture’s culture of “shared success” helps with both. “When you focus on sharing success, it gives people the North Star they need to help find a way to work together.” That also opens the way for the company to broaden its contribution in other ways: “As we help our clients, we’re doing things like embedding sustainability and the ability to upskill and reskill their people,” said Sweet. 

Julie SweetJulie Sweet prioritizes progress over perfection. ‘It’s most important not to have perfection be the standard,’ she says

Part of the promise of technology is to automate work that’s uninteresting or which needs to be done more accurately in areas such as compliance and fraud detection. Eliminating such work leaves people free to do other things that are more valuable, which in turn calls for finding new ways to upskill or unlock talent.  

Accenture addresses this issue by spending $1 billion a year on training and development. “We’ve been reskilling our people,” said Sweet. “Everyone at Accenture, whether you work in the mailroom, in finance or with clients, has to take 10 courses in technology. We call this raising their ‘TQ’ or tech quotient, because we believe [having such knowledge] is fundamental to how we both operate and serve our clients.” 

To make sure Accenture hires people who can keep on acquiring the new skills they will need as technology evolves, the company asks all job candidates a simple question: what have you learned in the last six months? 

Everyone at Accenture, whether you work in the mailroom, in finance or with clients, has to take 10 courses in technology

The answer can be something as simple as mastering a recipe, said Sweet. “One of the most important things we look for is that people who come to us are learners, because we know that the needs of our clients and our own business and the skills that are needed change all the time. 

“What we’re looking for is whether a person has what we call learning agility – the ability to continuously learn. When someone can answer the question, it demonstrates that they have curiosity and the ability to do so.” 

Taking on so many new staff at a time when remote work makes physical onboarding impossible poses the question of how to share and maintain a company’s culture. The answer Accenture came up with is “omni-connectivity” – finding ways in which technology can be used to create an omni-connection where people feel included as well as connected, regardless of their physical location. Part of this is ensuring that everyone has the time and access they need for collaboration, knowledge-sharing and learning, but it also means paying attention to diversity and a true equality of opportunities, so everyone feels like they belong and can advance in their career. 

“We’re always thinking about how to connect people, because that’s how you continue to build and enrich your culture,” said Sweet. Its latest innovation is putting 150,000 new hires through the company’s own metaverse – a virtual campus where people can tour the company’s offices, undergo TQ training, and meet clients as part of their onboarding process. 

Learning is a theme that recurs throughout Sweet’s reflections on her work. “When I think about my career, one of the really important factors has been that I am a learner. When I joined Accenture, I knew literally nothing about technology, so I asked Bhaskar Ghosh, our current chief strategy officer, who then was running our India tech business, to teach me technology. I would meet with him every two weeks for about 18 months.” 

Embracing learning runs deeply through the company’s culture. “When I came to Accenture, I was struck by how much focus they put on leadership development. That billion dollars a year that we spend [on staff development], we’re investing not simply in skills training, but also in: How do you lead people? How do you do change? How do you have the courage to change? And how do you bring people along the journey? [That training] is a core competency of Accenture. It’s why our people are our greatest strength; we invest in helping people be able to be leaders across the board.” 

One philosophy that I use for work and myself is a simple phrase: progress over perfection. It’s most important not to have perfection be the standard”

That preoccupation with knowing more turns up in one of the two personal rules Sweet uses to cope with the cognitive and emotional challenges of her work. “One philosophy that I use for work and myself is a simple phrase: progress over perfection. It’s most important not to have perfection be the standard.” 

Her other rule: “Really understanding what’s important in your life.” For her, that’s the needs of her family, starting with spending time each morning with her daughters, now aged 14 and 15. “I want to make sure that I’m seeing them before school. When they were much smaller, we’d have an hour in the morning, now I’m lucky if I get 15 minutes.  

“That doesn’t mean I can see them before school every day because things happen. But starting with that block on your calendar, so you know you’re going to be there for parents’ night or in the morning before school, is one of the most important practices to ensuring you can have a life where you’re giving your work what it needs, but you’re also doing the self-care you need, and you’re also there for your friends and family.” 

For this, she said, you must know your priorities. “I do say ‘no’ a lot. That ability to say no is very important.” 

Expert

Jean-François Manzoni

Jean-François Manzoni

IMD President

Jean-François Manzoni is the President of IMD, where he also serves as the Nestlé Professor. His research, teaching, and consulting activities are focused on leadership, the development of high-performance organizations and corporate governance.

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