Michelle Gadsden-Williams, Rah Thomas Talk Tactical Diversity Plans at Accenture North America

Michelle Gadsden-Williams, Rah Thomas Talk Tactical Diversity Plans at Accenture North America

“I would define diversity as all the ways in which we differ. Inclusion is more about how we treat individuals, where they feel like they belong, where they have a seat at the table and feel a part of a whole.”

As managing director and head of inclusion and diversity at Accenture North America for close to a year, Michelle Gadsden-Williams has spent a good portion of her business days “implementing strategies and interventions, designing processes and policies to ensure that we are as diverse and inclusive as we could be as an organization.” That charge is vital to meeting the business objectives of the mammoth Dublin, Ireland-based management consulting and professional services firm that produced FY 2017 net revenues of $34.9 billion (North America’s contribution was $16.29 billion).

A D&I champion who served in such leadership roles at financial services giant Credit Suisse and global pharmaceutical heavyweight Novartis, Gadsden-Williams intimately knows its value to the environment and objectives of complex, worldwide organizations. In edited excerpts from this exclusive interview, she shares, among other topics, how Accenture’s “culture of belonging” works in tandem with talent recruitment and advancement as well as driving organizational creativity and performance.

Diversity Is ‘How We Treat Individuals’ 

From your vantage point, how have the dynamics of corporate diversity changed over the past decade?
Over the years, diversity has changed in that there’s more emphasis and focus on inclusion more so than diversity. That’s the most critical thing that I’ve seen change, at least in my tenure. I would define diversity as all the ways in which we differ, from gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, military, and other affiliations. Inclusion, however, is more about how we treat individuals, where they feel like they belong, where they have a seat at the table and feel a part of a whole. So it’s more about the behavioral changes within a culture.

How does Accenture’s D&I approach make it distinctive from other organizations you’ve witnessed
or in which you’ve been involved?

One of the things that attracted me to Accenture is the leadership around inclusion and diversity coming from the top. I met with Julie Sweet and Ellyn Shook, North America CEO and CHRO, respectively, and these are two women who were incredibly passionate. They had demonstrated their commitment and support to diversity for a number of years. I heard about Accenture’s diversity strategies before I even joined. So what better way to flex your leadership muscles than to take on diversity practices in an industry that you’re not familiar with and to have leadership that really embraces diversity and supports the strategy.

Accenture’s mantra is “Diversity makes us stronger.” Can you offer examples related to that principle?
Diversity certainly makes an organization like Accenture stronger. We pride ourselves on innovation and creativity. That’s what drives our business. Bringing the unique perspectives of individuals to the table and ideation creates product. That’s what creates problem-solving.

[Recent meme quote of Gadsden-Williams. For more great quotes from powerful women of color, click here]

Are there any products, processes, or campaigns that evolved based on the connection to this diversity imperative?
We’ve developed a movement or a video compilation of all of our employees. It’s called, “Inclusion Starts With I.” We’ve had over 1 million views on our YouTube channel. It’s probably one of the most viewed images on our social media channels to date. We asked our employees to talk about their experiences regarding who they are, from gender to race, military affiliation, disability, you name it. And it was a really candid conversation amongst these individuals in terms of answering: “Who am I in this organization? Why do I work here? What does that feel like

How do you ensure that the attitudes at the top are embraced by other tiers of management?
Well, that’s something we struggle with, like most organizations. It’s all about accountability. The mandate has been set by our CEO and CHRO, and that makes its way down to their direct reports, regional leadership teams, and so forth. So there’s a cascading effect and we hold people accountable in terms of performance achievement. We hold their feet to the fire in terms of what they support and don’t support from a diversity perspective.

What types of initiatives have been put in place to ensure more African American executives
gain senior management positions?
We provide our African American talent with a lot of support from sponsorship programs. We have what we call “Planning for Success” for our managing directors. We have employee resource groups that have a lot of exposure to our CEO and her direct reports. Every month, there’s a different group that goes in front of the North America leadership team to talk about their mission, vision, values, challenges, and so forth. We ideate and come up with solutions together. Our African American ERG is quite strong.

Do you use the same approach with millennial employees and the influx of young talent coming
into the organization?
Well, I think we have a very millennial-friendly organization. [Millennials make up more than 75% of the workforce.] I’ve worked for some industries that were a bit more stiff and stodgy, if you will. At Accenture, we have a lot of processes and practices in place where millennials gravitate to us. For example, the virtual nature of how we operate with Skype meetings and remote working.
We have an initiative called “Truly Human,” which is creating an environment where everyone thrives…millennials, baby boomers and the like. We have a multigenerational employee population and we try to create an environment where it’s conducive for every individual.
Today, it seems a part of the diversity equation is making sure that people feel that they fit within the organization from a generational standpoint.

So, what are the D&I priorities going forward?
Like most organizations, it’s about the recruitment, retention, development, and advancement of talent. That’s first and foremost. The second piece is around getting the culture to a place of belonging, where every single individual feels welcome, where they can realize their own ambition but also meet the business objectives of the company. And then the third piece I would say is just taking care of our people by creating that truly human environment. Letting everyone know that it’s OK to work from home. It’s OK to ask for what you want or the things that are going to make your work life easier. It’s OK to be a part of the Employee Resource Group and that it’s not a career limiting move at all. I think one of our really great messages is bringing your whole self to work.

Thoughts from Accenture’s African American ERG Co-Lead

Rah Thomas, a managing director at Accenture champions the company’s directive: “making sure we are at the forefront of gender diversity and racial diversity.” Thomas, who was recently promoted, assists clients with their cloud transformation journeys—specifically, he leads teams that run robotics applications, via the cloud. He is also the co-lead for Accenture’s African American Employee Resource Group (ERG). During his time at Accenture, 15 years, Thomas has seen a lot of improvement in ethnic diversity at the company, “I do think there is a ways to go, across the board.” He praises Accenture for “peeling back the onion” and providing transparency about its diversity.

Rah Thomas (Image: Accenture)

Accenture has made its workforce diversity numbers public for the last three years. “We are transparent with our numbers,” says Thomas. “[Accenture] has a real tactical action plan,” he says when it comes to diversifying its workforce.

“We have to be transparent,” Thomas says.


—Samara Lynn contributed to this article.