Julie Sweet is CEO of professional services giant Accenture, which has 700,000 employees around the world (it hired 200,000 just in the past 18 months). Accenture realizes the imperative of coming up with new ways to recruit, retain, and delight talent. A recent initiative seeks to onboard each of its new hires in the metaverse.
HBR editor in chief Adi Ignatius sat down with Sweet in this episode of our video series “The New World of Work” to talk about:
- The most important skill Accenture looks for in any employee, regardless of their expertise level: the ability to learn.
- How AI and other technologies can aid in the re-skilling of workforces necessary to keep up with ever-changing demands.
- What the “phygital” (part physical, part digital) future workplace might look and feel like with the aid of “augmented connections” and the metaverse.
“The New World of Work” explores how top-tier executives see the future and how their companies are trying to set themselves up for success. Each week, Ignatius interviews a top leader on LinkedIn Live — previous interviews included Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. He also shares an inside look at these conversations —and solicits questions for future discussions — in a newsletter just for HBR subscribers. If you’re a subscriber, you can sign up here.
ADI IGNATIUS: Julie, welcome to The New World of Work.
JULIE SWEET: Great. Thanks for having me, Adi. I’m excited to be here.
ADI IGNATIUS: You have something like 700,000 employees at Accenture, so I’d love to hear about how you’re thinking about winning the war for talent. What does it take to win the hiring wars these days?
JULIE SWEET: I think hiring is the right place to start. When we think about talent, we actually think about how do you access talent? How do you hire it? How do you become a creator of talent so that you don’t always have to hire it? And then once they’re here, how do you unlock the potential of talent?
And when you think about hiring, we’ve actually added to our workforce in the tightest labor market in history, at least our history, 200,000 people in the last 18 months. Over that time, we’ve had 4.6 million resumes. And so we use what’s called a high-tech-enabled, high-touch recruiting model. We use technology to help us match the resumes with our needs, and our needs are really broad.
For example, we have nurses and MDs, as well as deep security professionals, as well as cloud professionals and people who do supply chains. So it’s really, really broad talent that we seek. We do so starting with this high-tech-enabled, high-touch recruiting model, which is kind of the “how we do it.” And of course the reason people come is all about what we offer our future employees.
ADI IGNATIUS: A few places we could go, and I guess one is the question about skills. And as you said, you have different types of jobs that require different types of skills. But I have a feeling that both in what you’re looking for or the algorithms you’ve created, there’s some general skills or general attributes that people need these days. Can you talk about what you think those might be?
JULIE SWEET: Let’s just start with one of the most important things that we look for actually, no matter who you are, is your ability to learn, learning agility. Because we know that while we may hire you for a certain set of skills, the rate of change and the need for skills is quite rapid. So there’s lots of research on this, that skills that were around in the Fortune 500, for example, in 2017, that approximately 40% are no longer relevant.
As we think about our own business, we start with learning agility and we ask a very simple question to all of our applicants, senior and junior. Those who are coming from school, we ask it slightly differently because they’re in school. “What have you learned in the last six months that was not part of school?” is what we add for those who we’re recruiting on campus. And what we’re looking for are individuals who naturally learn things. Now, the answer could be, “I learned to cook.” Right? The answer could be, “I learned how to change a tire.”
The point is, can the applicant respond to that question? It’s a really simple, but very effective way of understanding whether you’re hiring someone who likes to learn.
And actually one of our leadership essentials for all of our leaders is to lead with excellence, confidence, and humility. And the humility we find as a leadership quality is what allows people to be natural learners and to build great teams. And so they’re really connected when we think about the kinds of people and kinds of skills.
Then you take a step back and we do think that digital literacy is absolutely critical. Actually all of our 700,000 people, regardless of where you sit, if you are working in our mail room—we still get mail—or you are on the front lines with our clients, you have to go through something we call TQ. It’s your technology quotient, where you take and have to pass assessments in 10 areas. Because we really believe that basic technology skills are critical in every aspect, and that sort of links to the second area of talent that we focus on, which is being a creator of talent.
ADI IGNATIUS: Reskilling in part, I guess would mean making sure that people reach that general threshold of whatever it is, digital literacy. But at times you’re doing pretty profound reskilling. Because you have such a large workforce, what does reskilling look like at Accenture?
JULIE SWEET: Let’s go back to the pandemic in March of 2020. And when the pandemic hit, there was a big shift online, as we all know, and all of a sudden we had incredible demand. For example, for our clients to help them use digital collaboration tools, which had to be implemented, and then training of people. And there were far more demands than there were literally the day before the pandemic was declared.
Similarly, there was a big acceleration of the move to the cloud, of needing cloud skills. And so what reskilling for Accenture looks like is we actually have a database of all our client-facing people. We know what their skills are. We’re able to use AI algorithms to identify who could be reskilled, what family of skills are close to what we have more demand on, and then we can actually do the reskilling.
In the first six months after the pandemic, we upskilled about 100,000 people with programs that ranged from eight to 15 weeks, depending on what we were upskilling them for. And we were able to do so very rapidly, which enabled us to emerge from the pandemic much faster, because we could shift our people towards the new places of demand. And of course, it’s part of what makes our Accenture such an attractive place to work because people feel like they’re constantly being invested in.
In fact, we spend about $1 billion a year, an average of 40 hours per person of training, which is a really strong reason why we are able to recruit quarter in and quarter out such amazing talent.
ADI IGNATIUS: Normally, you’re the deputy head of something and you’re obviously candidate to be the head of something. But when you’re talking about using AI to figure out the future possibilities, they may not be so obvious or may not have been so obvious in the past. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Are there specific examples of where skills in one area actually translate into preparation for something else that we might not have thought about without AI showing the way?
JULIE SWEET: The easy examples are really examples that are around technical skills. Certain kinds of programming enable you to move more easily into other kinds of programming, certain platforms. For example, if you are working on one kind of a cloud-based platform, moving to another cloud-based platform is easier.
But there’s also less obvious things. For example, in security, the skills around security are very akin to what our professionals might be doing in risk and compliance, because there’s some deep analytical skills. Those are the kinds of things where you might not have first looked at people doing risk or compliance for our clients to say, “Oh yeah, they could easily become a security professional.” Because of course security was then another area that was triggered high demand when the pandemic hit. And yet, the algorithm will identify those who have those sort of deep analytical skills that are very useful in the security area.
And at the same time, it’s not always the algorithms that do it, but also we actually can create skills. For example, every part of every business right now is being transformed by technology. But if you think about most of our clients, like someone may be doing supply chain, doesn’t have the necessary technology skills. They have the supply chain skills. But to really be able to transform it, you need more of those technology skills. Now, we provide that for our clients.
One of the things we have to do is to have both deep domain knowledge as well as technology skills. In India, for example, we’ve recruited in the past six months, say 500 leaders with deep domain knowledge like in supply chain, with no technology knowledge. And then we’ve put them through a bootcamp of eight to 12 weeks depending on the domain, so that they can be working with our clients with the right domain knowledge, but also the technology skills.
These are the kinds of things that we’re doing with our clients. You take someone like Chevron, a leader in the energy fields. They know that technology and digital are really transforming and will need to transform every part of their enterprise. And they partnered with us to create a school for them, tailored to their different departments, to teach already 20,000 people the digital skills they need to take their deep domain knowledge of working at Chevron in these departments, couple it with the right technology knowledge, so that they can lead the reinvention of their particular part of the company.
It’s really important to be understanding what are the outcomes that you need and what are the skills? And can you educate and skill to get to those outcomes? And that’s why when I talked about what companies need to do around talent, this idea of both accessing talent, but becoming a talent creator is also very, very important.
ADI IGNATIUS: I’m going to go to an audience question right now, because it’s pertinent. This is from Marilyn in Virginia. “Do you have specific areas where you are experiencing skill shortages, and what are they? Are they functional? Are they industry-based? And if so, how are you addressing those?”
JULIE SWEET: It’s a great question that I think everyone is asking. We have a lot of what we call hot skills. So, in-demand skills. And those range from deep technology skills, all the way to the industry and domain skills. We don’t have like a gap in the sense of our ability to hire. And part of that is that we do use technology to anticipate based on our demand, even early stages, our knowledge of our skills, our knowledge of who we could re-skill or not re-skill. And so while I’m sure any of my leaders would say, “I’m always in demand of skills,” when you really look at, are we able to hire for everything we need? We can. But behind that is a pretty sophisticated way of anticipating the needs for skills.
And of course, the technology to do that is really important. It’s certainly important for Accenture, but it’s also critical for our clients. It’s driving a lot of our demand, because it’s hard to be able to predict. And therefore, make informed decisions about hiring or creating your own talent, unless you have a single source of truth around your employees. Part of what’s driving the need for new cloud-based solutions, which is a big part of our demand on the HR side, is this need to be much more sophisticated around your talent strategy, which does start with technology. And then if you want, we can later get into really the twin T’s of trust and technology, because they do go hand-in-hand, as you think about the changes you need to make in your organization to use technology effectively.
ADI IGNATIUS: I want to follow up on some of this when you’re talking about hiring and pipelines and skills. We’re all trying to diversify our workforces. A lot of us are coming to grips with the fact that we’ve not successfully diversified our workforces to the extent that we would like to. And there’s a risk that the algorithm will exacerbate the problem rather than fix the problem. You must be thinking about this a lot and how you’re trying to solve for diversity. Again, as you hire and maintain a workforce of 700,000 people.
JULIE SWEET: Adi, I think maybe to start with, before I turn to diversity, your point that the algorithms can be a problem, I would point the audience to a great body of work that I actually helped lead at The U.S. Business Roundtable on Responsible AI. It came from cross industry CEOs, saying that it’s really important that as companies, we have a roadmap to making sure that AI, which is so important from a competitiveness perspective, does get deployed responsibly. And in fact, to that end, when we were starting to deploy AI in some of the ways I’ve described to you, we first did a complete view and review of the different technologies that we had, how we were going to use AI, so that we made sure that it was clear, it was transparent, there were guard rails, there was testing.
Because you really can’t re-engineer for responsible AI. You have to do it from the beginning. I just encourage everyone to make sure they do have the right governance and that when they start to use these things, that they are building in this idea of responsible AI from the beginning and not having a problem and then trying to do it going backwards. And that’s also important, not just for making sure the algorithms work well when you do things like match resumes with jobs, but for other uses as well.
Now, with respect to diversity, it’s a huge focus of ours. We have committed to being, by 2025, reaching gender parity. We have very specific goals around racial and ethnic diversity in the countries we’re allowed to set them. We have a broad view of diversity. That includes persons with disabilities, veterans, LGBTQI. And so all of those goals are treated like business priorities. Just like business priorities, they start with data and they start with making sure that we use the data to inform not just goal setting, but tracking progress. And I think that’s a really important part of what you need to do to be committed.
We look at that very carefully to make sure we have very diverse pools when we’re doing hiring, because you can’t get to your numbers if you don’t have a broad enough hiring pool.
ADI IGNATIUS: Talk more about that. I mean, I know that you have explored dropping certain requirements, degrees, things like that. And now thinking more broadly, I think you have an apprenticeship program in this area too. I’d love to hear more specifics about how you’re trying to tackle this.
JULIE SWEET: It’s starting in North America, although we’ve now done this globally with respect to skills. We re-looked at our job requirements. For example, in North America, nearly 50% of our job openings do not require four-year degrees. And they used to all require four-year degrees. That immediately opens you up to a broader pool of people that you can hire from. And in fact, about 20% of the people we actually hire for those openings do not have four-year degrees. So we’ve expanded the pool of people who we can go after to fill these jobs.
At the same time, we’ve explored other ways of both expanding our access to talent, making a positive impact on our communities, and also creating a more diverse workforce. And we’ve done that through the apprenticeship program. It started actually when I became the CEO of North America in the US back in 2015. We had this amazing program called Skills to Succeed where we were skilling people in the community, but we weren’t actually hiring people at Accenture. And so we started with seven apprentices in Chicago. And that program started actually in 2016, we’ve now had over 1,200 apprentices go through our program. We hire most of them. We have incredible retention. And 20% of our hiring in the US, our entry level hiring in the US, will be through our apprenticeship program, which is about 50/50 men and women, about nearly 60% or more racially or ethnically diverse and almost all come from very challenged socioeconomic backgrounds. And these are individuals who would not have been on a path to get a job at Accenture using our old way of hiring because we had to think out of the box and really look at skills and potential and then be willing to train ourselves.
That kind of comes back to that need to be a talent creator. And I would tell you it’s a huge win because these are some of our best employees, great retention, great learners. And of course they’ve opened up terrific new pathways for them.
ADI IGNATIUS: I want to shift gears a little bit and this may be to the surprise of some of our viewers, but Accenture is often mentioned as a leader in the kind of corporate applications of the metaverse. What does the metaverse do for Accenture?
JULIE SWEET: We’re really excited about the metaverse. We just put our tech vision out called the Metaverse Continuum. If you haven’t read it, please take a look at it. We think the metaverse is as impactful as the tech vision that we did back in 2013, when we said that every business would be a digital business, which has definitely come true a decade later. And we think the metaverse is that significant in terms of what it’ll do for the next decade. And this year we will onboard about 150,000 people by going through Accenture’s metaverse called One Accenture Park, which we think is the largest enterprise metaverse in the world. It used the beta version of Mesh by Microsoft. And what it does is it brings together people who’ve joined Accenture in the metaverse to explore Accenture, to have a shared experience with other new joiners when we’re still not having in-person shared experiences.
And our research shows that immersive learning for short sprints, so not all day in the metaverse, this is about a 30-minute experience, is actually more impactful. It’s been extraordinarily well received by our people who are onboarding, who find it, both learning, but also it creates bonds of these shared experiences with other people who are going through it. So I just took my board through it recently and they absolutely loved it. It’s super innovative. And if you’re an innovative company and you’re trying to show that innovation, then there’s no better way than introducing your company to new joiners through some of the most cutting edge technology.
ADI IGNATIUS: I can imagine what you’re talking about, but for viewers who may think, okay, I don’t get this, I really don’t get what the metaverse is, what is the experience? What are people doing? What are they seeing? How are they interacting in ways that they wouldn’t be just by, let’s say the conversation that we’re having like this.
JULIE SWEET: Instead of just looking at each other and having someone explain, well here, you’re going to learn about TQ and here are the different things that our services do. Instead, when you join Accenture, someone will take you through building your own avatar, which you get to do yourself. You’ll put on some glasses, some people do it in 2D, most use glasses and do it in 3D. And when you step into the metaverse, you are literally with say 30 other people who are also on their first or second day at Accenture. You start by talking to them. They get you familiar with how you move around. And if you’ve had a metaverse experience, it’s like going to a cocktail party where you only hear the people near you. You don’t hear the people far away. So there’s 30 people say in the experience and you’re not hearing 30 people talk at once. You’re actually talking to people as if you were in person next to them.
Then we explore, we take you to different parts of the metaverse. So for example, you’ll go to an area where you learn about RTQ training and you can tap on something and it’ll actually immerse you in, “Hey, this is what you’re going to learn.” And you’ll actually see it. It’ll then take you to other parts of Accenture. So we have an innovation lab in San Francisco and you’ll actually go to, in our metaverse, there’s an identical replica of that. You get to go experience and say, “Hey, this is what it’s going to look like when you’re there. Here’s what we have.” You can touch buttons and see the different examples of things like drones, etc. that we have in some of our things. And so it basically brings to life in 3D the world and you’re doing it with people all over the world.
You’re beginning to have these shared experiences. You’re talking, you’re able to react with the people standing next to you. You’re able to ask them questions like, “Oh, where are you from? Oh, I’m going to do this.” And so it’s literally as if you’ve been taken someplace physically and are experiencing it with, in many ways, the ways we used to do onboarding because people did come to offices and they would get to experience things. And at the time we might take them on Teams to another innovation hub, but they really get to experience it.
We’re also doing client visits in the same way. I stood up with 30 clients in our innovation hub, entirely in the metaverse, showed them 3D examples of the things that we have there as if they were actually sitting and getting to see it.
It’s super powerful and we’ve been doing the underlying technology since 2007. And I will tell you, I joined Accenture in 2010. And I remember my first technology showcase, which we would have at all our internal leadership meetings. And I remember putting on glasses for the first time and I was a lawyer and I was like, “This will never make sense.” And back then it was super clunky. It wasn’t real. It is amazing if you haven’t experienced it, what technology does today. And we’re working on it to do everything from onboarding experiences and doing training. If you’re retail or consumer-facing, it will be just another way to engage. Like we’re overwhelmed by demand right here, because now leading brands all believe they have to have a metaverse customer engagement.
And then maybe even more exciting is how it’s going to be used to actually run the enterprise. Like the work we’re doing with Mars, where there’s digital twins that we’re building around their production sites and then going from the digital twin to the actual site, making changes and sort of part physical, part digital, it’s really going to be transformative in the way that you work and the way that you engage with each other.
ADI IGNATIUS: And the technology’s only going to get better. I mean, we spent a lot of time this season talking about dispersed work versus being in office, how many days, and this is something else entirely. And it almost seems like that question could seem quaint if the experiences are so engaging that it will blur what we thought was the value of the in-person experience. I almost question myself as I say that sentence, but that’s sort of the inevitable place to end up, right?
JULIE SWEET: I would say that we will always have physical and digital, and that’s the power of the future is that it’s not all physical or all digital, it’s the mix. And to your point, the technology is at very early stages. While we’ve been literally experimenting and using the underlying technologies going all the way back to 2007, and while the comparison from then to now is amazing, we’re just getting started. And there’s a ton of technology developments that need to occur until we really can be operating in the metaverse in a persistent way across platforms in your personal and professional life.
At the same time, the future is, we sometimes call it “phygital”, physical and digital, and it’s just at the ease of going in between those worlds and using the digital worlds and technology to augment connections, relationships, and productivity will remain the goal as opposed to digital being the destination, I mean, fully virtual being the destination.
ADI IGNATIUS: I want to ask another question from our viewers, and this is from Adna in Brunei. People are listening closely to what you’re saying about skill sets and hiring. Adna’s question is, in your personal opinion, what would be the most essential skill sets that graduating students should equip themselves with?
JULIE SWEET: Technology literacy, and what I mean by that is you need to treat computer science like reading. Not that you need to ever be a programmer, but you have to have experienced it. You need to have basic knowledge about what is the cloud, what is AI, and some of the best schools really are creating technology curriculums that are not intended to graduate a technologist, so someone who’s actually going to either program or build technology, but to build technology literacy. Until then, really sort of curating your own program so that if you’re graduating, you understand, you have basic understanding of these skills that are really important.
ADI IGNATIUS: Steve in California asks, and it gets to the sort of full-time employees versus gig workers, “Do you find that you’re using more freelancers as part of your workforce as a way to access the hot skills that you need?”
JULIE SWEET: We are not. We don’t really use the gig economy at scale. That may be something that we do in the future. It’s, in large part, because of the sort of demand that we have, the needs for security, the training that goes on. For us, we haven’t found it that productive to do a lot with the gig economy. Certainly, many of our clients are successfully accessing those skills, but I think it’s going to depend on the industry and the kinds of demand that they have. As you can imagine, for us, because we create skills and the skills change a lot, and we have that ability, we’re not dabbling sort of in and out. So, we haven’t really had a big use yet of the gig economy.
ADI IGNATIUS: This is from Manuela in Frankfurt. “What role do soft skills play in your hiring process, and do you consider soft skills as the new hard skills?”
JULIE SWEET: It’s a great phrase, and I think that soft skills were always a hard skill in our view, and it goes back to that view about leadership. We certainly ask a lot about how people think about, for example, leaders coming in, about how they lead people, which are soft skills. So, soft skills are absolutely important, such as communication skills. In fact, when we were trying to expand our ability to hire more women into technical jobs, because we can do so much training, we actually have gone to, for example, liberal arts schools and hired in more people with great critical thinking skills, really good soft skills, and then train them on the technology. I certainly think that soft skills are absolutely critical, and they’re an important part of the interviewing process.
ADI IGNATIUS: So here’s a question from New York City. “What steps do organizations need to take to improve the mental health of their employees?”
JULIE SWEET: One of the big benefits, which it’s hard to say that because the pandemic was so difficult, but I think there has been, in the corporate world at least, a real focus on mental health that I believe will continue. We have a leadership essential called Caring for Your People Personally and Professionally, and mental health is certainly an important part of that. I think as organizations, understanding whether you offer the right benefits, doing listening for your people in terms of what they think they need around mental health and then having a strategy around it. If you’re a leader in a company and you can’t say, “Here’s how we are working on making sure that we are helping the mental health of our employees,” then it probably is a signal that you’re not doing enough.
One of the things we’re really proud of is a partnership that we have with Thrive, Ariana Huffington’s company, where we’ve had over 180,000 people complete a mental wellness computer and science-based program. It’s been probably the most successful program that we’ve provided our employees. The numbers grow each week because it does have really good results in terms of helping people be less anxious and feel more able to care for themselves. The big question in my mind is, “Do you know what your strategy is?” We just hired a chief health officer. One of the things that she looks after is ensuring that we’ve got the right strategy and execution of that strategy.
ADI IGNATIUS: You’ve been lauded as one of the most powerful women in business. There are, of course, many other celebrated female CEOs of big companies, but there’s still clearly an under-representation of top women, of women at the top in business. What’s your view? How will that change?
JULIE SWEET: I think there is so much room for hope, not just optimism, because the fact is that it is changing. I remember when I became CEO back in 2019. It was shortly around when Indra stepped down at PepsiCo, and there was this huge lament because she was so much a role model for all of us. It seemed like we were moving backwards. Since then, there have been so many exceptional women, Karen Lynch at CVS, Roz Brewer at Walgreens, Jane Fraser at Citi, Sonia Syngal at Gap. The list goes on and on, actually, which is really nice. I think there’s a lot of hope. What you’re starting to see is that the work that’s been done to create a pipeline of CEOs is starting to happen as there’s generational change. I think it’s good to end perhaps on a hopeful note, as I do believe that there’s a ton of reason for hope, and I see so many great women continuing to rise in companies, and that’s what you need. You need a pipeline in order for it to be at the top.
ADI IGNATIUS: Well, that is a good place to end. There were tons more audience questions. I wish we’d get to them, but that was a great discussion, Julie. Thank you for being on The New World of Work.
JULIE SWEET: Thank you so much, Adi. It was great to be here, and thanks for all the great questions from the audience.