Julie Sweet, Accenture’s General Counsel, Secretary & Chief Compliance Officer
Dealmaker of the Year
By Sarah Grace Alexander
Julie Sweet says getting to the top means taking the road less traveled. She studied Chinese when few other Americans did. And she chose to work for a law firm with just two women partners. Now she’s one of Accenture’s top women.
She provides legal support to a company that employs 257,000 people, and made $27.9 billion last fiscal year. Her role includes helping Accenture operate globally in 120 countries and managing a department of 1300 professionals.
In advance of being a panelist for Little PINK Book’s 8th Annual Fall Empowerment Event, she discusses paving the way for women in the business world.
Here, we catch up with her one-on-one where she reveals what “having it all” really means, what it’s like to be a blonde woman speaking Chinese with locals, her secrets on getting to the top – and her personal love story.
Little PINK Book: What’s been key to your success?
Julie Sweet: Focusing on uncharted territory. I studied Chinese when most Americans studied Japanese if they studied an Asian language at all. When I chose a law firm, I picked a place with only two women partners. Focusing on uncharted territory helped me differentiate myself and gave me broad experience. I gained a lot of confidence, because when you take on new things and succeed, you build confidence for the next new thing. Because I’d been a partner for 10 years, when Accenture came along, I had the confidence to undertake this great new global opportunity.
LPB: Why the fascination with Asia?
JS: At a scholarship award dinner in high school, I sat next to someone who discovered my interest in international relations and suggested I study Chinese. After discussing it for an hour, I went home and told my parents, who didn’t have passports at the time, about my plans to study Chinese. I made that decision because somebody took the time to mentor me that night. When he painted a picture of China, I thought, “I’m going to go there.” And I’ve never looked back.
LPB: How did you feel being an American woman working in China?
JS: I love China and had a great experience working there. Whether in China or elsewhere in the world I learned to understand there may be bias, often unconscious, and then acknowledge it, and learn to navigate it mostly by being really good at my job. In China I was a young, tall, blonde woman who spoke really good Chinese. I think it helped differentiate me.
LPB: What’s the biggest challenge in business for women?
JS: Getting to the top levels of senior leadership. I think we’ve done a very good job at getting women to that first rung of partnership or lower levels of senior management. But women are challenged when it comes to getting to that top rung. A lot of that challenge comes from understanding how to get there, and balancing that with choices like having a family. Reaching critical mass with women at the table really changes the conversation, and the opportunities for women broaden. Companies have to continue to focus on that or we’re not going to reach critical mass at the top.
LPB: How did you overcome gender bias?
JS: I learned to navigate it by focusing on developing my capabilities and being able to walk into a room full of men and earn my place at the table. I learned to identify even unconscious bias and enjoy earning recognition of my value.
LPB: What’s your leadership style?
JS: I call it collaborative but decisive. I’ve learned the value of getting input from people I trust – both experts and people with different points of view. That’s incredibly important, particularly when you become very senior and have to make tough judgment calls. But at the end of the day, a leader needs to be prepared to make a decision and execute.
LPB: What quality do you think is most essential for a leader?
JS: I ask my leaders to develop empathy because it makes them more effective. Empathy allows you to understand what it’s like to be on the other side of the desk – getting fired, changing roles, or receiving a tough message – and improve those situations. Empathy helped me when I joined Accenture after the company had the same great general counsel for 32 years. We went through necessary change, which can be unsettling. I strove to be a leader who was empathetic about experiencing change, and act how I hoped people would treat me.
LPB: How can women improve and push forward?
JS: Seek out career sponsors. People typically rise in a company when they have more senior people advocating for their career. Also, link your own development to the value you can bring to the company. Instead of proposing, “I want a different experience for my professional development,” state, “I’d like a different experience because it’s going to make me better at the job for the company.” Finding a sponsor is easier when you can well-articulate your value to the company.
LPB: What’s the biggest risk you took for your career?
JS: Moving to Accenture. I had been at one of the premiere law firms in the world [Cravath, Swaine, and Moore] for 17 years, and a partner there for 10. It was taking a chance in terms of breadth and scope, in being much more global, and in day-to-day risk. But it’s been fantastic and I couldn’t be happier.
LPB: You have so many responsibilities. What helps you manage it all?
JS: There are three things that get me through every day. I take it a day at a time, I laugh a lot and I speak about the stress out loud. I live a full, and often hectic, life. Laughter is how I keep it all in balance. Talking about my stress when I’m in the midst of the day and balancing things makes everything more manageable. Throughout my career when I’ve seen women get to the point where they just have to quit, it’s almost always because they haven’t been telling anyone about their stress.
LPB: There’s a debate about whether women can have it all. Do you? And what is your definition of “it all?”
JS: I feel like I do have it all. For me right now, that’s having a family and a job that I love where I make a difference. But, having it all changes depending on what stage I’m at in life. Right now I don’t have time to do all the work I’d like to for nonprofits. But I’ll be able to one day. I have it all now, and how I’ll define that in 10 years may change based on my priorities then. It’s important that women select priorities – define success for their current stage of life.
LPB: I heard that you have an interesting story about meeting your husband.
JS: I had just moved back to Asia to co-lead the law firm’s office in Hong Kong. It was my 35th birthday, and I went to the Ritz Carlton in Singapore, for a wedding. I went to the rehearsal dinner thinking, “Why am I going to yet another wedding alone?” Then I saw this guy in the hotel and thought, “I hope he’s single and at the wedding.” And he was. He’d just moved to Texas after spending about nine years in Asia. We began a commuter-dating relationship for two years before marrying in 2004. We were married for six years before living in the same place, and we had two kids. Now we finally live together, but I’m on the road a lot, and he doesn’t travel often.
LPB: How do you support each other?
JS: When you meet someone when you’re older, you both have very established careers. We support each others’ careers 100 percent. We understand each others’ demanding jobs, and we communicate a lot so we can balance everything. There’s a lot of give and take. I feel very fortunate to have a spouse who’s truly a partner in terms of my career and being supportive.
LPB: What’s your favorite book?
JS: I wish I had more time for reading and exercise. I want to talk with the woman who’s figured out how to get both of those in and do everything else! I try to read when I can. I’m reading a phenomenal book right now by Denis Goldberg whom I met in South Africa. He gave me a copy of his autobiography, The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa.
LPB: What’s a personal goal you still hope to achieve?
JS: Besides that New Year’s resolution to exercise, one of my goals is to help Accenture make a difference for the people of Africa. We’re serving clients there tremendously well, and there’s also potential to have a greater impact.
LPB: Do you have a motto you live by?
JS: It may sound a little trite, but “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.” It’s something that I keep in mind daily as I interact with people and make decisions. I treat Accenture’s money as my own. I try to give people the respect that I want, and to always act with integrity.
LPB: Do you have a tip for mothers who travel a lot?
JS: I have two daughters—ages 6 and 4—who didn’t take it well when I started traveling every other week. My mom gave me the idea to leave them a note every time I go out of town. They like pictures, so I bought a how to draw book intended for five year olds to improve my artistic skills. If they wake up and I’m already gone, or they’re at school when I leave, they’ll always find a note on the dining room table. I’ve never failed to do this, so they look for it. It gives them a connection to me, and makes a difference for them.
LPB: Do you have advice for a young woman just beginning her career, or a long-time career woman who’s reached a stagnant point?
JS: Improve communication skills. Learn the numbers. Take a chance. If you’re going to do one thing to help your career, learn to communicate better. Effectively commanding a room by articulating a meaningful discussion differentiates you. Second, learn how your job fits into the bigger picture. Third, take a chance. In my career, I took risks that didn’t seem like they’d bring success, but they did.
LPB: What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
JS: Professionally, I want to be remembered as a leader who helped Accenture continue to successfully move into uncharted territories as we’ve grown. I also want to be a leader who is focused on people and makes a difference in inclusion and diversity. If at the end of my career people say, “We saw how she made a difference and how she made it real,” I’ll be very happy.
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