40: Another Way to the Top: How Julie Sweet Built Her Own Ladder

 
Julie Sweet, CEO for North America at Accenture, has honed the art of learning skills that prepare her to leap ahead.

Julie Sweet, CEO for North America at Accenture, has honed the art of learning skills that prepare her to leap ahead.

Julie Sweet was a high school sophomore with the gift of gab, entering various debate and speech competitions for the prize money, building her own scholarship fund. She wasn't doing it for kicks; at times growing up in Southern California she had just one pair of shoes, or one pair of pants that fit. Her father painted cars for a living, and her mother was a hairdresser.  

One particular contest at the Lions Club had come down to a final showdown between Julie and another girl. Julie lost. Stung by the injustice of it – she felt her speech had been better – she griped to her father on the way home.  

The other girl had been cutesy in the way girls were so often expected to be, that way Julie herself never had been. Plus, the girl's dad was prominent in the Lions Club. "My father said to me, 'You have to be so much better than everyone else that it doesn't matter about connections, it doesn't matter who you're the daughter of. And you weren't.' And so essentially, stop whining."

Julie Sweet today leads the North American business at Accenture, a global consulting giant that employs more than 400,000 people and produced more than $32 billion in sales last year. Sweet's territory made up almost exactly half of that total. 

I'm not really sure of the ideal way people become consultants. Maybe they get good at something, then show other people how to do it better? 

Sweet's path was different. She was a lawyer – a partner at one of those swanky firms: Cravath, Swaine & Moore – and left that to be the top lawyer at Accenture. 

She then parlayed that job into a bigger job. And that's the key detail here. She has a history of doing that sort of thing, and for the Fortt Knox podcast, I wanted to find out how.