When Julie Sweet joined Accenture as general counsel in 2010, Bill Green, the CEO at the time, told her that he wasn’t just looking for a lawyer, but seeking a business leader with a legal background—and someone who could one day lead the company.
Sweet had never run a business before but has gone on to become the first female CEO at Accenture, and the first CEO that didn’t join Accenture straight out of college.
“When you are offered a stretch opportunity, take it,” she said in a Distinguished Speakers Series interview with Dean Bill Boulding of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She says to say yes first, “and if you feel you are not ready, go talk to your friends and advisers and figure out what you need to do to get ready.”
At the start of her time at Accenture, Sweet knew there was a lot she didn’t know about technology. She understood that to be the best in her role, and grow into a business leader, she had to learn. She said her best tool to build her credibility, first as general counsel and then as CEO, was to follow what she calls the “why” rule.
Whenever she didn’t understand something intuitively, she would make notes and then go back and ask: ‘Why?’. “I used to sit in leadership meetings, and I would make a list of things that I would go back and ask,” Sweet said.
Asking questions is not a sign of weakness; in fact, it is tied closely to one of the eight leadership essentials Sweet put into place at the beginning of her tenure as global CEO: Lead with excellence, confidence, and humility. “If you're wondering ‘why’, there's someone else in the room who is as well,” she said.
Understanding technology is a core business competency
Sweet says one area where leaders need to ask ‘why’ and continue to learn is technology transformation, which has accelerated in business since the pandemic.
“Every part of every company is going to need to be reinvented through the use of technology, data, and artificial intelligence (AI),” Sweet said.
However, this reinvention must start with strategy and good data hygiene. “If you want to use AI at scale in your business, you need to be old-fashioned, and be able to actually know where your data is,” Sweet said. She noted that is why so many companies now use cloud services: “Cloud is the enabler, data is the driver, and AI is the differentiator.”
Such massive transformations also are changing the kinds of skills companies are seeking in candidates. “Almost any job today requires you to understand technology,” she said. “Not to be able to code, but understanding how the use of data and technologies like AI can really help companies is critical.”
Business potential of the metaverse
Sweet is also a big believer in another growing area of technology: the metaverse. In 2013, Accenture declared that every business would be a digital business. Today, Sweet says that every business will be a metaverse business.
She believes that the metaverse has the potential to shape business—and our world—in profound ways. It is not a future technology—the metaverse is here now, and it is already changing business in four important ways:
1. Industrial metaverse
Sweet said industrial processes, such as production lines, could be tested with “digital twins” to determine how effective they are before they implemented.
2. Employee experience
She notes that Accenture’s Nth Floor, where people participate in immersive learning and social onboarding experiences, is “probably the largest enterprise metaverse in existence” and uses technology for employee on-boarding that is not widely available.
Sweet says that about 150,000 new hires have been onboarded in the metaverse. Accenture also uses the metaverse to allow people to virtually visit the company’s innovation centers, meet colleagues from around the world, and listen to speakers in an “immersive way.”
“The science says that learning in the metaverse, you actually retain more,” Sweet said, “so there is a good business reason.”
3. Meetings and collaboration
At the 2022 World Economic Forum in Davos, Accenture and Microsoft partnered to build “the first metaverse for the public good,” Sweet said, with world leaders and CEOs from around the world creating their own avatars to innovate in a collaborative, inclusive, and effective way to help build a better society.
4. Products and commerce
“The metaverse will be another way that you engage with a consumer,” Sweet said. She gave the example of building products specifically for the metaverse, like clothing for avatars, or digital trading cards, which, for example, will allow athletes to interact directly with their fans.
Sweet says part of her vision as a leader has been to dream big, even when it’s uncomfortable—citing a plaque on her mudroom wall that reads, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”
“If I am feeling really comfortable that my strategy is doing great, then I am probably not pushing the company enough,” she said, “If you feel a pit in your stomach, then you are probably pushing yourself.”