Early on Nov. 21, Tepper School of Business students eagerly filled Mellon Auditorium to await William D. Green, the former Chairman and CEO of Accenture, and second W.L. Mellon Speaker Series presenter for 2013-2014. The event, held in a question and answer format, allowed Green to engage with the students, imparting his invaluable advice on a myriad of topics with a captivating style of humor and honesty.
Serving as moderator for the program was Harsh Manglik, the Tepper School’s current Executive in Residence and Adjunct Professor of Management, and former Chairman and Geography Managing Director of Accenture India.
Manglik introduced the guest of honor, describing Green’s passion and energy for developing young people. Manglik told of how, as he rushed down to meet his former boss earlier in the day, he’d discovered Green “mingling with the Tepper students and recruiting.”
Green stepped down from his post at Accenture this past February after a 33-year career with the company. During his tenure at the helm, Accenture revenues grew from $13.7 billion to $21.6 billion and the workforce doubled to 211,000 employees as it expanded its reach to 120 countries.
Green, the “proud son of a plumber” and first in his family to attend college, began his remarks by revealing that he’d gone through high school near the bottom of his class and turned his life around at a junior college. “I believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things with a little inspiration,” he declared.
Green shared how creating a company culture where decisions are made for the good of the whole organization and not merely the individual parts was an asset in dealing with the pressures of his position.
“And never be afraid to change, even when you’re at the top of your game,” he added. “There will always be new entrants, always be challenges from inside and from outside. You need to have the courage — even when things are going just the way you want them to go — to change.”
Regarding benefitting from criticism, he explained, “I separated my self-esteem from my role in the company. Establish power in your person, not your position. It unleashes you to always do the right thing.”
Green also was open with the group about learning from a difficult family situation to encourage and value a company atmosphere where employees can feel open about sharing and relying on the firm, as a family, to “surround and help them.”
“Life is complicated,” he observed. “You can make it work if you work in an environment where people give a damn about each other.”
When questioned about leadership, Green stressed the importance of team over self, and knowing people well to meet the challenge of placing them where they can make the most significant contributions.
On success, he had clear and concise advice: “Show up.” He cheerfully described reminding his staff that “clients aren’t in the office,” and holding signs to their office windows that read, “What are you doing here?” Green also told a colorful anecdote in which he approached a reticent potential client at the gentleman’s well-known regular lunch spot.
When asked his favorite Accenture core value, Green chose stewardship — a word he laughingly admitted he hadn’t heard until he began working there.
“It means that people came before you, built the company, and then had the confidence to put it in your hands,” he said. “Your job is to make it better and take it to the next level, then, at the right time, to put it in the hands of the next generation so they can take it to a level that maybe you can’t even fathom. It is so powerful.”
When questioned about the Arthur Andersen downfall, he replied, “At the end of the day, every lawsuit against the company was dismissed, but it put the company out of business – 86,000 people. There’s a lesson here – and that is, your brand is precious and all it takes is one person for a global firm to be put under siege.”
He then recounted his own challenging experience with a brand under fire, describing how Accenture had come to end its relationship with Tiger Woods during a scandal.
“They’re teaching you lots of good stuff here,” Green pointed out as the hour closed, “but some of it, you’re going to have to experience out there, whether it’s interpersonal, business, or regulatory.”
“So just keep a smile on your face, a sense of humor, and recognize that the best is yet to come. Think stewardship – because it’s the next generation that will rule the world. We can’t wait to put it in your hands.”