Penelope Prett joined Accenture in 1992 and became CIO in 2019. Along the way, she has developed keen insight into how to deliver IT value to a $43.2 billion global company with 500,000 employees, who are responsible for delivering IT value to their clients.
I spoke with Prett about her approach to leadership, the most impactful technologies of the day, how she forms and empowers her teams, and her advice for tomorrow’s CIOs.
What follows is an edited version of our interview.
Martha Heller: How do you define your role as CIO of Accenture?
Penelope Prett: My stakeholders expect me to keep the holistic technology landscape at Accenture up and running, and to make sure our employees have what they need to execute our business. That is my job, but it’s just the ante to the poker game. As I sit in this chair, my most important responsibility is to be the first and best living credential of what we talk to our clients about: applying technology to transform their businesses. My job is to do that so well for Accenture that we enhance the brand and our credibility.
What are the technology areas that Accenture is focusing on in those client conversations?
Cloudification is definitely the hottest topic on the market right now. Accenture has already made the cloud journey — we operate 95 percent in the public cloud — so I am able talk to other CIOs about the pain points, getting started, and managing risk. A lot of people came to understand, through COVID, what they lost by being tied to data centers and on-prem systems. It was a hard awakening, and that’s part of the reason we are discussing the cloud so often right now.
What is some advice you can offer on moving to the cloud?
Don’t talk to your business sponsors or board of directors about the cloud in the same way as you would an ERP backbone or a new manufacturing system. The cloud is fundamentally different. It’s an enabler for all that will come. You cannot tie yourself up in knots over business cases, risk management, or concerns that your customers don’t want their data in the cloud. If you can make your businesses partners understand that cloud is the cornerstone of everything else that will happen in the technology landscape for the next decade, not a business proposal with an ROI in 10 minutes, then you can really start to make things happen.
What skills do you rely on most as Accenture’s CIO?
There are two skills that are absolutely essential to my being successful in this job. The first is storytelling. To communicate effectively with people, you cannot just talk to them. You have to share your vision in a way that is so compelling that they see that the path you are laying out is the right one. Storytelling is at the heart of driving change, especially with ideas that are unproven, because there is no market analog.
The second skill comes from the fact that, today, technology is faster, more agile, and smaller. You deliver it and move on to the next innovation. So, you need to form teams, very quickly that excel at whatever you need done. But you also have to give those teams authority, even if it means taking some risk.
In my job, I have 500,000 people to serve, 1,200 applications, and 10,000 people who march in and out of my shop on an annual basis. If I felt like I had to touch everything, I would fail on the first day. Building and empowering small teams of leaders, and leading with storytelling, is how you get speed and motion.
What advice do you have for empowering teams?
Think about your breakage threshold. What kind of problem are you unwilling to tolerate? What happens if we bring down email and can’t communicate with clients for a day? I reserve the right to participate actively in resolving that problem because of the risk level involved. But if a problem is below my breakage threshold, then I let my people, who are all very smart, figure it out. My advice is to tolerate failure, but set that tolerance at a level that doesn’t put your business at risk.
What are the competencies that you look for in your senior team?
The only certain thing about technology is that what we use today is not what we will use tomorrow. In my senior team, I look for a mindset of flexibility, which not everyone has. In my interviews I assess the candidate’s willingness to rotate to the new and untried, while at the same time protecting our core systems.
The second competency stems from the fact that we live in a world of publicity and social media, where people are always watching what you are doing. When you live in this world, and represent your company, you need an identifiable personal brand. I’m not talking about a being a big shiny icon and writing a lot of white papers. It’s about having the confidence in who you are and communicating, in a few simple words, your unique value. My responsibility is to help people recognize their personal brand and to use it as the foundation of their confidence to lead.
What has your team delivered recently that has had a big impact on Accenture’s employees and clients?
We put out a capability called ALICE (Accenture Legal Intelligent Contract Exploration), which uses applied intelligence and machine learning for natural language processing across all of our contracts. This is critically important because at Accenture contracts are the core of everything we do. When you have a tool that allows your entire corporation — legal, finance, or anybody else — to seek out commonalities and parallel behaviors in contracts, across geographic markets and industry segments, you put power in the hand of your company to learn how to work more effectively with clients. It sounds so mundane, but it’s truly transformational for us. We are now able to look at one of our most valuable data domains in a completely different light.
[Editor’s note: Accenture won a 2020 CIO 100 award for its ALICE project.]
What would you call out as key to your ability to deliver ALICE?
ALICE was born because our business and IT leaders at all levels, top to bottom, got in a room and asked, “How can we fundamentally change how our company experiences this data domain?” We started with a blank sheet and ideated ALICE together. I did not have to fight upstream for any of it; we were all committed to getting it done. Christina Demetriades, general counsel for Europe and our key sponsor, was amazing in her storytelling about why we needed this solution. That partnership made all the difference in being able to get it to market rapidly.
In addition to crafting a personal brand, what is your advice to future CIOs?
First, always train yourself to be relentlessly intellectually curious. Technology changes so fast that you cannot be an expert in everything, but you should have an informed opinion about emerging technologies. No one will tell you the answer. You have to find it through constant curiosity. Build that habit now.
Second, allow the experience of COVID to change how you relate to your colleagues. COVID has taught us to be truly human. When you have a call with a business partner and a kid in a diaper runs through the room, it is hard to maintain the formal facade of our pre-COVID days. Up-and-comers need to think about how to embrace that truly human interface. It has made a world of difference to the quality of relationships that I have been able to build with my own team and business sponsors.