Accenture CEO Bill Green: What Leading from Principle Sounds Like

A few years ago, I watched Bill Green, Chairman and CEO of Accenture, as he addressed a very senior leadership group at the end of a 2-day offsite meeting. Relaxed, he sat on a stage chair on a small platform and took questions from the 75-80 people in the room.

About halfway in, someone asked about a recently announced organizational shift. 

“Bill,” the person asked, “how do we know that the incentives are rightly aligned with the new global roles; that if I ask my colleague in Eastern Europe or Australia for help, they’ll be incented to do the right thing?”

Green quickly stood up, visibly tensing at the question. 

“Let me—well–,” he sputtered, “OK, I guess I’m glad you asked that question. Because I want to tell you—I don’t want to hear that question again!

“Here’s what I mean. And I expect every one in this room to get this; moreover, I expect everyone in this room to make sure you teach everyone back in your offices too.

“Here’s the thing. When there’s a conflict between the incentives and the right thing: you do the right thing, and then fix the incentives later. Understand? This is critical.

“We must be a values-driven organization before we are an incentives-driven organization. You design incentives to reinforce and reward behavior—you don’t design them to drive behavior. Values are what we need to drive behavior. If there’s a mismatch: you fix the incentives. After you do the right thing.

“And just to be clear: the right thing is almost always defined in terms of the client—not in terms of our internal P&L distribution.

“Now—am I being clear enough? Thanks for the question. And I don’t want to hear it again.”

Bill Green was plenty clear that day about what was important.  When he said "the right thing," he meant principles like client focus, taking a longer term perspective, and collaboration.  And he was clear that principles, not incentives, were the way to establish a values-driven organization.

For my part, when people ask me to name a big company that does trust well, Accenture is one of the few names I mention. Every company is far from perfect, but some are less so than others. Accenture is a lot better than most, and I think it’s because of the kind of leadership Bill Green demonstrated so clearly in this situation.

That’s what leading from principle sounds like.

4 replies
  1. Howard Wolosky
    Howard Wolosky says:

    I like the sentiment but not the tone or the fact the message is Green don’t want to hear it again. Bullying pulpit when question is asked about new iniiative won’t in my opinion instill trust and principles in those that need it the most at Accenture whose history can be traced to Andersen, Enron’s accounting firm. 

  2. Keith Merron
    Keith Merron says:

    Charles: Accenture was formerly Andersen Consulting, the ones who worked with Enron to create one of the greatest fiascos in business history.  Why do you consider them an example of trust? Have they changed meaningfully?  

  3. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Keith and Howard,

    It was Arthur Andersen who had the ill-fated relationship with Enron, which culminated publicly in 2001. 

    Andersen Consulting had separated from Arthur Andersen back in 1989.  That split ended more formally when Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture in early 2001. Just about in time to avoid association even by name with the Enron scandal which enveloped Arthur Andersen.  

    Do they have a common cultural heritage with Andersen?  Certainly, though it must be said that relations between Andersen Consulting and Arthur Andersen were strained way back in the 80s.  I generally think they’ve earned the right to be distinct from the cultural heritage of a firm that hasn’t existed now for almost a decade, and from which they were estranged for longer than that.

    There’s much more to it, and the Wikipedia description is a good place to start; many TrustMatters readers know more about it too and are welcome to share it here.

    As to why I consider them an example of trust, I base that on having known them reasonably well for several years now, across many geographies, practice areas and levels.  I have found Accenture people to be straight-shooters, hard-workers.  I consider their best traits to include a high degree of collaboration, a willingness to constructively confront (i.e. they don’t indulge in blame-throwing), and a more than usual capacity for self-criticism.    In fairness, I did not have direct dealings with the old Arthur Andersen; my observations are based in this case only on my own observational data.




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