Employee Engagement – Lessons in Leadership

Barrett Avigdor

Dr. Relly Nadler: This week’s show is about employee engagement. We’ll take a closer look at how a major global company is using leadership to engage the hearts and minds of their talent pool and how you can too.

Today’s guest is Barrett Avigdor with Accenture. Barrett is the Director of Legal Talent Strategy for Accenture and we’ll have her define what that means. Accenture is a publicly traded technology and outsourcing company with annual revenues in excess of $13 billion. Ms. Avigdor has been an in-house Legal counsel at Accenture since 1992 and has held a variety of leadership roles during her tenure there.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: I have known Barrett for quite some time. She is an amazing person. Miss Avigdor is known at Accenture for her creativity and her ability to lead unique projects. For example, in 2003 she lead the creation of an off-shore legal group for Accenture and the team which was located in Mauritius consisted of seven lawyers and has generated savings of over $1 million since its creation.

It 2001 she designed and delivered the first ever internal training program for Accenture’s legal staff of 250 attorneys from around the world with faculty from Oxford and the University of Chicago. Most recently Barrett created the role of Director of Legal Talent Strategy at Accenture.

She has been leading global teams of lawyers for several years and became increasingly interested in how to help people succeed.

In her spare time she trained to be an executive coach and as director of Legal Talent Strategy, she is combining her coaching experience with her many, many years of experience as a lawyer managing other lawyers, which is amazing.

She is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and prior to attending law school she conducted economics research in San Paulo, Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a double major in economics and Spanish and she is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Barrett at Accenture and I also had the pleasure of her mindshare in our new book, What Working Mother’s Know. Barrett is the co-author of that book, which was released in 2009. Barrett, welcome to the show.

Barrett Avigdor: Thank you Cathy and hello Relly.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Good morning Barrett, great to have you hear. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about yourself. Obviously you and Cathy know each other well, but for our audience could you tell us a little bit about yourself and maybe who influenced your thinking and career the most, given you are a lawyer and an executive coach?

Barrett Avigdor: Absolutely, and thank you for that nice introduction, Cathy. I think the biggest influence on my career, because I decided at the age of 8 that I was going to be a lawyer, so I was a pretty decisive kid. I really have to say that my father was probably the biggest influence of my career choice. My dad, who is enjoying his active retirement in Tucson, Arizona, was a trail lawyer. He represented the little guy. He believed passionately in every case he took. He worked hard but he loved his work. Our dinner conversations were frequently focused on my dad’s latest case.

He would research deeply. He would describe the case with so much enthusiasm that I couldn’t help but admire his passion and his sense of purpose. I decided at a young age that I wanted to devote my work life to something that I believed in as passionately as my dad believed in his work.

So I chose law school because I thought it would be good use of my talents and my education to be an advocate for people who needed a voice.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Barrett, it’s very interesting to hear you with so much enthusiasm talk about that relationship you had to your father’s career. I wanted to ask you another question, which is: how did you come to be an attorney who has such a strong focus on people issues? How are you using that?

Barrett Avigdor: Well, as I said, my motivation for going to law school was very much to help people. But as with so many things, we start on one road and the road takes a lot of turns that we didn’t expect.

I went to the University of Chicago Law School as you mentioned, which is known for its law and economics sort of approach to the law, which is intellectually fascinating but not particularly focused on the people aspects of the law. I graduated at a time with the economy was booming, and I had a lot of very lucrative offers. Not being very self-aware at that time in my life, I kind of went the path of least resistance and went to a large, corporate law firm in Chicago.

You can’t really get much further from helping people than working at a large corporate law firm. So, I moved from there to a smaller firm, and then from there to Accenture. My work throughout all of this was intellectually stimulating but it wasn’t really until I got to Accenture that I was able to find more of a human component.

Accenture is a great place to be a lawyer. We have terrific colleagues, interesting cutting-edge work, and in particular, I’ve been very fortunate to have had some tremendous mentors in my career there. Those mentors have shaped me professionally and I think that they helped me find my path from my original idealism when I set out, to do what I’ve been able to do more recently. So now with this latest role, Director of Legal Talent Strategy, I really want to give back some of the incredible gifts and lessons that my mentors have taught me along the way.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Well that is a fascinating journey and it sounds like they part of the journey, Barrett, now has taken you to actually go and become a coach. Can you tell us a little bit about that and I imagine that is enhancing the people aspect? What brought that on and then then how are you bringing the coaching piece into being in the Legal Talent Strategy Director?

Barrett Avigdor: Sure. Again, at Accenture, I was given an opportunity—this goes back maybe 10 years ago or even a little more—to participate in a 3-day workshop that we had sort of custom designed for our leadership team, The Center for Creative Leadership, which I know you are both familiar with. Terrific organization and they did a very high-quality, very intensive three day workshop that included kind of every tool you can think of: 360 Degree Feedback, a whole battery of psychometric tools, and a two hour session, 1:1, with an executive coach.

For me, this was all new. I had not seen any of this before. I found the program incredibly interesting and I gained an enormous amount of self-awareness. So here I was, several years out of law school, pretty much a developed professional and I was learning things about myself and how my peers saw me, and what my strengths really were. I was learning so much about myself just in these 3 days, but the real sort of icing on the cake was that 1:1 session with a coach.

I walked into a room and met this woman for the first time. I had never talked to her before, but of course she had the benefit of all of the data that had been collected about me from all of these various psychometric tools. I was struck by the fact that our conversation was like talking with someone very wise, who had known me for 10 years. Her insights were remarkable and that conversation changed me. It absolutely, I can pinpoint the date that my career started to take a different course.

I told myself that I wanted to have that ability. I wanted to be able to do what she did, which is to give people insights and hope. Like that coach I met all those years ago, I want to give people the tools to create the work life that makes them the happiest.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Barrett, I’m really interested in, now that you are the person, Barrett, leading this whole Talent Engagement Strategy for Accenture’s legal organization, what kinds of programs have you been doing based on your focus using leadership development and training. Recently, I was fortunate enough to go to an Accenture program, which is known as the World Championship of Golf, and I picked up an Outlook Journal which was given to me, and it’s says, “Where will all the talent come from competing on skill and education in a multi-polar world?” Can you talk a little bit about where all these qualified workers may come from to fill these 3.5 billion skilled positions? Any insights you can give on that would be great.

Barrett Avigdor: Sure. I don’t know if I can speak for all 3.5 billion, but from my perspective for the lawyer part of it; first of all my challenge in this new role is to create and implement an entire talent strategy for now almost 400 legal professionals around the world, just at Accenture.

So that means, as you mentioned, increasing employee engagement, creating happy companies, creating a culture that enhances that engagement, and doing that through strength training, mentoring and coaching.

Let’s start with employee engagement because that really is the first order of business. You know, it’s interesting, a lot of companies say, including Accenture, we say, our people are our greatest asset. And yet if you think about, if you don’t spend the time and the energy and resources to keep your people engaged, then you are wasting your greatest asset or you are at the risk of losing it.

It’s well work the investment. The analogy might be you buy a very important, expensive piece of equipment that is key to your business, and then you don’t maintain it. Of course, people are not machines. People are far more complex, constantly changing. They are also far more creative and forgiving than machines.

When employees are engaged, you are getting their best work. You are getting their best decision making, maximum creativity and problem solving, every single day. My view is if you look at it that way, how can you not focus some resources on employee engagement?

Getting back to what I’m doing. Just to get started, I began by listening. I’ve been doing focus groups around the world with Accenture lawyers asking them very open-ended questions: “what do you love about working here?” “What do you not like about working here?” “What would you change if you were the leader of this team for a day, a week or a month, what would you do differently?”

They have been giving me tremendous feedback. They were thrilled, I think, they have been thrilled just that someone is asking the questions and listening. But of course, listening is just the first step. You also have to show some results. They’ve given you the benefit of their candid response, and now you have to come back with a response to that.

What are we going to do about these things that they have raised? In some cases, the answer is just better communication. In other cases, there really are substantive changes that they are asking for. If we can make those changes, then we need to communicate back to the team what we are doing. This is underway, we have heard you, these are the changes we are making, this is the timeframe. If we can’t make the changes, then we need to explain to them why.

I think that professionals understand that. They don’t expect that they are going to get everything that they want, but they do expect the dialogue with their leaders so that they are heard and that they get a response back. That’s a big part, increasing engagement.

But, as I mentioned, we are also going to be introducing strength training so that people identify their strengths and begin to build their work around their strengths. We are doing succession planning. We are creating new programs focused on giving people broader experience, helping them enhance their skillset. Also, coaching and mentoring are going to be a big part of it as well.

Listen to the complete interview, above.


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