Accenture’s Michelle Gadsden-Williams: Be the Architect of Your Career Journey

Gadsden-Williams offers important advice for all women in navigating their careers.

WILL MILLER JR. PHOTOGRAPHY

Michelle Gadsden-Williams leads Accenture’s (No. 14 on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies list) inclusion and diversity initiatives in North America.

Responsible for further strengthening and accelerating the company’s efforts to foster an inclusive culture, she talked with DiversityInc about her career and offered valuable advice.

All Paths Led to Diversity and Inclusion

“Diversity and inclusion is important to me. I am a woman. I am a person of color,” Gadsden-Williams explained.

“Both of my parents were born and raised in South Carolina during Jim Crow and segregation, and it was always a topic that was discussed in our household – and not just diversity necessarily, it was more about inclusion – how are you going to immerse yourself in a society that may not accept you for who you are? So, naturally, it’s work that I gravitated toward.”

Gadsden-Williams joined Accenture in June, bringing more than 25 years of experience as an advocate for equality within corporate America and as a thought leader on diversity and inclusion. In 2006, Gadsden-Williams moved to Basel, Switzerland, to become the chief diversity officer at Novartis. In 2010, she then became the global head of diversity and inclusion at Credit Suisse.

“I started my career in marketing, then I transitioned into strategic planning, organizational development and finally diversity,” she said.

It was “happenstance” or maybe even destiny that brought Gadsden-Williams and her focus on diversity and inclusion together.

“I was given an assignment by the VP of HR for a company I worked for at the time to create a diversity strategy, and I just fell in love with the work,” she said. “It represented change and innovation — all the wonderful things that we know this work is — and the effect that it can have on people in an organization.

“I’ve been doing this close to three decades across four industries, in the United States and around the world. I’m a lifer.”

‘Would You be My Mentor?’

Gadsden-Williams started early. Her first mentor was her father — an executive at a major organization. When entering the professional world, she decided to be proactive in selecting a mentor — an individual who, according to her, gives advice on “how to orchestrate your career properly.”

“Throughout my career, I’ve always sought the counsel of individuals who had what I call ‘intellectual horsepower.’ People who were really doing innovative things in a company,” Gadsden-Williams explained. “I naturally gravitate towards those people.

“I would build a relationship with them. I’d say, ’I like what you’re doing, who you are as a person and what you represent. Would you be my mentor?’

“Not one person said, ‘No.’”

Gadsden-Williams emphasized that her mentors and sponsors — your advocate or champion in the room when important career decisions are made — didn’t always look like her or come from similar backgrounds. “They have mostly been white men.”

She adds, “I feel very fortunate to have been able to cultivate and maintain relationships with a variety of individuals, some of whom are now CEOs and chairmen of major corporations in the Fortune 500. They have been incredibly helpful to me in terms of shaping the professional individual that I am, and in helping me to strategize and be the architect of my career journey.”

Gadsden-Williams said her mentors and sponsors still provide her with counsel and advice, most recently with the decision to join Accenture.

“I reached out to my mentors to ask, ‘Am I making the right move, the right decision? I’m now an entrepreneur. I’m doing well. Does it make sense for me to re-enter corporate America?’”

In addition to her role as a corporate executive, she is also the co-founder and former chief executive officer of Ceiling Breakers, a consulting organization focused on women’s empowerment and diversity initiatives.

Gadsden-Williams said she, her mentors and sponsors all agreed that Accenture was her next move.

“It made sense to them and it made sense to me.”

How to Get Ahead? Be Clear About Your Goals

Gadsden-Williams offers important advice for all women in navigating their careers.

“In my years of working in corporate America, I’ve come across many women, of all backgrounds, who are unsure of what they really want to do,” she said. “You must be crystal clear, articulate and transparent about your goals, from the start of your career and as you progress.

“You have to take time to answer the question: ‘What is it, exactly, that you want?’ And work to create a timeline of how and when you plan to get there.”

Gadsden-Williams said mentors and sponsors are key as well.

“Create a board of directors for yourself,” she said.

“You need individuals who are going to hold up the mirror and tell you the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between, but also give you sage advice on the kinds of things you need to do to get to your next step.”

Serving on Nonprofit Boards

Gadsden-Williams suggests to women, “There are a lot of benefits to joining a board whether it’s a corporate board or nonprofit board. You’ll expand your competencies and capabilities that will shape you into a leader.

“I only see upside.”

Throughout her career, Gadsden-Williams has served on several nonprofit boards, including Black Girls Rock — a non-profit youth empowerment and mentoring organization established to promote the arts for young women of color, while building self-esteem and self-worth.

“I chose specifically to engage with organizations whose missions are very much in alignment with my core values,” she said. “I have a passion for women’s issues, education and healthcare.”

Gadsden-Williams also serves on the board of the late Dr. Maya Angelou’s charter school in Washington, D.C., which has impacted her deeply.

“As part of being a board member, I had the opportunity to interact, face-to-face, with Dr. Angelou,” she said. “That was one of the most profound and privileged opportunities I’ve had in my entire life.”

Gadsden-Williams said that being in Angelou’s presence “forced you to be your best self – to bring your genuine, authentic self to the table.”

“It was an honor and a pleasure for me to sit on the board of her school,” she added. “But it was even more of an honor just to have a conversation with her.”

In 2010, Dr. Angelou awarded Gadsden-Williams with the coveted Maya Way Award for Diversity Leadership.

Looking Ahead at Accenture

“We are doing a lot of the right kinds of things,” Gadsden-Williams said. “And we have committed women leading the charge – Ellyn Shook, our Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer, and Julie Sweet, our North America CEO. We have new goals in front of us. But while we’re pleased with our progress, we’re not satisfied.”

Gadsden-Williams discussed gender parity.

“We’re doing a lot of wonderful things at Accenture to accelerate gender parity,” she said. “We have a goal of 50 percent women and 50 percent men in our workforce by 2025, so we’re working hard with our leadership to drive innovative tactics and strategies to achieve our goal. I think we’re on our way.”

But overall, Gadsden-Williams is envisioning a time when diversity and inclusion is just a part of the way companies do business every day.

“The question is: how do we get to ‘diversity 2.0?’ When diversity becomes so embedded in our DNA, it’s no longer talked about, it just organically happens. When there’s a direct link to diversity in how we service our business and clients, in how we recruit suppliers we work with, how we build the teams that work with our clients.”

Gadsden-Williams referenced Accenture’s “#InclusionStartsWithI” video as an important step forward. Meant to spark discussion about belonging and bias, the video is prompting an ongoing movement at the company and beyond.

Related Story

Accenture Says ‘Inclusion Starts With I’

Accenture Says ‘Inclusion Starts With I’

A new video on bias and inclusion received such a “visceral and overwhelming” response internally that Accenture is sharing it with the public.

“I take the video with me wherever I go,” she said, including specific conferences.

“In my years of doing this work, I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s real, true diversity in action. It’s something that I think we’ll be watching for a long time.”

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