An Interview on Diversity with Julie Spellman Sweet

“Diversity is not just the right thing to do; it is the way to get to the right business outcome.” So says Julie Spellman Sweet, Accenture’s group chief executive for North America. In her view, diversity is essential to bring together different viewpoints and experiences in order to reach the best business decisions. 

Spellman Sweet

At Accenture, diversity is not just a cause; it is part of the culture. It has publicly committed, by the end of fiscal 2017, to increase the diversity of its workforce by growing its percentage of women new hires to at least 40 percent worldwide. “We want to be a company the best people want to work at” says Sweet. Part of this goal is a commitment to having best-in-class benefits; it recently announced that it will double its maternity leave in the US to 16 weeks. However, the company’s pledge goes further than this. It starts with accountability at the top; each member of the global management committee personally sponsors at least one high-performing senior woman. Furthermore, Accenture aims to support women throughout the milestones of their careers and to provide opportunities for continuous learning through online resources.

It is not only important for Accenture to be diverse itself; it looks for diversity in the legal teams it retains. “When I was general counsel I did a refresh of our outside counsel,” says Sweet, “and it’s now a requirement we measure on a quarterly basis.” Importantly, the company holds law firms to this standard; when they don’t meet the necessary requirements it has an impact on Accenture’s willingness to continue working with them. “Primarily we focus on the diversity of the team, but we also have conversations about the firm’s diversity as a whole when looking at selection of our outside counsel partners” she adds.

Having set herself apart during her time as general counsel and chief compliance officer at Accenture, in June 2015 Sweet was elevated to the position of group chief executive of North America. Sweet joined the company in 2010 following a 10-year stint in private practice at Cravath Swaine & Moore, where she was a partner in the corporate department.

Commenting on her appointment, Accenture’s chairman and CEO Pierre Nanterme said: “She has made a significant contribution to our business strategy and our investment strategy.” The key words here are “business” and “strategy”. No longer is it enough to be just a good legal adviser, if that was ever acceptable in the first place. Companies require lawyers to be capable of a seamless transition between talking legal and talking business. Nowhere is this more important than in-house, where a lawyer is expected to know the business inside out and help the company achieve its goals.

While job descriptions have often cited commerciality as a desirable or indeed essential characteristic of business lawyers, her new role demonstrates the career heights that can be reached when this skill is truly harnessed. According to Sweet, her promotion is a “good example of the opportunities available at a company like Accenture where lawyers are valued for their business judgement and progression is not confined to the legal department”.

Sweet first embarked on her career in law at Cravath Swaine & Moore. Having no plans to go in-house, she describes the shift as a “decision to move to Accenture”, where she valued the culture of excellence, the collaborative environment and the phenomenal clients. On top of this it was the opportunity to be a “business leader with legal experience”, an important trend among companies as general counsel increasingly play an important role as a business adviser.

A practically minded person herself, Sweet’s advice to younger lawyers looking to improve their commercial acumen is twofold. Firstly, she advises lawyers to follow the “why rule”, suggesting, “For every project you are working on, learn what motivates the decisions of the business.” She explains that “legal decisions are a consequence of the business” and it is important to understand “why a client is making a certain decision or why a particular position is being taken in a transaction”. Secondly, communication is key. “In order to have an impact as a lawyer you need to communicate clearly and concisely in plain English and in terms the client understands”. Being a strong communicator requires investment throughout your career, she adds, and she makes a conscience effort to stretch her skills each year.

Looking back, she says, if she were to give one piece of advice to her younger self it would be “focus on maintaining relationships over time” with clients, colleagues and the business community”.  Too often, we are focused on the daily pressures of managing projects and meeting deadlines, but it’s the long-term relationships that are central to a successful career.  “Being authentic” and finding true common interests and values she says are key to successfully building lasting relationships.

With a high powered role leading Accenture’s largest market, does Sweet find time to maintain a work/life balance? “Yes, although what that balance looks like is different to every woman.” Accenture’s flexible work policy means that while Sweet may be on the road a lot, she does have the opportunity to work from home. She describes taking video calls while her daughters get ready to leave for school; they pop up on camera, hugging her goodbye before waving hello to watching members of the global executive committee. “Everyone loves it. It’s an important culture to have for both genders,” she says – and truly, it is. Diversity, and ensuring women are in positions of authority in companies, matter for the success of business. Fortunately, recognition of this is now widespread. 

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