The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged company leaders like never before.
And as Accenture’s Stacey Jones described it, the past year “really puts knowing your value to the ultimate test.”
Jones, who heads global corporate communications at the professional services company, recently chatted with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski about leading through a pandemic and how she navigated obstacles she encountered along the way.
They also chatted about the best way for women to get their voices and ideas heard, how to connect with your bosses and colleagues during this challenging time, what women leaders over the age of 50 bring to the table and more.
Below is their conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Mika Brzezinski: You just celebrated your 25th year with Accenture. It sounds like the company’s ability to retain female talent is really effective.
I have found that at our Know Your Value events and talking to different companies and employees, that a lot of the women have trouble communicating what they need and where they want to go. And companies struggle with being able to keep female talent. What is it about Accenture that was able to retain leaders like you?
Stacey Jones: I think it has been a couple of things. It's definitely the people and the collaborative, incredible style of the way we work as a team. It's something that stems from the top … And I always feel like I have an equal shot at anything that I want to do or can do…
And frankly, it’s the work. I love the work. We cover 40 industries, have 500,000 people right now, 6,000 clients, there’s never a dull moment. It’s an engaging, fast-paced environment, and you’re learning every day and have opportunities to stretch yourself.
…And we're very intentional about helping women. I had a cycle in my career when my kids were smaller, and I was able to have a lot more flexible and project-based work that enabled me to stay through that period and be successful. Actually, when I was in Hartford, I had a mom living with us who was on Hospice. And I worked hard, and I was very productive, but I was able to balance things in a different way. So, Accenture is very good at helping people speak up, ask for what they want and then devising a way to manage …
Brzezinski: I bet the challenges and your skills were stretched to the limit during the pandemic. What was hard, what was the best thing that you discovered about your abilities and your competence level – all while trying lead during a pandemic?
Jones: Well, the pandemic itself really puts knowing your value to the ultimate test.
…In context, my life is comparably good. Can't complain. But it was a huge adaption. I came off three weeks of travel, and now I haven't left my house in a year, except for the essentials. It’s pretty mind blowing.
But I think about it in three ways. Professionally, one is the way I work.
[In managing all of the communications around Covid-19] and having the network of more than 120 offices and locations around the world, the clients we're serving, making sure 500,000 people knew if their office was open… Crisis communications teams are usually small. We had about five people, and almost overnight, I had to pull it together in March and it ended up being a 100-plus team from my marketing communications organization. It was a 24/7 operation, and doing that in a way that was rigorous, but effective, was very, very challenging …
The second thing that really stands out to me is the way I now run meetings and interact with people. And what do I mean by that? I don't start meetings now by jumping into business right away. [Before Covid-19 there was] hallway chatter, things that you knew about people, and now you have to create those interactions. So, now as part of our daily work, we'll start meetings with something like "Hey, what's your favorite Netflix show that you're watching right now?" or "Which vacation do you want to take as soon as all this is over?" Finding fun ways to connect with people has been really a hallmark of trying to stay in touch…
The other thing too is just asking a question and really hearing from people. There was a guy on my team who didn't go on camera [during meetings] for a very long time, and I started to become worried. So, I had a heart to heart with him and found out that his kids were homeschooling near him. So, people are just going through a lot right now.
Brzezinski: It's sort of on us to find out what that is.
Jones: It is. And listening has become a highly-coveted skill in this world. In a way, that was important before, but now you gotta do it on steroids.
The last thing I'd say was a challenge was getting my people fix. I love meeting new people. I love connecting with people. I had to find ways of getting in touch without literally being in front of people. And I looked for a couple of things. One was becoming part of an outreach program that we are doing at Accenture, just connecting with people … People are going through all kinds of stuff, and it really fed my need to just stay in touch and meet new people. And every call ended by saying, "Hey, I'm going to see you at the next office gathering. We're going to be back in person soon. I know it."
Brzezinski: So, are you back in the office or still all mostly online?
Jones: I'm still virtual. And at the height of pandemic, 95 percent of our people were working virtually, and some can come back in the office when they're interested in doing so. We work with our clients and, candidly, there hasn't been a lot of demand for [in person].
Brzezinski: What's your advice to women? We always try and get women to speak up and take a seat at the table and not just talk about their ideas after the meeting, but to do it in the meeting. But now, we're all on Zoom. Is it a harder landscape for women to navigate?
Jones: I don't know that you can always say yes or no to that. What I would say as a leader, you have to be more intentional about creating opportunities for people and not just requiring women to create their own opportunity to speak up, but literally planning and positioning our teams and getting our women development opportunities.
…I do worry about someone feeling invisible. [For example, I worry about someone on] a meeting and no one acknowledging them and them feeling like they don’t have a place on the agenda. I intentionally look for the people we're not hearing from and how can we do that at the next meeting.
[For example,] I was just planning my town hall for corporate communications in a couple of weeks. We haven't heard from growth markets recently, and they're doing some great stuff, so I decided, let's put them in the center of the spotlight, let them tell their story and let everyone learn from them. But it's not going to happen if we don't do it intentionally, because it'll just default to people who usually run the meeting.
Brzezinski: My advice to add to that is for everybody who struggles with having to take center stage is to put one idea on the table. The beauty of Zoom is you can have notes in front of you. Use them. Get a ring light, write down your ideas, practice saying them, and have your notes in front of you. You can glance at them and it might boost your confidence just to have a little bit of a crutch there.
Jones: The other thing I've been saying to people is ask for help. If you don't feel like you're being heard and you do feel invisible, tell us. Don't suffer in silence…
Brzezinski: As you may know, Know Your Value and Forbes are partnering to feature 50 incredible women over the age of 50. What do you think is better and what’s worse about being in the workforce and being a leader over the age of 50?
Jones: I’m a little stuck on what is worse. I don't see any downside. But you have to love what you do. And if you love what you do, it is all better. But it could be the inverse if you find yourself with a job that feels truly like work every day.
Brzezinski: Right, if you're doing something that you're passionate about. Whenever I envisioned my career, I did not envision this stage of my life at all. I envisioned my 20s, 30s and 40s. But not my 50s. Like, it didn't exist to me.
But I think we're both in the stage of our careers where we are so confident. When you're building your career, you're so worried about building it. It’s why I’m doing the 50 over 50 list. I’ve found this to be a very powerful time. I mean, I'm almost 54, and I wake up in the morning, loving my job. I don't know what I used to worry about, but I don't worry about it anymore.