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For Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture North America, diversity and inclusion aren’t mere buzzwords or items to be hastily added to a company’s to-do list. They’re crucial elements of success. And she would know. Accenture globally is a $34.9 billion-dollar business and employs approximately 435,000 people across 120 countries.
This global technology consulting firm has achieved remarkable financial results. According to The Motley Fool:
During its 2012 through 2017 fiscal years, Accenture’s stock appreciated 138%, beating both the S&P 500’s 95% return and the Information Technology Index’s 125% return. In fact, Accenture outperformed its competitor basket for 16 straight quarters.
Accenture is known as what investors call a high-quality compounder, earning a robust 40% return on equity. The high returns on equity have led not only to the strong increase in the share price, but also a steadily rising dividend that has increased 50% over the past five years.
What accounts for Accenture’s success? The Motley Fool article I quoted above focuses on the company’s technical innovations. “Accenture’s unique position as a leading technology expert, combined with its highly diversified business and vendor-neutral orientation, has allowed it to succeed over competitors,” writes portfolio manager Billy Duberstein. “I expect the good times to continue, as the need for tech expertise should only accelerate in the coming years.“
But Accenture’s technical and economic strategies, as impressive as they are, aren’t the only reasons why the company continues to do so well. As you’ll see from the following conversation I had with Julie Sweet at Accenture’s innovation hub in Manhattan, Accenture’s commitment to ethics plays a critical role in the company’s prosperity.
Bruce Weinstein: When I was preparing for our conversation, I came across a 2015 BBC article about Accenture’s commitment to transgender equity and justice. Can you talk about why that’s important to you, specifically transgender issues to begin with, and then more broadly, gender equality?
Julie Sweet: We have a large transgender community. We are very committed to LGBTQ as part of what we see as a rich mosaic of diversity. The transgender community in a lot of places has faced different challenges, and we’ve been one of the leaders in terms of making sure we have benefits.
But you have to put it in the framework of what we believe about inclusion and diversity. We believe this is an important business priority, and it is the right thing to do. From a business perspective, it’s common sense. You cannot be an innovation-led company without diversity around the table.
We are unambiguous about the importance of inclusion and diversity to our business. We’re equally and ambiguous about the centrality to our core values of being an inclusive, diverse company.
Weinstein: I was struck by some of the criticism, which I’m sure you’ve heard. Regarding a cable news clip in which you talked about the value of diversity, one person complained in the comments section, “We’ve had way too much diversity pushed on us already.” Someone else wrote:
Diversity of ideas & view points grows a business. Diversity of skin color, religion, sex, sexuality, physical limitation … does nothing, but cater to niche special interests & social pandering. Identity Politics will ruin a company.
Sweet: You can’t push new boundaries without having people criticize them. I welcome lots of views, but we see diversity very broadly. It includes everything from a diversity of ideas and experience to age, to ethnicity. Someone who doesn’t see that all forms of diversity are important is really missing what diversity is about and the results that you can get from it.
Weinstein: What do you think these writers are so afraid of? Because I hear anxiety in this. This is anxiety masquerading as anger.
We are very well known for the focus we’ve had on diversity. We treat it like a business priority. We have goals, we have accountable leaders, we set targets, we have action plans, but we’re equally committed to inclusion.
Weinstein: Would it make sense to hire people based on their commitment to justice and fairness?
Sweet: I think it’s a little bit hard to screen for a commitment to justice. Instead, we are extraordinarily clear about what we stand for as a company. We see it as a recruiting advantage, because millennials are attracted to purpose-driven companies. They are attracted to companies who celebrate inclusion and diversity.
We also see it with our clients. Our best client relationships are with companies that share our values and appreciate working for us because of what we stand for.
Weinstein: What changes, if any, would you expect to see when more women are in leadership positions in companies like Accenture?
Sweet: It goes back to the virtues of diversity. You get different kinds of problem-solving. If you have a more diverse set of leaders around the table, you’re likely to have better solutions. By having more women CEOs, for example, you’re going to have more diversity of experiences.
Weinstein: I’ve seen you tell a story about when you came in second in a debate when you were in school and learned a leadership lesson from your dad. He told you that you could achieve anything you wanted, but you had to work hard to get it. What are some other things you learned from your parents?
Sweet: They used to say, “We may not have money, but we have time.” They contributed to others through service. When I went to college, I started volunteering my first year because I wanted to live a life of service and as a leader today, service is part of my responsibility.
My parents taught me this at a very young age. It is a leadership lesson I live every day.
This interview was edited and condensed.
January 31, 2019 at 06:12PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs