November 24, 2020

What Covid-19 And Remote Work Means For Teams, Consultants & Clients, From Accenture’s North America CEO Jimmy Etheredge

As part of our series on remote work and leading high-performing virtual teams, we recently interviewed Accenture’s North America CEO, Jimmy Etheredge. Find his comments here, then learn more about the factors that contribute to work-from-home success here.

Tell me what Accenture North America has gone through since work shifted in March.

I just completed my first year as CEO. When I accepted the role, I knew that we’d be doing a new operating model change during the year, and I thought that would be the most complex thing I was dealing with outside of running the business. Now that I’m trying to help us navigate through a public health crisis and social unrest, there are a lot of things that are putting me to the test.

Like most companies, when this hit in March, we had to completely shift to a work-from-home model. In some ways, we had advantages over other companies because of a lot of the work we do involves people traveling to client sites [outside our offices]. Now our clients did not want us on site. We had to shift to providing a lot of the client services we are known for remotely.

From your perspective, is that shift temporary? Or could management consulting see a move away from on-site services?

Our client service model has traditionally been providing strategy and consulting on site, but we had already seen an increasing mix in the traditional client service model. As management consulting becomes more dependent on data and analytics and AI, and less dependent on people showing up with PowerPoint slides and stories, the remote service model will be part a part of that.

How did making the shift to work-from-home impact performance?

What we saw was remarkable productivity and efficiency as we moved to this work-from-home environment. We track all our go-lives and service agreements, and performance was actually a little better in March/April than it had been previously. A lot of people are surprised at how productive people we were able to be.

A lot of that productivity was really adrenaline. Now, 6 months into what is evolving to be a sustained remote work model, I’m more attuned than ever to the mental health and wellbeing of our people.

This environment is really putting people through a lot of depression, anxiety, and stress. There’s their health, their families, their financial health, and the stress of social unrest in our country. The fact that our employees are dealing with that places even greater demands on employers. We have to do our best to step in as companies.

How is Accenture responding?

Mental health was really important to me, even before Covid. I’ve had family members who dealt with mental health issues. So we launched a program, Thriving Mind, in partnership with Stanford Medicine and Thrive Global. It’s a self-paced program for learning recharging strategies; more than 10,000 people in North America have engaged in the program. And we teamed up with Talk Space to offer confidential, virtual counseling.

I know for our working parents, it is a huge struggle. We have a new initiative in time for back to school season that subsidizes access to school day supervision. Other companies are also adopting similar programs. This can make life easier for parents and for kids, who need to get out of the house.

You also need collaboration: parents being as flexible as they can be and the employer doing the same.

And finally, I’m excited that Accenture is stepping up with external commitments to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’re looking at recruiting, sponsorship, and mentoring, things we do around retention and advancement. We’re rolling out anti-racism training. Without a doubt, it’s something leadership has to lean into now. For example, our African American employee resource group is having a day of solidarity – many people are taking the day off to help cope with what they’ve been experiencing over the last few months. This is an important area for corporate leaders to be engaged.

We hear other leaders concerned about how to create engagement on their teams. How are you doing it, with your team members and with clients?

When I think about engagement, we want everyone to feel seen, safe, connected, and confident. The parts about feeling seen and safe are challenged in this virtual time because it comes down to one-on-one connections.

One of the things I’ve seen with a number of our clients – everyone is suffering with townhall-itis. They do these big townhalls to reach out and talk to people. But it’s hard to get that connection when you have that big audience. The video is a one-way transmission. There are a lot of conversations about leveraging collaboration technology like Microsoft Teams to do things in a much smaller way, connecting our leadership with our people. Creating connection points between junior and senior people.

And a lot of it has to do with being transparent and authentic. People expect their corporate leadership to talk about what’s happening with Covid. We get a lot of information from a variety of media sources that don’t always align. This is also true about responding to the current social unrest. You have to be transparent and authentic. Most of my clients have strong core values, they are values-driven, as you say. So they have to ask, how do those values apply in the four walls of our company and in the communities we live in and work in?

One of our favorite management scholars says you develop as a leader through crisis or through reflection. I want to give you a chance to reflect on the last few months: how have you personally grown as a leader? What are you learning?

I’ve been more aware of the importance of being kind to yourself so you can be kind to others. I have to take care of my mental health so I can help others.

The second thing is, with this crisis, even though my client relationships are virtual now, I feel like I’m even closer to those executives because this is a crisis where it tests who your partners really are. Who is in the foxhole with you?

The dialogue you have with clients mixes quite a bit between the work and “How are you doing? How are you taking care of yourself?” I think the standard salutation in business is, “

Hey, how are you doing?” Normally just get the answer, “Fine.” It’s somewhat of a superficial conversation. But it’s more authentic now. People really want to know how you’re doing. It’s a silver-lining in all the adversity we’re experiencing.

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For more on how leaders can step up to the challenge of leading a newly remote workforce, we encourage you to checkout our new eBook, Leading High-Performing, High-Engagement Virtual Teams. We’ll also share remote work insights at our September 24 executive education webinar.

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