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"There's a tendency to mourn what's lost" - Accenture CEO Julie Sweet on how COVID-19 might change organizational behaviors for the better

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 22, 2020
Two months after being 'upstaged' by the COVID-19 pandemic, Accenture CEO Julie Sweet can see some business and organizational positives that have come from the crisis. The trick now is to make them stick!

Julie Sweet
(via Accenture )

Back in March, Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture, was all set to present a stellar set of quarterly results and talk up future plans for the new leadership team at the services giant. Then along came COVID-19 and the topic of conversation had to change pretty rapidly. Sweet recalls:

When the pandemic was declared 11 March, we had just finished our second quarter. It was the biggest sales quarter in our history. I did earnings eight days after the pandemic [was declared]. No-one asked me about Q2 because it was [now about] something else. We had to say, 'Look, we need to face where we are and embrace the future and move forward and bring our organizations along [with us]’.

In the intervening two months, Sweet’s outlook and Accenture’s day-to-day business have inevitably been shaped by the impact of the virus:

One of the things that we had to do rapidly was to start focusing on the future, because there's a tendency to mourn what's lost….It’s a really, really tough time, just as a leadership team and with our people, making sure that we can embrace a future…The other thing I do as a leader is I remember that my job is not to put stress in the system. So being calm at this time is really important, because we are facing tough things. So that's one of the things that I constantly tell myself as a leader -  my job is not to add to the stress.

Positive changes

Reality is tough and while no-one would wish the current crisis any more longevity than it needs to have, there are positive side-effects that are being forged out of turmoil, suggests Sweet. This includes organizations re-assessing how they approach operational decision-making as a result of being forced to re-think how they work:

What I thought would be the biggest challenge was how slow companies have operated [previously]. That's not actually occurred and it's been incredible to see many CEOs saying, 'I don't want to go back', because they've seen how the entire organization can move really fast.

There is something happening. A lot of people are talking about digital acceleration, and it can become as danger of becoming a bit of a cliche, but there is something real that's happening…I think it's putting us on a different path and the speed of that change is surprising, We were all talking about agile organisations and how you test and learn and do thatl; now you have, almost overnight, organizations embracing it as a new way of working.

She cites, as a case-in-point, work that Accenture and Salesforce have done with a leading financial services institution:

Pre-crisis, we were helping a major bank move from being all about products to being all about the customer. [It's] a familiar story, a big transformation. Well, the crisis hit and all of a sudden that bank's small businesses and their people have questions. How do they access the relief program? How do they get their checks posted quickly? The bank was overwhelmed. Together, very quickly, we were able to put in an Einstein [Salesforce AI] bot [as] a virtual agent to answer the questions rapidly, overnight.

Another example she points centers on how contact tracing apps have been developed:

Ninety days ago we would have said it really takes a group of people who understand the health component, a group who understand how public sector operates, a group who understand how the private sector operates, a group who get privacy concerns. The way that it's been built though, so that in fact people can both protect their privacy and yet we can achieve these public health outcomes, has really been extraordinary. That is something I think that we should all be surprised at and learn from. It was incredibly complicated and yet done very, very rapidly. It's exciting and it's just part of ‘embrace the future’.

The same agility and speed can be seen in other areas, such as tackling food poverty, she says:

Right now we're working together with an organization, Not Impossible Labs, under the Hunger: Not Impossible program. We built together an app that allows us to connect people who are hungry with restaurants where there's pre-paid food. We've now rolled that out, together with this organization, in three cities very rapidly.  I mean this was done in days. I believe that it's those kinds of solutions that are being inspired by the larger things that people are seeing [during the COVID-19 crisis].

So let's start to think about education and the new opportunities where we can come together, both in our businesses to help our clients and do [their] very important things, but also to find more answers to areas that have been a bit intractable in the past. We have a very tough reality. We are going to have some tough times ahead, in both health and economics, but there is also some extraordinary opportunity to work together as a society, as governments and as businesses to make lasting improvements.


The trick, of course, will be to keep a hold of beneficial aspects of a crisis mindset once the immediate crisis is over. Sweet talks about the need for resolve on that front:

What we don't want to have happen is for the hardest part of the crisis to pass, the first stage of response, and then we go back [to the old ways]. Many CEOs are saying they don't want to [do that], so what does that mean? We all need to think about how do we make decisions and how do we institutionalize these changes as we move forward? I think that's part of the next phase of what we all need to do, to capture the good of how we responded together.

As organizations around the world are now starting to re-open their doors, to greater or lesser degrees, Accenture has been collaborating with Salesforce on its suite of offerings to facilitate a safe return to some new norm of working.  One challenge here, says Sweet, is how to take issues that are common across industries and apply them within sectors with differing needs:

We need to do contract tracing regardless of industry, but how do you do that within industries? What’s the need of the manufacturer versus a service company versus a retailer versus a school? How can you build this backbone and then implement for different industries, using what's common, but having that kind of real understanding of how it's going to be different?

At this time, it’s also important to maintain a longer term future focus, she adds:

No matter what people understand, this is not temporary. We are looking at a fair amount of time. One of the things that we're also seeing is that much of this is going to have applicability even beyond a vaccine, because it's also helping bring efficiencies to how you manage people, the way you look at things, automating and bringing information together in ways that you could only dream of before. So I do believe that taking mental possession of the fact that this isn't temporary, and that we need to think about it from a longer term and make it easier on people, is also a part of the embracing of the future.

As for Sweet’s personal approach, that’s heavily shaped by her upbringing, she attests:

When I left for college my dad said to me, 'Don't be afraid to embrace new things just never forget where you came from'. And I really think of that in my new life as a CEO - don't forget our people. We talk a lot at Accenture about [how] it's human+machine, people first...My parents used to say, "We don't have money but we have time', so we always grew up serving. I think all of us as leaders - and no matter what we do, whatever level of leadership - we just have to remember people first and to show compassion and empathy.

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