Headshot of Jill Standish, Head of Retail for Accenture.
Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group. — Accenture

3 critical lessons learned from mentors, according to Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group:

  • When stepping into a new leadership role, take your time before setting a strategy. “Never forget that you need time to think,” says Standish.
  • “If you give someone little shoes, they’ll fill them. But if you give them big shoes, they might just fill those too,” she says. “So give that person big shoes to fill and help them be what you need them to be.”
  • In business, recognize that it’s OK to move on. “Don’t ever feel stuck or feel like you have to stay at a company,” Standish says. “It’s so important to never get sour, to accept when you need to move on, and to always be willing to look ahead to the next opportunity.”

Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group, leads digital and physical store transformation projects for global retailers.

For Standish, who serves on boards including the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and turns up on industry lists like Women’s Wear Daily’s “Top 20 Women Leaders in Business,” the wisdom of mentors — from her fifth-generation farmer grandfather to Accenture’s former Chief Executive of Products — informs all facets of her work.

Here, Standish tells CO— how she’s summoned mentors’ philosophies and practical advice (“give people big shoes to fill”), to lead teams and score business wins, including repositioning Accenture’s retail practice throughout COVID-19 to become “very powerful in the market,” while discovering along the way that “maybe the most important lesson is humility.”

CO—: Who is your mentor and why?

JS: I don’t think I could name only one! At different times in my life and in my career, I’ve been inspired and supported and counseled by so many different people. My grandfather taught me how important it is to love what you do. And then there’s my dad, who helped me pick a career that was right for me.

I could talk about the people who helped me when I first joined Accenture, like Maurice Biriotti [CEO of business services firm SHM], who was an inspiration in crafting a positive message for the retail market, and Sander van't Noordende [Accenture’s former Chief Executive of Products], who was so influential in helping me understand the importance of taking your time before setting a strategy. I could also talk about people like Bernardus Holtrop at [executive leadership firm] Mobius, who has given me some fantastic leadership advice in the past.

Plus, of course, I’d have to mention my friends and colleagues who provide essential support and guidance day to day. As a female executive, I think it’s so important to have a tribe of women around you who not only understand your working world but can provide that emotional support as well.

CO—: What were your mentors like?

JS: My grandfather was a fifth-generation farmer and just a wonderful source of wisdom. One of the things he used to say was, ‘Never ever forget that you need time to think.’ And because he spent such a lot of time sitting on a tractor or on a combine, he practiced what he preached. I genuinely believe farmers can be some of the smartest people you ever meet, because they have all this thinking time. And this was true of my grandfather. Yes, he spent his whole life as a farmer in Indiana. But he was also very well read. He knew history. He was always up with politics and current affairs, and so on. So, not only was he a very strong inspiration to me, but he also embodied the lesson about not judging a book by its cover. It’s so important not to get boxed in by your preconceptions about other people.

We’ve all faced those moments in business when we strongly believe that a decision should go one way and someone else thinks it should go the other way. But if you’re at risk of getting dragged into a pothole over those moments — which can mean delaying a decision or slowing a project — you always need to weigh them against just agreeing and moving on.

Jill Standish, Head of Accenture’s Retail Industry Group

CO—: What have you learned from mentors that’s been game-changing to your career and in leading a business?

JS: Sander van't Noordende was my first boss and Chief Executive of Products at Accenture. Before I joined, he found me when I was in a place where I felt like I was getting stuck in my career. And he picked up on that and said to me, ‘Don’t ever feel stuck or feel like you have to stay at a company for a [particular] time.’ That was such an inspirational message. It’s so important to never get sour, to accept when you need to move on, and to always be willing to look ahead to the next opportunity.

Then, in my early days at Accenture, Sander was a great mentor in stepping over potholes. We’ve all faced those moments in business when we strongly believe that a decision should go one way and someone else thinks it should go the other way. But if you’re at risk of getting dragged into a pothole over those moments — which can mean delaying a decision or slowing a project — you always need to weigh them against just agreeing and moving on. Don’t sweat the small stuff, in other words.

Another of Sander’s influences has been the wisdom of taking your time. When you join a new organization in a senior leadership role, you often have an instinct about what you need to do, especially if you’re looking to prove yourself to your new team. But there’s so much value in taking a beat, so you can get to know the people and get to know the business.

That approach really helped me. I joined Accenture in 2016 and spent the first six months traveling and getting to know everybody. This process of listening, learning, being inquisitive, was absolutely the right thing to do before setting my strategy. And guess what? We took something that needed a reinvention, we rethought the client portfolio, our acquisitions, our messaging to the market, and we quickly saw the positive impact it had on the business. It worked!

[Read: Microsoft’s VP of Worldwide Retail on the Imprint of Her Mentors]

CO—: How has a mentor informed how you lead?

JS: [Mobius’] Bernardus Holtrop gave me some great advice about leadership. One time I was getting frustrated because a leader had been appointed to my team and I wasn’t sure they had the right background for what we needed them to do. And Bernardus said something which has stayed with me ever since: ‘If you give someone little shoes, they’ll fill them. But if you give them big shoes, they might just fill those too. So give that person big shoes to fill and help them be what you need them to be.’

By flipping it around like this, Bernardus helped me see that I’d been getting it all wrong. I needed to do everything to help this person be successful. In fact, it was my job to do that. Because everyone deserves the opportunity to fill big shoes. It’s so important to remember that.

CO—: What’s a recent strategy you successfully spearheaded at Accenture that reflects the imprint of a mentor?

JS: When I first joined Accenture, there was a perception out there that the whole retail industry wasn’t in a great place. The tone was that it was the “retail apocalypse.” And I probably felt a bit of that too. But early on, I met Maurice Biriotti and he said to me, ‘Jill, what people need right now is hope. They’ll follow you if you take a positive message to them about how things can be turned around. But they won’t if you’re only focusing on the negatives.’

That was a big influence when it came to putting my stamp on Accenture Retail’s approach to the market. I wanted our message to be clear about getting retailers to rally behind a cause, and saying, ‘Yes, let’s work together toward a better future for the whole of this industry.’ You can see this in the way we developed campaigns like Accenture’s Retail with Purpose and then our Responsible Reset narrative. And I think that approach has been completely vindicated, especially when we then hit the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. This reframing of retail strategy from being somewhat defensive and reactive to being much more positive and hopeful was absolutely right for the time and has been very powerful in the market.

[Read: Starbucks’ Chief Diversity Officer on the Game-Changing Imprint of Her Mentor]

CO—: Complete this sentence: Had I not met X, I likely never would have...

JS: If I think about all I’ve learned from these mentors, maybe the most important lesson is humility. When you’re starting out in your career, it can be tempting to think it’s all about you— the choices you make, the decisions you make, and so on. But what you come to realize is that it’s actually about everyone around you. And as a leader, helping those people is how you help your company and yourself. You can only be successful if your team is successful. So it’s about staying humble and being super authentic and bringing other people along with you on that journey.

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Published July 19, 2022