Investing in Human Capital: Smart Leadership

Nancy Flagg Human Resources, Issue 07 - Sept/ Oct 2013 Leave a Comment

CHRO Jill Smart brings Accenture’s talent development front and center.

By Nancy Flagg

When Jill Smart left the client consulting side of Accenture for the human resources (HR) side, she brought 20 years of business experience to her new role, helped transform the company’s learning services and ushered in a new era of high workforce performance.

jill_smart_4HR to the Head Table

Accenture provides management and technology consulting services, as well as outsourcing, to more than 40 industries worldwide. When Smart served as a client-facing consultant in Accenture’s government and later financial services industries, she learned to set expectations, fully define the scope of work and handle contractual obligations. When she was asked to become the Chief Learning Officer and ultimately the Chief HR Officer, she approached the internal function as she would have approached a client job.

Smart set up a “contract” with the company that defined service levels and expectations. Her method elevated HR functions from a perceived back-office service to one in partnership with the organization and on par with other top-level business functions.

Return on Learning

After setting a new foundation, Smart redesigned the company’s training strategy, starting with a return-on-investment study that showed that each dollar spent on workforce learning yielded a 353 percent return. The study earned several awards from outside the company, became the subject of the book “Return on Learning” written by her team, and brought senior management support for the strategic value of a robust learning program.

Accenture, which generated $27.9 billion in annual revenue in fiscal year 2012, spent more than $850 million in the same year on training and developing its employees. Training is an ongoing process and the company “offers every possible type,” according to Smart (see sidebar). Investing in training at Accenture is “like product development at other companies,” she said. “We’re developing what we sell to our clients.”

Successes & Successful Failures

Smart has had great success during her 32-year career at Accenture, including being inducted as a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources for professional distinction in HR. She is proud of working with a talented team and leading personnel management, capability development and staffing for the company’s 261,000 employees serving clients in more than 120 countries.

jill_smart_2Smart attributes some of her successes to her failures. “My most successful failures have been all of them,” said Smart, who made it a practice to learn from her setbacks and weaknesses. For example, when she was managing a government consulting project, Smart set very high expectations for herself and her team. The project went well, but one executive spoke candidly with Smart, telling her that although she was delivering the desired results, people felt that she could, at times, be a little too hard on them. That conversation, Smart said, made her aware that her management style was “getting results, but not in the best way.” She changed her ways and has made a conscious effort to be “more aware and accepting of other work styles… and cognizant of the fact that there are multiple, equally valid ways of getting to a good end result.”

Asking for Help

The executive who drew Smart’s attention to her interpersonal style in the aforementioned situation became a valued mentor. Smart asked for specific examples to be highlighted as they occurred so that she could learn from the feedback and improve.

jill_smart_3In the year that Smart was up for becoming a partner, her boss—also a mentor—assigned her a difficult project. Smart started the project, but it quickly took a turn into a highly technical direction outside her areas of expertise. She was convinced that she had to “bring this project to the finish line” herself, but eventually thought it wise to ask the senior leader to recruit a technical expert. The expert arrived and together they successfully completed the project.

Smart did not make partner that year. When she asked her boss the reason he said, “You waited too long to ask for help. There was too much risk. Things didn’t go bad, but they could have.” Smart took the career lesson to heart, advising that “Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or failure. Not asking is a weakness, and could result in failure.”

Flexibility & Follow-Through

Smart suggests that others who want to do their jobs better and advance in their career be willing to take on assignments that are not in their plan. When Smart got the call from the CEO to move to the HR side of the house, she felt “blindsided” because going to work in training was not in her career plan. Smart is glad, however, that she took the chance, as she enjoys working with her talented team of HR professionals to get the “right talent in the right place at the right time.”

Accenture’s success, according to its HR leader, depends on its ability to recruit, advance and retain talent. Through her efforts, the company’s HR Department is a key player at the table when strategic decisions are being made, with hundreds of thousands of employees making good on opportunities to develop and reach their full potential.


Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

Nancy Flagg

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

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