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Smart Moves At Accenture

With a unique perspective and a full measure of motivation, Jill B. Smart has changed the way HR works at Accenture.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007
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Twenty-six years ago, when Steve Rohleder was teaching a training course to new employees at the New York-based consulting firm Accenture, he noticed that one particular student stood out from all the rest.

"You could just tell from the start that she was highly motivated," says Rohleder, who is now the company's COO. That student was Jill B. Smart, Accenture's chief human resource officer and an inductee to Human Resource Executive®'s 2007 HR Honor Roll.

"I often get comments about my energy level," says Smart, 48. "I really get passionate about what I love doing. I believe that, in the world of HR, you have to have an energy and passion and fortitude, and ability to really not take things personally and not let some of the things that cross your desk make you lose that passion and energy."

Considering that Accenture's management consulting, technology services and outsourcing business employs 152,000 workers in 49 countries, and approximately 1,200 new workers are hired each week, her resolve is always being tested.

"She has patience," says Rohleder. "On any given day ... leading the HR function, there are any number of problems that come up," he says. "She has the personality to get the facts, diffuse the energy around the situation and establish a direction forward, and she is able to tackle tough situations, in an unemotional and consistent way. It has served her well and gives a lot of respect to the position."

Path to HR

After attending that training course in 1981, Smart spent the next 20 years on the business side of the firm's consulting practice, leading business-integration consulting work for clients in the financial services, government, transportation and health-services industries.

In 2000, Smart became head of the company's People Enablement business practice, which included training and knowledge management. One Friday afternoon, she received a call from the company's CEO, who wanted to see her on Monday morning.

She spent the weekend thinking, " 'What did I do wrong?' " she says, until Monday morning, when she was asked to take on the top HR post and "help Accenture as a client" by focusing her talents on re-inventing all the company's learning-and-training programs.

While she loved the client-side aspect of her job, after consulting with her mentor, she decided to take the plunge. She quickly set about establishing more global and diversified training programs to match the expansion and diversity of the company. She and her team created the curriculum and secured the technology to send Accenture's once homogenous learning structure out worldwide.

She has also developed programs to hone employees' international business skills across cultures, including the Leading a Diverse Workforce development program and mentoring programs for minorities and women.

Smart and her team also replaced hundreds of country-based recruiting tools with a single global recruiting tool to increase efficiency. She also worked to integrate the company's siloed functions, including finance, business and HR, into an integrated forecasting and planning function by regularly bringing together representatives from each department to ensure that all the pieces of the financial and resource-planning processes are in place.

"HR is absolutely a business partner at Accenture now," says Smart, "but it wasn't that way all along. ... I remember when I first started [heading up human resources], I had many conversations with HR people and there was a lot of negativity and complaining, and I really felt it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want to sit and complain about things, then that's what you're going to do."

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Smart, an accomplished triathlon runner with 16 races under her belt, is not one to sit around. Under her leadership, HR has institutionalized a multi-workforce strategy that better coordinates clients' needs with employee strengths across the company's numerous sites in more than 150 cities around the world. The strategy has better customized employer-branding efforts and training programs designed to meet these needs.

"[Smart's initiatives] are absolutely critical to our success," say Rohleder. "If there are two things that make us and keep us successful, it's having deeply skilled people and having exceptional execution. ... Our clients are demanding high-performance teams and they have to be made up of highly skilled individuals. It really allows us to deliver those high-performance teams."

Smart and her team have also been working to find a way to effectively measure the ROI of Accenture's training programs. Partnering with the University of Chicago, they developed a study of the impact of learning on the company's recruiting, retention, chargeability and employee-performance ratings.

"For the first time, we could demonstrate to senior leadership [in actual metrics] the substantial financial [353 percent] return the company gets from its training investment," she says. "When you put those numbers in front of an executive committee, it really makes them pay attention."

Smart is also keeping an eye out for her employees. She recently created Future Leave, a program that allows employees to set aside a portion of their salary to fund a short career break, as well as Accenture at Home, which provides workers with funding to set up home offices.

"We need to make individual choices on how to best use the resources available to us and still maintain a balance that suits our individual needs," she says.

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