Q&A | Accenture executive is enthusiastic about the rapid-fire pace of technological change.
Though officially a Gen Xer, Pallavi Verma boasts some hallmarks of a baby boomer. She still uses Hotmail. She has worked at Accenture for 29 years, pretty much her entire adult life. During an interview, she mentioned rollerblading as a way people spend their free time.
But Verma, 49, has a millennial’s enthusiasm for the rapid-fire pace of technological change. For her Chicago-based role as Accenture’s senior managing director for the Midwest, Verna is tasked with pushing innovation to employees and clients. She oversees Accenture’s new digital hub, which gives hands-on training in leading technologies such as artificial intelligence, internet of things and voice interaction.
A native of India, Verma moved around a lot as a kid — she estimates she’s lived in a dozen cities in her lifetime — thanks to her dad’s job. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
Here, Verma talks about the workplace of the future. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: What technology trends are you seeing among your clients?
A: We are seeing a lot of robotics and artificial intelligence trends. We’re seeing in banking, for example, a lot of use of robotics to automate activities that are repeatable, so they can then use those people to do more higher-value activities. If I’m a person that’s closing accounts and I have to do these 15 things the same way every time, I’d rather use that person to figure out why are these customers closing these accounts.
Q: Do you worry about artificial intelligence displacing workers?
A: I don’t necessarily see it as displacing workers, but if you automate things then you do have to have a workplace strategy to get the workers that you have skilled with what you want them to be doing next.
Q: Do you see a lot of resistance to the innovation you’re trying to push?
A: I don’t. I think everybody really gets it. I’m most excited about not driving. Think about when we have all driverless cars. What is the impact to the car insurance industry? What is the impact to the court system, where currently more than 50 percent of cases are wrapped up in traffic incidents?
Q: But what happens to the truck drivers and bus drivers and cab drivers who make their living driving?
A: I don’t know, it’s a good question. We’re going to (train) them to be doing something else, to be driving (or programming) the drones that will be picking up packages everywhere. In some ways, technology is going to create more jobs, it’s just that they’re going to be in technology.
Q: Is there anything that scares you about the workplace of the future?
A: No, I’m very optimistic about the workplace of the future. You hear a lot of words around liquid workforce and having a more agile workforce that’s more aligned with how people want to work, with more work-life balance, more flexibility. I think technology is going to enable that.
Q: Do you think that it is a good or bad thing that we’re moving toward more freelance or contingent labor? And how does society need to adapt?
A: I actually think that the younger generation has already adapted in some way. The key for any company will be to figure out how to make sure you have the talent development in that.
Q: Given that Accenture’s business is all about its people, what are some of the challenges and strategies for attracting talent?
A: Especially looking at the younger generation of millennials, they want a diverse experience that is not just one experience, and I think consulting offers that more than many other industries. Also the corporate culture is very strong, it’s a very collegial environment. We’re absolutely a meritocracy, so it’s not unclear about what you need to do to be successful here. We also just recently changed our performance management approach and it’s all about recognizing that we need to lean in with people’s strengths. Because adults don’t really change. You are who you are and you can progress and modify but fundamentally you’re not going to change.
Q: Is Accenture doing anything to lessen the travel burden on consultants?
A: We know that we will always have situations where people with a specialized skill set will be flying around, but our absolute goal over the next 18 months is to get people back to be living where they work. We plan to be more deliberate about assigning people to projects in their region. I think that’s hugely beneficial to the individuals and their work-life balance. Many of our people want to be involved in the community, but if you’re traveling all the time it becomes very difficult when you’re home on the weekend to also add community involvement to that.
Q: What do you think helped you get to where you are?
A: One is that I think my childhood and all the moving around I did helped me figure out how to adapt. I also think what has helped me be successful has been mostly about doing a good job at what I’m given. It’s not more complicated than that. Often I see people get too caught up in “What is that new thing?” or “I need to get to know that person,” but if you just do what you’re given and do a good job at it, then the opportunities naturally line up for you. And you do need to ask for what you want. Even for this job, I asked for it.
Q: Is that naturally in you, or did you have to develop that quality?
A: It’s absolutely a quality I had to develop. It actually happened because I got married a year into my career, and when I came back from my honeymoon everyone assumed I was not interested in my career. Everyone assumed in a year or two I would leave and have kids. I got great advice from my supervisor at the time. She said you have to make sure that your manager knows that you want that next promotion.
Q: What’s an early management lesson you learned?
A: The most important thing you can do as a manager is take care of people. Because they’re the ones who are going to help you achieve what you set out to achieve. The nuance that I learned over time is that you can’t treat everyone the same. Because what motivates them is different. So I have honed a skill now where I really work hard to get to know the people who work for me and understand what motivates them, and understand how they respond to feedback.