January 7th, 2013 | 6:00 am

Voice of Experience: Julie Sweet, General Counsel, Accenture

filed under Voices of Experience

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Reflecting on her career, Julie Sweet, General Counsel at Accenture, says her path was shaped by a drive to do the unexpected. “One thing to note is that I didn’t set out early in my career to be the general counsel at a big company.”

She explained, “Sometimes early in their careers, young people think they have to have it all figured out. But I think it’s important to leave your life open to unexpected opportunities.”

Sweet began her career at the global law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and spent ten years there after making partner. In 2010, she made the leap into the corporate space at Accenture. “At each stage of my career, I’ve really focused on doing something that others haven’t done – I call that exploring uncharted territory,” she said.

A Career Path Exploring the Unexpected

Sweet says her career has been fueled by her desire to do things other people haven’t done. For example, she explained, “In college I studied Chinese. I was really intrigued by the opportunities in China, and this was a time when so few people in the U.S. were really doing that. So I thought, ‘I’m going to do something different.’”

Sweet, who now speaks Mandarin Chinese, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Claremont McKenna College and went on to law school at Columbia University. When she began considering where she would like to begin her career, she chose Cravath. “The firm only had two female partners at the time, so it was an unexpected choice, but in my view it was the best law firm in the world and I wanted to work for the best.”

She went on to excel at the firm, helping to open its Hong Kong office and later returning to the Hong Kong office after she made partner. “Again, that was another time that I took a risk in that I left an established practice to build a satellite office.”

And when she made partner, she continued to choose practice areas that weren’t normally a core focus of the firm. Her risk-taking paid off, however. In 2006, Sweet was featured on the cover of The American Lawyer magazine as one of its Dealmakers of the Year. She was also recognized in Lawdragon as a leading lawyer and dealmaker in 2007, and in 2009, she was honored by The Legal 500.

Then, having built a solid reputation at her firm, in 2010, Sweet made another unexpected decision. “I chose to leave my comfortable position as a partner at a well-regarded firm to go to Accenture and do something completely different.”

Today, Sweet is general counsel, secretary, and chief compliance officer at Accenture. She is enthusiastic about helping the company in Southeast Asia, particularly in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia. “I’m going to be meeting with our local leaders to better understand the region and discuss how legal can help them navigate a business environment that is quite different than it is in the West.”

She is also working internally to help expand career growth opportunities within Accenture’s legal department. “We are focusing on how we can use Accenture’s commitment to development and knowledge creation for our legal professionals to grow their careers.”

Building Relationships

Sweet says one of the things she wishes she had learned earlier in her career is the importance of cultivating and maintaining relationships – both with clients and with colleagues. “Over time it really is critical in your career, and when I was first starting out I did not understand that. For the first six or seven years of my career I was working really hard, but didn’t make the time for those connections.”

She continued, “By the time I became partner, I found that my mostly male counterparts had taken the time for networking and relationship building. It’s something I wish I had done, and I try to talk to young professionals about it. Cultivate and maintain those relationships, and also be selective – there’s just no way you could have the time to get to know everyone.”

In fact, one of Sweet’s proudest achievements in her career has been the time she has spent developing talent. “In particular, there was a young woman who came to work for me as an associate, and she did not have a good professional reputation. She wasn’t progressing in her career because of it.”

Sweet gave her the benefit of the doubt. “I took her at face value and developed her and she became a terrific associate and went on to have a very successful career. I committed to someone who was struggling and helped her change her life. And it was an important lesson for me, to make our own judgments, give people a second chance, and respond to their needs.”

Women in the Professional Space

“Across the board,” Sweet said, “companies have made a lot of progress in promoting women. But we still see limits in women getting to the very top rungs of leadership. We need to continue to focus on how we can make it possible for women at the lower levels of senior management get to the very top.”

More broadly, she continued, “I don’t think the barriers for professional women are specific to my field. The one challenge I do see in global companies if travel is involved is that it can be difficult for people with children, and more often women are affected by this.”

“In many companies, sometimes your progress is linked to the ability to travel.” Sweet, who travels quite a bit for her job, commended Accenture for its efforts to enable people to work remotely. “I have young children and it does help me with that balance.”

She is enthusiastic about Accenture’s new global women’s platform, “Defining Success. Your Way.” “It is really exciting,” Sweet said. “Women at different stages make different choices in their careers. The platform will help the company promote an environment where women can feel successful whatever their choices are. For example, my travel takes me away from my young children, but that’s a choice I made, and it’s different than the choice other women make.”

She continued, “Defining Success.Your Way. recognizes and celebrates choices and helps women see that what is successful isn’t one particular role model. For me, success is having a job I love and the ability to be with my family in a meaningful way. But how I define success in ten years may be different.”

Defining Success. Your Way. is about making women feel comfortable about those choices, and it goes a long way in recognizing the diversity of our women.”

Advice for Female Professionals

Sweet encouraged women beginning their careers to cultivate an understanding of their company’s business. “Understand how your company makes money,” she said. “A lot of times people starting off are particularly focused on the day-to-day. If you focus on the business, it will change your career trajectory and your pace of promotion.”

She also emphasized the importance of building good communication skills. “Develop oral skills that will help you command a room and make your point, and written skills that help you get to the point and are relevant to your audience. Even for more senior people, one of the most impactful things you can do is become a better communicator.”

Senior people should also maintain their focus on mentoring and sponsoring relationships, Sweet continued. “It’s very important. We often have a focus on how to get to the top, but when you get to the top you have to have those relationships.”

She added, “You need to be able to collaborate well and have people who will sponsor you so you can create value for your company, and you need people who will mentor you on how to do that effectively.”

In Her Personal Time

While Sweet devotes much of her time outside work to her family, she also serves on the board of her alma mater, Claremont McKenna University. “It was a transformative education for me, and I’ve been involved in some way since I got out of school. I want to help other young people get that same transformative education.”

3 comments

  1. Yaseer Rizwan

    As an Accenture alumni, i clearly remember frequently getting mails from Sweet. Good to read about her professional journey. Learning Chinese was most impressive part. I absolutely loved the idea of working at Accenture. I felt so comfortable and at home while i was there. However few managers ruined it all and i had no choice but to move out of organization. They lacked empathy, self esteem and most importantly they constantly disregarded Accenture’s core value – Respect for an individual. By their words, i felt humiliated and used. I tried reaching out to HR reps, Senior managers but they were all complicit in treating a fellow employee like dirt. My father was undergoing chemotherapy for Cancer then so i was anyways in a disturbed state. My Accenture managers just compounded my miseries. I left the place heartbroken. As i look back, i feel wish i had got a manager who had a vision to chart a resource’s career growth, valued someone’s aspiration & respected somebody’s own space, probably someone like you.

  2. Caroline Flanagan

    Sweet is clearly an inspiration to us all and gives refreshing advice on career success and “doing the unexpected”. It would be interesting to know whether Sweet has children, and how this impacted her career trajectory?

  3. Mark Stumpf

    Very impressive Julie. Congratulations!