Accenture's UK&I HRD on what's kept her in HR

Candida Mottershead has been with Accenture more than two decades, but HR at the firm still stretches her

There aren’t many leaders with a 23-year tenure at the same organisation under their belts. In fact today a UK worker changes employer on average every five years, according to LV= research.

But there’s a few exceptions: Alex Ferguson, former Manchester United manager, whose 26-year reign at the football club came to an end in 2013... Ursula Burns, a US businesswoman who started her career at Xerox as an intern before becoming chairman and CEO... And Candida Mottershead, HR director UK and Ireland at Accenture.

Yet, by her own admission, Mottershead hasn’t had the most “conventional” path to the top of HR at the firm.

“I started many many moons ago as a legal assistant, then I worked for an estate agent. And then I decided I wanted to work for a big corporate in London so I came to Accenture as an EA,” she recalls.

To then stay at the company for 23 years (and counting) wasn’t something she predicted when she joined back in 1997. “Like many people I thought I’d stay for a couple of years, but I’ve been given so many opportunities to do different things and work in different areas.”

Fast-forward to today – and various client-facing and HR roles later – and she now leads the HR team across the UK and Ireland, a role she has occupied since May 2016. As one of the world’s leading professional services companies Accenture has a global workforce of around 480,000, providing services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations to clients worldwide. In the UK and Ireland Mottershead’s 250-strong HR team oversees a workforce of 15,000.

“Ultimately for HR it’s all about us supporting the business to support our people to be able to support our clients – that’s what we’re here for,” she says.

It’s not without its challenges, Mottershead concedes, given the range of “characters” who work across the numerous business divisions. “We go the whole breadth of the spectrum for clients from strategy to consulting on a transformation right through to running parts of clients’ organisations for them, so we have a diverse workforce,” she says.

Another challenge comes in the nature of the work that many of them do.

“The majority of employees are client facing so they’re out in client sites. For some projects an employee could be working inside a client organisation for a year, working on the client’s systems not ours, so they won’t check their Accenture emails regularly and know what’s going on,” she says. “So we have to make sure we’re connecting with our people wherever they’re working .”

A network called Life At has been introduced to help build these connections with employees on the ground. Managed by the human capital and diversity team within HR, it maintains communication with staff so they feel a sense of belonging to Accenture even when working off -site for a client.

Creating a sense of belonging has been a key priority for Mottershead since she took the helm. HR had already done “a huge amount on D&I so the foundations were already laid”, she says. But her appointment coincided with the organisation making the bold commitment to have a 50/50 gender balance globally by 2025.

“It’s about helping everyone belong, and if big corporates like us don’t make those big steps then it’s harder for others – we have to lead,” she says.

Diversity and inclusion is something Mottershead is especially passionate about as a single mother of two young girls.

“Part of my drive is for them as I want them to be successful women in their own way. So what I do at work I’m keen for them to see,” she says. “I want them to see that women can be successful and happy and have a good family life.”

Mottershead shares her personal concerns that there is still some way to go before organisations and wider society get this gender balance right. “Even now my children come back from school and say ‘this boy said girls can’t do that’ and I have to try to stay calm. We need to stop it – as these aren’t the next generation entering work, that’s the next next generation where [inequality] will still exist.”

This passion has translated into a focus on gender diversity in recruitment for entry-level roles.

“If we get the balance right at the bottom of the pyramid it should flow through over time,” she says. “We’ve implemented a new graduate recruitment approach with VR and contextualised recruitment to create a level playing field.”

This contextualised recruitment has involved building profiles of people who are successful in Accenture and looking for their attributes in the selection process, rather than for conventional criteria such as A-Level grades or degree backgrounds. “Someone might have three Bs from a not very good school and someone else might have three As from a good school, so it’s about putting them on a level playing field as actually the person with three Bs might have better attributes.”

There’s also a focus on apprenticeships, with the firm’s programme in Newcastle kicking off before the levy was rolled out.

Then there’s been a shift to bring in more women at senior levels. The executive team in the UK and Ireland now stands at around 40% female.

Mottershead explains that this poses a bigger challenge than at the junior end.

“Particularly when we’re looking for experienced hires it can be more difficult, so that’s when it’s important to be an inclusive organisation to encourage people to join us as well,” she says.

While Mottershead admits that gender has tended to come first on the D&I agenda she’s quick to point out it’s “not everything”. She’s also turned her hand to rolling out mental health allies, staff networks, and running specific events with the African and Caribbean Network. Targets around ethnic diversity aren’t in place yet, but amid calls for ethnicity pay gap reporting Mottershead feels it could be around the corner. Given that organisations have more readily-available data on gender than ethnicity she says it’s something “we’ll need to think how to manage going forwards”.

“Targets are difficult as if we don’t set targets we haven’t got anything to anchor to, but then sometimes strict targets can defeat what you’re trying to do.”

Alongside more targeted initiatives, are D&I efforts that have touched all employees, such as a ‘Inclusion starts with I’ recruitment video. This featured employees from across the organisation sharing their personal stories of when and why they felt they didn’t belong in certain situations. The team “didn’t expect it to take off as it did”, says Mottershead. What started as an internal video grew to an external recruitment tool and is now something employees consult clients on.

Again firsthand experience is a key driver for Mottershead. “As a single working mum I sometimes fear turning up at school and standing in the playground as I don’t do it often, so I feel I don’t belong with the other parents,” she says. “Talk to anybody and there’s always some situation where they feel they don’t belong. If people are open about it, it’s so powerful as it helps us understand each other.”

Belonging will only become more important as the organisation competes for more diverse skills in future and as employees switch jobs more often in their working lives, Mottershead feels.

“What we need to get comfortable with is that most people aren’t going to stay in one place for 20 years now, so we need to think about how work will be in the future and give people opportunities to be flexible.”

It’s a bold statement for someone in their third decade at the same firm. Mottershead laughs at the irony: “I’ve been one of those people who has hung around.”

But she’s adamant that, when done for the right reasons, this can be the best career path.

“Throughout my career as long as I’ve been learning and been stretched it’s worked. Right now I’m still learning and when it comes to the point where I feel I’ve plateaued then it will be time to move on to something else. But I’m not at that point now – I’ve still got the whole of the UK and Ireland to look after.”

Mottershead shares her personal philosophy with HR magazine: ‘any good leader knows there’s always more to be done’. And suddenly it all makes sense.

This piece appears in the December 2019 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk