In the last few months, millions of business leaders have had to figure out how to pivot their companies quickly to adjust to the ever-changing COVID-19 crisis. But imagine leading a 500,000 person company, with offices in over 200 cities across 50 countries worldwide, and moving with enough speed and agility to support your massive workforce and thousands of clients.
That was the situation the Chief Executive Officer of Accenture Julie Sweet, faced in March. In this week’s Leading Through Change virtual event, Sweet, one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women for the last four years, joined Salesforce Chair and CEO Marc Benioff to discuss how she’s maneuvering Accenture with agility and helping their clients turn the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis into meaningful change. From working remotely to rapidly prioritizing digital transformation, she shares what’s on the minds of CEOs — their opportunities, challenges, and plans for the future.
The following are excerpts from the conversation with Sweet in her words. They have been lightly edited for content and clarity.
Julie Sweet: As a leader, my job is not to put stress in the system. Being calm at this time is really important.
We’d just finished our second quarter when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11. It was the biggest sales quarter in our history. I did earnings eight days after the pandemic, but no one asked me about Q2. We had to start focusing on the future.
We need to face where we are, embrace the future, move forward, and bring our organizations along. There’s a very tough reality now. At the same time, you see so many great things happening around the world. The work we’re doing in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with contact tracing is a great example of people coming together quickly.
Julie Sweet: Digital acceleration can become somewhat of a cliché but there’s something real that’s happening.
Pre-crisis — Salesforce and Accenture were helping a major bank move from being all about products to being all about customers — a familiar story and a big transformation. When the crisis hit, the bank was suddenly overwhelmed by questions from small business customers about how they can access the relief program and how they can get their checks posted quickly.
Together and overnight, we were able to put in place a virtual agent using an Einstein Chatbot to answer the questions rapidly. On top of that, we had to enable their agents to answer those calls while working from home.
We’re now moving out of response to rethink transformation. We’re working with that same bank to say: “Look what we achieved. Can we think about that same program we were working on pre-crisis, and now do it in smaller increments to drive faster value?”
Transformation still is a longer path, but now how you get there is different. It’s exciting to see how we can come together and have a great outcome.
Julie Sweet: We always talk about partnerships and the power of technology, but the scale and speed at which we’ve worked have been fantastic. We are starting to see what “agile” really means. Take what we have done with Salesforce in Massachusetts, the emergency response management program — that’s an example of “spin it up, test, learn, and continue to add features” — it’s the epitome of the cloud.
We have expanded to different states. We have lots of companies we work with now who can’t wait to implement this technology as they consider reopening. We take those learnings and build it together in Work.com so we can quickly apply it. It puts us on a different path. Overnight, organizations are embracing it as a new way of working.
It’s been incredible to see how many CEOs say, “I don’t want to go back,” because they’ve seen how their entire organization can move really fast.
It will take resolve. We have to think about making decisions and institutionalizing changes as we move forward. That is the next phase of what we all need to do.
Having resolve during these times is a message Alicia Keys underscored for viewers as she performed “Underdog.” Says Keys, “If you have tenacity and grit, you can find a way and defy the odds.”
Watch the full interview with Julie Sweet and a performance by Alicia Keys below.
This conversation is part of our Leading Through Change series, providing thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis. Prior video interviews include:
Responding and recovering from crises with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson and Jewel
Staying Positive in the New Normal with Naomi Simson and Rivers Cuomo
Discussing Covid-19 and Race in America, with Van Jones, Dr. Camara Jones, Ellen McGirt and Jessica Hudson
Connecting with your fans from home with Lars Ulrich of Metallica
Planning ahead amidst uncertainty, with BT Chief Executive Philip Jansen and Chrissie Hynde
Uniting to feed hope to the world, with Jose Andres and Dave Matthews
Serving customers from home and the heart, with the founders of Bitty & Beau’s Coffee and Lionel Ritchie