Going Against the Flow: Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture, North America

Julie Sweet is the Chief Executive Officer of North American for Accenture and is responsible for leading company's business in the United States, the company's largest market, and Canada. Prior to assuming her current position in June 2015, Julie served as general counsel, secretary and chief compliance officer, and was a member of the Global Management Committee at Accenture.

Prior to joining Accenture in 2010, Julie was, for 10 years, a partner in the Corporate department of the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, which she joined in 1992. Julie is a member of the Executive Committee of the Business Roundtable and chairs its Technology, Internet & Innovation Committee. She also serves on the Executive Council of TechNet, on the board of directors of the National Center for Children and Families and on the board of directors of the Bipartisan Policy Center.​

Julie is an alum of Claremont McKenna College and Columbia Law School.

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Julie Sweet

After your liberal arts college degree, you got your JD from Columbia, became Partner at a top law firm, and are now the CEO of Accenture North America while still in your 40's. What drives your choices? What drives you?

Julie: What motivates me has changed over time. My younger self was driven by the desire to be extremely successful. My dad painted cars for a living, and my mom graduated from college when I was a college freshman myself. I grew up with a single pair of shoes until I grew into the next size. My parents believed in the American dream and the power of education, but didn't have the money to send me to college. I realized early on that I needed to go against the flow and be better than everyone else to support my family.

Furthermore, I had breast cancer two years ago and at such a time, you reflect on what motivates you. I started thinking more about diversity, philanthropy, investing in high potential younger women and leveraging my job to really give back to the world. I'm driven by making an impact on the individuals I interact with and leveraging my success to give back to the world.

How do you measure your success?

Julie: A couple of things here.

1) I measure my success by those that I lead such as the Counselees I've coached to become Managing Directors.

2) I very much care about not only leading my company, but also making a personal impact on my clients. I want them to feel that they've succeeded because I was present.

3) I tremendously value stewardship. I want to leave Accenture better than I found it. I am focused on investing our people, our community and effective diversity and inclusion initiatives.

In that case, how do you want people to perceive you? How do you want to be remembered?

Julie: I want to remembered for my transparency, clarity and authenticity. Transparency means explaining to my stakeholders why I'm doing what I'm doing; sharing both, the good and the bad and the reasons for the choices made. Clarity ties back to ensuring that our clients and employees clearly understand our vision and decision making. Authenticity on a daily bases translates to, for instance, not scripting my message, rather speaking in a voice that's mine - whether it's a 1:1 or a webcast for our 50,000 employees in North America.

It's quite unconventional for a CEO to come from a legal background. How has your experience been different from CEO's with say a sales or technology background?

Julie: I only had upsides, for three reasons.

1) I was a corporate lawyer, and my I spent 17 years at a top law firm known for our client service. At Accenture, I'm doing the same thing, it's just that I'm selling a different product.

2) Corporate lawyers are forward thinking, act with speed and need to make clear decisions with objectivity. At Accenture, we see a great deal of volatility and uncertainty in our clients' industries, so the CEO needs to be quick, decisive, clear thinker, and objective - which means making decisions not tied to how people lived 5 years ago, but focused on how things stand today and in the upcoming future. This is where my two decades of training comes in handy.

3) Lawyers are all about continuously learning. Industries are disruptive, and so is technology. A company leader must be willing to talk to experts and grow their knowledge-base. My career in law has trained me to have growth mindset, and try to be on top on trends, news and innovation.

How has being a woman affected your journey, if at all?

Julie: A couple of decades ago, there were not a lot of women in any room I was in. So, when you're good, you stand out. So, I tried to use the lack of diversity as an opportunity to get noticed and as a source to inspire myself to be the very best. There is no woman in my generation who can't talk about difficult times. At Accenture, we assign formal executive sponsors to high performing women so they have more exposure to powerful opportunities and networks.

It is critical to me that people joining Accenture look at diversity as not just checking the box, but as a necessary value that drives the best business outcome. Diversity is so much more than striving for gender equality though. It's really about having diversity in perspective, expertise, roots people come from.

Beyond the formal mentorship program, how do you pick the mentees you choose to invest in? What do they do better than others to get 1:1 time with you?

Julie: Well, you see spark in someone, that they have the potential to be the kind of leader we want. At a recent dinner, a female MD stood up to share her thoughts, and in those 5 minutes, I was highly impressed by the clarity in her thinking and speech. I asked her boss, "Is she as promising as she seems?" The answer was a yes. So, I started meeting with her regularly.

My coaching is not limited to women. I collaborated with a male colleague, who has an incredible demeanor that brings together people to do something brand new. He motivated his team to think outside the box, and more importantly, they executed the plan for the client and very well. Of course, I'm working with him to sponsor his career.

What my mentees do well? They focus on learning substantively from me, rather than focusing on how I can help them with their immediate job. That's when the mentors get excited! When they speak about you, they can speak substantively about your spirit, your story, your dreams, and not just your professional ambitions.

What advice do you give to your mentees, that our audience can learn from?

Julie: I have three pieces of advice for any young person who wants to be successful.

1) Be willing to take risks and explore the unexpected.

When I was entering college in 1988, I had to choose a foreign language, and everyone studied Japanese or French. I met an entrepreneur who sat on the board of a scholarship fund for Claremont, and he asked me what I intended to choose. I wasn't sure. "How about Mandarin?", his three words literally changed my life. I decided to not just go with the flow. I was the only person in my freshman college to study Chinese, and I spent a year abroad in Taiwan and Beijing. That experience gave me tremendous confidence, and has dictated my choices ever since.

After I had been at a top law firm for 17 years, I got a call out of the blue from Accenture. I was 43, successful, had my future charted out, but I decided that I wanted to contribute more to the world than just following "the path". It's very easy to do what everyone else does, but I wanted to take big risks. I wanted to look at all the opportunities out there, and push my comfort zone. I accepted the offer, and it's been quite a journey.

2) Pick role models with the right values, not just based on your job.

I'm a strong leader today because I surround myself with people who do the right thing, and whom I admire for both the results they drive as well the values they live by. Three individuals have particularly influenced my outlook on life.

  • Early on in my career, I was lucky to find a mentor in Bob Rosenman, who was Partner at Cravath. He coached me to always ask "What's the right thing to do?" His agenda was always to get the right answer for the client. He was incredibly well respected for his integrity, and doing business the respectable way.

  • Susan Webster was the first woman to become corporate partner at my law firm. She was obviously a sharp lawyer to be able to succeed in a male dominated setup, but she was also authentically human and relatable and so, a leader of people.
  • Our global CEO Pierre Nanterme consistently demonstrates great integrity and innovation. He challenges himself with unconventional thinking, never compromises what's best for the client, and measures himself by the success of those he leads.
  • 3) Relentlessly work on your communication skills.

    People don't prioritize working on their communication skills enough. At every stage in your career, you should be constantly honing your formal, informal, oral, email communication. Especially early on in your career, it gets you noticed by the right people who can help you fast pace your career. A few years in, your success depends on your ability to get people on board, so of course being a strong listener and communicator are necessary. You can have the best idea, but if you don't articulate it well, how will you ever get the help and resources to bring it to life? Even later, when you become a leader, this skill-set becomes even more important because you need to influence people at scale, and giving talks to large audiences becomes inevitable, and your communication skills can only be built over time.

    I am very cognizant of my audience and incredibly disciplined with my communication. When I write any email to anyone, I always start with the purpose of the email, so the recipient knows why they should read my email. Furthermore, I use subs, captions, bullet points. When I go to a community meeting, I never use slides. I'm focused on the story. I want to stand up in the room, connect with people in front of me, and tell a clear story. Lastly, I want to add that the key to being a good communicator or leader is empathy. Especially while having difficult conversations, understanding your listener's perspective changes how you deliver a message to them, which in turn affects how they hear your message and react to it.

    Follow Julie Sweet at @juliesweet2, check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/ and join this movement to empower 1 million female entrepreneurs on goagainsttheflow.com.