Online Extra: A Long, Strange Trip For Accenture's CEO

Grateful Dead fan William Green didn't take the typical road to the top. Now that he's there, he's still blazing trails

On Sept. 1, Accenture (ACN ) named William D. Green its new chief executive. Green takes over from Joe W. Forehand, an Alabama native who will remain as chairman. Although Green is a 26-year Accenture lifer who joined after getting his MBA at Babson College, he's not your typical suit. The son of a plumber, Green was the first child in his family to attend college. Rather than carry a briefcase, he slings a backpack over the broad shoulders of his imposing 6-foot, 3-inch frame.

In his new role, Green is betting big on an audacious new vision called "high-performance business." The idea is to use Accenture's business and tech knowhow to help clients become superstars in their respective industries.

When he's not working, Green likes to savor life with family and friends. In the winter, he enjoys carving turns on Vermont's ski slopes with his wife and two children. During the summer, he heads out to his house on Cape Cod, where he keeps several boats. "He's a great sailer," says best friend Gary Conroy. "Anything he does, he pretty much excels at and masters."

And all year round, Green is a rabid music fan. "I'm a guitar-god guy. I like Jimi, I like Eric, I like Jerry," says Green. "You have to see Hendrix at Fillmore East, you have to see the [Grateful] Dead at Red Rocks, and you have to see Clapton at Prince Albert Hall." BusinessWeek Computer Editor Spencer E. Ante conducted the first series of interviews with Green since he took the reins of the $13 billion technology-services giant. Here are edited excerpts from their conversations:

Q: Why are you championing this new high-performance business strategy?


We know all of our competitors want to be more like us. We need to be gone when they get there. In order to be gone, there's this continual reinvention. The company will continue to find those areas where it can help clients differentiate. To be relevant to clients, we're going to have to have deeper insights than we've ever had. It's going to be tremendously important to our future.

Q: Competition is heating up in the tech-services market, with IBM (IBM ) making strong moves, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) getting into the game, and Indian players swimming upstream. How will you keep your edge?


We have an opportunity to put distance between us and our competitors by continuing to enhance the innovative nature of what we do. Our proposals will include industry leverage and insights that no one has, and levers that make it happen. And we'll have to be more aligned with their success than we've ever been.

Q: After high school you took off a year to work in the construction industry. And then you enrolled in a small two-year school called Dean College in Franklin, Mass. How did you choose it?


I'm a simple guy from a simple place. Dean College was probably the most important thing in my life at that time. It's a very unique school that takes ordinary folks and can make extraordinary contributors out of them. I continue to follow what I learned there. They educate, they energize, and they inspire. It got you interested in learning. It taught you that there's a big world out there.

I still have my notes from [economics professor] Charlie Kramer's class. That's how huge that was. One time he taught us about the economics of heroin addiction and the theory that if you provide heroin, we'll have less crime. So I took Charlie's idea and wrote it into an economics paper at Babson and they flunked me. No sense of humor at all.

Q: What was your first job at Accenture?


It was General Dynamics' (GD ) Electric Boat division in Groton, Conn. I came into the office, and the senior partner at the time said, "You've got a construction background, you're a big guy, you'd be great at Electric Boat."

I had a relationship there for 12 years. They had contracts for 688-class submarines and just got contracts for the Trident sub. The Trident is almost 600 feet long, weighs 18,000 tons, has 750,000 parts numbers, cost a couple billion. It was frighteningly hard to build -- the most complex contracting and engineering environment in the industry. To this day, I've never had a more challenging assignment. It was baptism by fire.

Q: How do you become a leader at Accenture?


I say there are three things that really matter here. Competence. Being excellent at something. Confidence. The confidence to articulate a point of view to clients. And then there's caring. That may sound a little soft, but we're a people-company extraordinaire.

Q: How did you expand the high-tech group from $2.5 billion in 1999 to $3.5 billion in 2003 during the tech bust?


We pretty much grew it consistently through that time. It came out a very different business than when it went in. One year, 16 or 17 of our clients went bankrupt. I don't mean little clients. I mean big clients. We had a choice. We could either be $1.5 billion or $3.5 billion. In order to do $3.5 billion, we had to do things differently.

We moved very aggressively into outsourcing. We moved very aggressively into outcomes-based propositions. We moved very aggressively into new and adjacent markets. Our telco guys are in Argentina -- what do you do? You go to Chile.

The most important thing for Accenture is we need to fight every day to be relevant to our clients. We had to read the tea leaves and change our offerings. To rationalization, cost improvement, simplification.

Q: What's your strategy as it relates to offshore operations?


What's good for our clients is consistent service around the globe. Competency is good. The third thing is the cost of providing service. We've always had a global delivery network. Having a global delivery network is a differentiator. We continue to enhance it. We don't take jobs and move them to lower-cost locales.

Q: Does Accenture need to make any big acquisitions to maintain its competitiveness?


We don't believe winning will be about scale for the sake of scale. Eighty-seven percent of deals in this industry fail. We've looked at a lot of opportunities. We haven't found anything that makes strategic and economic sense. We see opportunities, though, to expand geographic presences. There's a lot more we want to do in certain areas of business-process outsourcing.

Q: Your most recent earnings announcement confused investors, and your stock fell sharply. What happened?


We had a terrific quarter and a terrific year. In hindsight, we could have done a better job of communicating. At the end of the day, when the guidance was reported after the third quarter, it was very preliminary. Plus, the new numbers more accurately reflect the impact of currency.

Q: One analyst says because of the miscommunication, you're starting out in the penalty box.


I don't believe it's a challenge, but if they think it is, I accept it.

Q: Some employees are grumbling on message boards that Accenture partners "have made out like bandits laughing all the way to the bank." What do you say to them?


It's all relative to the times you're in. We were yielding on behalf of our investors. We have to get market-relevant compensation to our people. We have a very open discussion about it. Investors, employees, partners is the priority list. It was very important to me [that] we paid the variable compensation component [to our people].

Q: How did nonpartners, who make up 95% of the company, fare?


Our fiscal year 2005 compensation increased across the globe -- 4% to 5%. You got anywhere from 0% to 20%-plus, depending on your performance. We had meaningful compensation increases. In an improving economy it's important. Exciting work is priority No. 1, training is priority No. 2.

Q: Five years from now, what will Accenture look like?


Five years from now, we don't even know what we're going to be. The possibilities are endless.

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