News and Events
Dean Alum Bill Green '74 discusses 3 rules for success in the NY TimesNovember 23, 2009
New York Times
Published: November 21, 2009
68 Rules? No, Just 3 Are Enough
This interview with William D. Green, chairman and C.E.O. of Accenture, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
William D. Green, chairman and chief executive of Accenture, the consulting, technology services and outsourcing company, says competence, confidence and caring are vital to success.
Q. Tell me about important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
A. I’m a proud plumber’s son from Western Massachusetts. In my family, working with tools is the highest honor. It isn’t how many degrees you have. It’s what you can do. So that had a big impact on me. What that says is, it doesn’t matter what you look like, what you talk like, where you went to school, where you came from, any of that stuff. What matters is what you’re capable of.
Q. What else?
A. I was not a good student. I took what they call today a gap year, but back then it was called “finding yourself.” I did one of those, and I finally found my way into a two-year college. I went from an underperformer to a solid performer, with a little inspiration from some professors. That had a profound effect on me, to realize how much raw talent there is out there for us to exploit, leverage, take advantage of, and how much talent there is that people can give that organizations don’t mine, they don’t harvest, they don’t get the best of, because of structure, because of strategy, because of rules.
Q. So how do you break through?
A. I once sat through a three-day training session in our company, and this was for new managers, very capable people who were ready for a big step up. I counted, over three days, 68 things that we told them they needed to do to be successful, everything from how you coach and mentor, your annual reviews, filling out these forms, all this stuff.
And I got up to close the session, and I’m thinking about how it isn’t possible for these people to remember all this. So I said there are three things that matter. The first is competence — just being good at what you do, whatever it is, and focusing on the job you have, not on the job you think you want to have. The second one is confidence. People want to know what you think. So you have to have enough desirable self-confidence to articulate a point of view. The third thing is caring. Nothing today is about one individual. This is all about the team, and in the end, this is about giving a damn about your customers, your company, the people around you, and recognizing that the people around you are the ones who make you look good.
When young people are looking for clarity — this is a huge, complex global company, and they wonder how to navigate their way through it — I just tell them that.
Q. Talk about the challenge of running a big global company in this tough economy.
A. We operate the company so that we keep one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow, regardless of what’s going on. In an economy like this, everyone wants to look at their shoes. You can’t. We’ve got to be doing as many things about tomorrow as we are today. We operate with a philosophy that says, never be afraid to change, even when we’re at the top of our game.
In our company, usually in the summer, people ask me, “When are you going on vacation?” Because when I come back from a week’s vacation, they know I’ve had time to think and reflect and have been strategizing about changes and it could be anything.
Q. Does that usually happen?
A. Happens every time. People even joke about it a little bit. Even my outside board members say, “When are you taking the vacation, Bill?” This year, in the middle of tough economic times for everybody, we built a human capital strategy for the future, we refreshed our corporate-wide strategy, and I moved my leadership people around into different positions and promoted some new people into leadership roles to infuse energy.
All of this is about energizing people, giving them broader scope and new experiences. This obviously helps build durability in terms of people being able to have multiple jobs, and it’s an important part of succession planning, getting the athletes the experience they need in different spaces.
So just when you think all the cylinders are clicking and everything’s right, that’s the time you have to change, because that’s the world we live in now. If you rest, it will cost you, because global competitiveness is here to stay, and it’s not about the traditional competitors anymore. It’s about new and emerging competitors that you’ve never heard of, and you just have to get your mind around the new normal, as they call it.
Q. Can you elaborate on why you shift people around?
A. If you look at why people in general leave companies, they often leave because they get bored. And high-performance people are learners by nature. And as long as they’re learning, they’ll stay where they are. When they start to think about leaving, when they start to respond to a headhunter’s call, is when they haven’t been learning.
On my leadership team, I have 15 bona fide C.E.O.’s. These people are capable of running big companies. But as long as they’re learning and engaging and on a mission, they don’t need to be the C.E.O. They just need to be part of the ecosystem that leads the company.
Q. What other basic messages do you have for all your employees?
A. One of our other principles is that people who are successful are the ones who ask for help. It sounds simple, but to get an organization to believe that asking for help is a sign of strength, and not weakness, is a huge thing.
Q. You have to make sure people aren’t going to worry they might be criticized for asking.
A. You want to challenge people to get them to raise their game, as opposed to criticizing them, which makes them raise their defenses. It’s like learning. With a motivated learner, you can work wonders. In institutions, it’s the same thing. Are there companies with the will and resolve to change — that’s the equivalent of a motivated learner. Or are there companies that are just sort of stuck where they are, and they like the status quo? In the end, that’s the difference between winners and losers in corporate America and around the world. That’s the contrast. So, the question is, how do you get motivated learners? So, I bring it back to me, and how did I become a motivated learner? Somebody inspired me.
Q. Was there anything that surprised you about the top job?
A. The amount of responsibility you carry around on your back is unbelievable. It’s not like you’re a martyr — it just comes with the territory. There’s something going on around the globe in our place 24/7, and the sense of responsibility you feel for all those people and their families is profound.
I like taking the responsibility, but I had no idea about the spiritual part. The spiritual obligation to the lives of 177,000 people is a big deal. I’m a guy who had trouble being responsible for his own life in the early days, and now I’ve got 177,000 people that look up to me. That took a little getting used to.
Q. How has your leadership style evolved?
A. I used to be an orchestrator from behind the scenes. I could make stuff happen, but I never wanted to be on point. I could connect dots. I could catalyze activity. I could get other people to do things without being in the front. I sort of engineered it from the back.
Q. And you preferred it that way?
A. At the time I was comfortable with it because I was never comfortable with the spotlight. I took great pleasure and pride in seeing things get done that I knew I had made happen, and when it came time to taking bows, I didn’t do the bow-taking part. I felt good about myself for that because it’s just sort of where I came from. Now I lead a lot more from the front. I have a better appreciation of what people are expecting of me and how people are counting on me.
Q. How have you adjusted your leadership style based on feedback you’ve received?
A. I needed to beef up my operator skills because I’m an instinctive and intuitive guy. I listen, I synthesize, I process, I make judgments. There’s another school of thought — that’s analytics, and I needed to turn the dial a little more toward analytics and a little away from seat-of-the-pants. I didn’t have to turn it a ton, but I have. I have purposely tried to get better grounding in the analytics behind the decision-making and used that to check to see if there was a huge disconnect between what my instinct told me and what the analytics told me.
Q. Let’s talk about hiring. How do you do it?
A. It’s one of our core competencies at Accenture. We get two million C.V.’s a year and ultimately we hire between 40,000 and 60,000 people.
I always say, in simple terms, we need people who are analytical, and have common sense, good judgment and the ability to get along with other people, because we’re in a people business.
We’re taking a more scientific approach to how we recruit. We do something called “critical behavior interviewing.” It’s based on the premise that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. Essentially what we’re looking for is, have you faced any adversity and what did you do about it? We also know the profile of successful Accenture people, and how do we learn from the people we have who have stayed, learned, grown and become great leaders, and how do we push that back into the recruiting process to find the best matches for Accenture?
Q. That’s what it comes down to?
A. If you get down to it, it’s what have you learned, what have you demonstrated, what behaviors do you have? Have you shown intuition? Have you shown the ability to synthesize and act? Have you shown the ability to step up and make a choice? How have you dealt with the hand in front of you, played it out?
I was recruiting at Babson College. This was in 1991. The last recruit of the day — I get this résumé. I get the blue sheet attached to it, which is the form I’m supposed to fill out with all this stuff and his résumé attached to the top. His résumé is very light — no clubs, no sports, no nothing. Babson, 3.2. Studied finance. Work experience: Sam’s Diner, references on request.
It’s the last one of the day, and I’ve seen all these people come through strutting their stuff and they’ve got their portfolios and semester studying abroad. Here comes this guy. He sits. His name is Sam, and I say: “Sam, let me just ask you. What else were you doing while you were here?” He says: “Well, Sam’s Diner. That’s our family business, and I leave on Friday after classes, and I go and work till closing. I work all day Saturday till closing, and then I work Sunday until I close, and then I drive back to Babson.” I wrote, “Hire him,” on the blue sheet.
He’s still with us, because he had character. He faced a set of challenges. He figured out how to do both.
Q. So what’s that quality you just described?
A. It’s work ethic. You could see the guy had charted a path for himself to make it work with the situation he had. He didn’t ask for any help. He wasn’t victimized by the thing. He just said, “That’s my dad’s business, and I work there.” Confident. Proud.
What critical behavior interviewing does is get at people’s character, and you get to see where work fits in their value system, where pride fits in their value system, where making hard decisions or sacrificing fits in their value system. I mean, you sacrifice and you’re a victim, or you sacrifice because it’s the right thing to do and you have pride in it. Huge difference. Simple thing. Huge difference.