Case studies


28 Mar 2017 By Robert Jeffery

Why networks and targets aren’t enough to meet the incredible ambition at Accenture

There are people who’ll tell you getting diversity and inclusion right at one of the ‘big four’ management consultancies isn’t exactly difficult. With huge budgets and your pick of the best talent – the firms’ graduate schemes are consistently oversubscribed several times over – you surely have the resources and the people to solve almost any problem?

Tony Horan and Rebecca Tully (pictured left) would beg to differ. As two of the driving forces behind the inclusion agenda at Accenture – the consultancy giant that employs almost 400,000 people across the globe – their work remains very much in progress, and their challenges are more numerous than you might imagine. From a “culture of long hours and travel” that discourages parents to the problem of talented individuals from ethnic minorities self-selecting out of recruitment processes, not to mention the potential for line managers to scupper all your good intentions, the way the business tackles I&D (its preferred ordering of the acronym) is instructive.

It also comes against a backdrop of some terrifying targets. “We have an aspiration to be the most inclusive and diverse organisation on the planet, not just within professional services, by 2020,” says Horan, head of human capital and diversity. “In the words of our CHRO [Ellyn Shook], we believe diversity makes us smarter. There’s a lot of research around the advantages that diverse organisations and leadership teams have – they outperform competitors from a business perspective. We know from our recruitment process that to attract the greatest minds we have to attract from diverse talent pools.

“Diversity can generate better camaraderie and better outcomes. There’s a big societal and moral reason, too, for wanting greater diversity at senior levels. We want a workforce that reflects the clients we serve and the communities we operate in.”

But if the aim is clear, there is additional pressure from the fact that, as a service business, Accenture is literally only as good as its people. Tully, client account lead for the retail division, describes this as a “vicious circle”, where failure to attract and retain the best will cause the business to fall behind its competitors and lose out on future talent. With 70 per cent of its current employee base made up of millennials, this is a critical issue.

Accenture, like its rivals, has addressed it in part through a vast infrastructure of networks covering everything from gender to ethnic background. But while these remain important, over the past couple of years it has rethought its approach to make networks less siloed and exclusive: the women’s network, for example, has been renamed ‘accent on gender’ to focus on challenges around gender diversity rather than just women’s issues (almost half of attendees at the firm’s International Women’s Day event were male). The family network has been spun out to recognise that “not all parents are women and not all women are parents”.

The company has consciously integrated the I&D agenda into every stage of the employee lifecycle. Every new joiner receives diversity training, and everyone who is promoted attends day-long ‘immersion training’ on the topic. A mentoring programme has been significantly expanded, too.

Most importantly, I&D has been made to feel a deliberately ‘human’ topic. Horan says it was powerful for the firm’s global CEO to put out a video about gender equality in which he focused on the opportunities he wanted his daughter to benefit from in the future, for example.

Line managers have been a particular focus. “In the past, we’ve talked about what a good manager looks like,” says Horan. “But we’ve been humanising that and giving managers the tools to treat people as individuals.” This includes revamping the old performance management regime to put the accent on a strengths-based approach, and new toolkits for line managers.

How will they make such ideals stick? Horan says it is crucial that diversity isn’t given an “ivory tower HR approach”, but is genuinely owned at an operational level. Each of its five main business areas has a senior diversity champion; Tully is one, and says her role is to “engage passionate people who want to do this voluntarily”, with the central I&D team helping set strategy and ensure resources and time are optimised across the firm.

But there are still real challenges posed by Accenture’s highly dispersed nature. “Most of our people are out on account teams [at client offices],” says Tully. “They can go three or four months without coming here [headquarters]. It’s vital to do something for those teams, and often you find some bright and keen person with good EQ will volunteer. We take time at certain points in the year – for example, Mental Health Day – to get whatever we’re doing centrally out to those teams.”

Genuine flexible working is the thread that binds these various initiatives. “I’ve been a part-time working mum and over my tenure I’ve been able to work three, four or five days,” says Tully. “As long as your client account and line manager agree it up front, anything goes.” Clients find the approach “liberating”, she says, but the flip side is that the business has to acknowledge that some projects require intensive work where people may be asked to make sacrifices, although they get “something in return” at a later date.

Accenture is seeing the benefits already in engagement scores that demonstrate no variance between gender, but it is pushing for more. This year, it wants to recruit 40 per cent women across the business and has an aspiration to promote equally between genders in respect to the size of each demographic. There are similar ambitious targets around social mobility, ethnicity and more, all backed by analytics.

“Data has given us a level of rigour that we just didn’t have before,” says Horan. “While it might be nice to have coffee mornings and cosy chats, those initiatives aren’t always the ones that move the dial.” Whatever else Accenture’s I&D work is, it’s fair to say it isn’t easy.

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