Accenture Ireland MD: ‘We have a vested interest in a diverse talent pool’

27 Jun 2017

Alastair Blair, country managing director, Accenture Ireland. Image: Accenture

Ahead of his appearance at Inspirefest 2017, we gained some Leaders’ Insights from Alastair Blair, country managing director of Accenture Ireland.

Alastair Blair joined Accenture in 1987 as a graduate and has fulfilled a number of senior roles within the company, with a particular focus on financial services.

He has worked with major banks and financial services organisations in the UK, Ireland, the Middle East and internationally, on a broad range of strategic, communications, change management and execution initiatives. Prior to taking on his current role as country managing director, he led Accenture’s financial services business in the UK and Ireland.

Blair is on the board of IBEC and is chair of the IBEC Digital Economy Policy Committee, which aims to influence national and European policies that impact on the creation of a strong digital economy in Ireland and across Europe, so that all sectors can benefit from the transition to a digital society.

At Accenture, he is involved in many of the company’s inclusion and diversity initiatives, such as the Accent on Gender programme and the LGBT Allies programme. He is also a strong advocate of Accenture’s Skills to Succeed programme, which supports young people who want better training in how to apply for and secure jobs.

Describe your role and what you do.

Accenture is a leading global professional services company, providing a broad range of services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations. In my role as country managing director for Accenture Ireland, I am responsible for our business operations across all the functions in this market, spanning a workforce of almost 2,500 employees.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I am always on the move, so I would be lost without technology to help me stay on top of my schedule, stay in touch with people and stay informed. But I am also helped greatly by the people around me, at work and at home. I think it’s very easy to get caught up in being busy, so it’s important to stand back from your schedule weekly to ensure you are focusing on the right priorities. There is so much value in doing this reflection.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Accenture works with Irish and multinational clients across a wide number of industries including financial services, utilities, Government, technology, food, pharma, telecoms and transport, which means we see a wide variety of opportunities and challenges arising. Something common to almost all organisations, though, is helping them figure out how to future-proof their business from a digital point of view.

An example of this could be one of our clients moving to omni-channel so they can capture new audiences and grow their revenue to compete with emerging online-only operators, who don’t have the overheads and commitments arising from property and people.

With the ubiquitous nature of technology (where everybody has at least one device), coupled with the rapid pace of technology development, people are disrupting like never before. As a result, existing businesses need to redefine their business models to become disrupters, not the disrupted.

From an Accenture point of view, we need to be continually focused on where the market is going next, and practise what we preach to clients to help them on their journey. Whether it’s cloud, advanced analytics, digital marketing or artificial intelligence (for example, enabling the workforce of the future), chances are we’re using it in-house so we are confident about the value it can deliver.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

It’s back to digital again! It would be hard for me to think of any sector that doesn’t stand to benefit from ‘going digital’ as, increasingly, that’s where the customers are. That said, for some businesses, going digital is more about improving back-end systems and efficiencies or findings new ways to extract value.

One such way is understanding and enabling our clients to get the most value out of the data that they hold. With the rapid emergence of cloud-based solutions, it’s about helping businesses to capture value, to increase competitiveness and to innovate faster than ever before.

That’s part of the reason why Accenture has established a global network of innovation centres, including The Dock, Accenture’s multidisciplinary research and incubation hub, here in Dublin’s docklands. We want to challenge ourselves, our clients, our partners – and wider society – to think a bit unconventionally and solve society’s biggest problems to find ways to improve the way we live and work using digital technology.

‘Hindsight is a great thing but foresight is even better’

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I joined Accenture as a graduate so I suppose that was the first step towards where I am today, but I never dreamed that I would end up as the country managing director for Ireland. After college, I was very certain about wanting to join Accenture so I succeeded in achieving my first career goal! I was hungry to learn and keen to travel and I knew the company could provide me with these opportunities.

Over time, you come to understand what you like and what you’re good at, which means you become more focused about where you want to get to in your career. My work has taken me around the world over the last three decades and I’m delighted to have returned home to Dublin, where I am extremely proud and very honoured to lead Accenture’s business in Ireland. We have a remarkable team of leaders and what sets us apart is the sheer talent, skills and dedication of our people. It is just extraordinary.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Mistakes are very valuable but can be wasted if you don’t learn from your past experience to help you see what is around the corner. Hindsight is a great thing but foresight is even better! We are increasingly deploying analytics tools for clients to help them mine their historic data to make predictions about the future. I think the same principle applies at a human level.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Firstly, you need to have a level of self-awareness to know what you are good and bad at yourself, and then have the right people in the right place and at the right time around you.

Secondly, as a team, you should have a common agreed view, a common set of values and a purpose for the team. Having a clear purpose is what business is all about.

Finally, while everyone has their own goals and objectives to work towards, what we do for our clients every day is a team sport that we all participate in together.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

This is a topic I’m very passionate about personally, but it’s also a major priority for us as a business and has been for several years now. Accenture is a global organisation in every sense of the word and we have people of many different skills, nationalities and backgrounds working with us here in Ireland (just as we have Irish colleagues working in other locations around the globe). We honestly believe a diversity of views and experiences helps us understand our clients and do a better job for them, so we have a vested interest in there being a diverse talent pool to build our workforce.

The industry needs to get behind the promotion of STEM careers and the value of diversity, and of a gender-balanced workforce. I am very proud to say that we are approaching 2,500 employees working at Accenture in Ireland in STEM careers, and more than 43pc of them are women. We are members of the 30pc Club, for example, and work with them to better gender balance at all career levels.

We didn’t achieve this overnight – we recognised a long time ago that we would have to make a concerted effort to support and encourage women and, through various programmes and policies, we’ve been able to make some very positive progress.

In the same way that we put a dedicated focus on achieving gender diversity, we have also been increasing our efforts to promote STEM careers. A few years ago, we conducted research, with the support of Silicon Republic and others, to try and get a better understanding of why girls and young women weren’t considering STEM careers. Since that time, we have been heavily involved in trying to advance this cause through our ‘Girls in STEM’ programmes, led by one of our very passionate MDs, Paula Neary, who herself has a background in electronic engineering and was recently appointed as our inclusion and diversity lead for our health and public service business around the world. Another one of our outstanding leaders, Hilary O’Meara, also leads inclusion and diversity in our resources business across Europe, Africa and Latin America.

Who is your role model and why?

I am lucky to work with extraordinary leaders every day. Throughout the course of my career, four or five MDs stood out to me beyond all measure. If I took a blank canvas and sketched a drawing, my role model would be all of their best traits combined.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

To be honest, I don’t read books and much prefer to consume information and data from the likes of Twitter. I enjoy the concise nature of Twitter and can click through to get more in-depth knowledge of a particular topic. I typically follow leading media outlets (Silicon Republic included), global leaders and sports handles. I enjoy an unhealthy amount of sporting-related facts and information! Aside from Twitter, I listen to TED Talks Radio and love documentaries on the natural world.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Besides the morning DART commute and my cup of coffee, it is the energy and passion of the team around me in the business, locally and globally, that gets me through my week. My radiant, long-suffering family are also there for me each and every day. In terms of technology, my phone is my window to the world and is truly essential to help me get my job done.

Alastair Blair will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

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