Breaking the glass ceiling is never easy. The rod to the top is often studded with speed bumps from the word go. When Rekha M. Menon topped the 1981 batch of the then Xavier Labour Relations Institute (now renamed Xavier School of management), she found it extremely hard to get a job because “the biggest and the best companies of that time were apprehensive about hiring women”. After graduating, she wanted to work at a fast-moving consumer goods company but could not because it did not have a programme for women.

Menon then joined erstwhile heavy vehicle manufacturer Eicher Goodearth followed by truck-maker Ashok Leyland where she was the first woman on the shop floor. Once again, it was a man’s world: She soon realised there was no provision for a washroom for women there because the entire workforce was made of men. “I had to hop into my manager’s jeep and run to his house whenever nature called,” she remembers.

Those days are long gone and today Menon is driving the future of the Indian unit of one of the world’s leading global consulting and services firms: Accenture. The most interesting thing about the no-nonsense 60-year-old chairman and senior managing director of Accenture in India, is that it’s never “I” but always “We” in any discussion about the company’s achievements over the past 15 years. She joined the Indian office of the now $41-billion Accenture plc way back in 2004 and has since ramped up the company’s digital push as it prepares for a radically different future. And that’s why she’s on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in business list at No. 16, the ninth time she makes the prestigious annual list.

Thanks to this digital transformation, Accenture in India is no longer seen as just a back-office operation that got work done at cheaper rates. But it offers a wide range of services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology, and operations to some of the most reputed and blue-chip companies in India. It effectively competes not only with Indian IT heavyweights like Infosys and Wipro but also global consulting firms like IBM and McKinsey—and Menon can take much of the credit for this transformational journey.

But ask Bengaluru-based Menon, one of few women to lead an IT and consulting firm, about the inflection points in her Accenture in India journey and she is quick to retort it was her team that made those achievements possible. “When everybody said that a multinational company like Accenture could not do what Indian pure-play players like Infosys, Wipro had done, we went ahead and successfully set up delivery centres,” she adds, with a hint of pride. Delivery centres provide technological innovation services to clients in India and abroad. “From a cost play, we had moved to become an expert play because of our talent, capabilities, and the new software programming coming out of India.”

Another inflection point was the transformation of the firm into a digital entity by focussing on new areas of growth such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, blockchain, cloud, security-related services, and the Internet of Things. These changes were reflected in the company’s tagline, which changed from “High Performance Delivered” to “New Applied Now”. The company also set up a new group called “Digital” as part of its plan to provide end-to-end solutions for all services ranging from strategy and consulting to digital and technology for its clients. In India, Accenture provides both consulting and IT services to 14 different industries and clients.

And that strategy seems to be paying rich dividends. Menon has made India a critical market for Accenture in global operations. In FY18 (its financial year is from September to August), Accenture’s Indian employees were involved in filing more than 320 patents, compared to 175 in 2014. And more than 60% of its global revenues comes from the new businesses, that include cloud, digital, and security-related services worldwide. Moreover, Accenture’s growth markets, which include India, showed a 15% jump in revenue in FY18 over the previous year.

One benchmark for gauging the economic success of any information technology company or consulting firm is the so-called “book-to-bill ratio”, which essentially means orders received to units dispatched. According to an ICICI equity research report in March, Accenture’s global overall bookings were at a record high in the second quarter of FY19 at $11.8 billion, representing a book-to-bill ratio of 1.13x. Consulting bookings were also at a record high of $6.7 billion with a book-to-bill of 1.16x; outsourcing bookings were at $5.1 billion with a book-to-bill of 1.09x; and digital, cloud, and security constituted 65% of overall bookings.

170,000
Total number of employees in India
40%
Are women
85%
Of skilled people have been reskilled in the past three years

Credit for much of the company’s digital success lies with its decision to measure the revenue being generated from the digital business. “Internally we all cried, screamed, and shouted because in addition to our existing work we also had to show how much business was coming from our digital business. But see where it has got us,” says Menon, an avid cyclist who meditates regularly. “We are never happy with the status quo and are always looking for what’s next.” However, what makes her most proud is the launch of the Accenture Innovation Hub in Bengaluru in 2017, which has some 4,000 people on its rolls. It is one of few companies in the world and the first in India to launch an innovation framework, or “Innovation Architecture”, to help clients understand, experiment, adopt, and quickly scale up with new and emerging technologies. It includes Accenture Research, a team that studies trends and creates data-driven thought leadership about the most pressing issues impacting global organisations.

Once the new trends and concepts crystallise, Accenture Labs incubates and prototypes the new concepts and finds technology solutions to improve their business efficiencies. Then, Accenture Studios works jointly with clients to develop new software and other applications to help in their digital transformation. “Helping clients co-create new software and applications is also beneficial for us because it helps us stay ahead in the innovation curve because we are happy to experiment with new things and learn,” says Menon.

realising that it is near impossible to keep pace with the rapid technological changes, the company decided to set up Accenture Ventures to partner with curated startups working on cutting-edge technologies like applied intelligence and cybersecurity. Once convinced of their ability to scale up, these startups are introduced to their global clients for further growth. The company is currently working with nearly 200 startups. “Not only have we taken a number of startups to our global clients, but we also use them to disrupt our own businesses in order to stay ahead of the competition,” says Menon. And it makes eminent sense for a company that promises to provide end-to-end solutions to 14 different industries, all the way from fast-moving consumer goods companies to auto component makers. “If we get a few structural things right, there is a huge opportunity for us in India alone because we are one of the fastest-growing economies in the world,” Menon adds.

$41 billion
Global revenue in FY18
$44.9-$45.3 billion
Global revenue in FY19
60%+
of revenue came from “New” services such as cloud, digital, and security
15% 
Rise in revenue in the past year from growth markets, which include India.

To stay ahead of the competition, Accenture has taken the mergers and acquisitions route globally. Last year, for instance, the company spent some $658 million on acquisitions worldwide, and in the first quarter of this year, it made nine acquisitions worth $200 million. Why the acquisitions spree? There could be a host of reasons, Menon explains, from intellectual property rights on certain products to getting a foothold in some niche businesses, or developing new capabilities that would either take time or be extremely difficult to build.

For instance, realising that the creative edge was missing from its portfolio, the firm acquired a number of creative boutiques like San Francisco-based design and innovation firm MATTER and a creative marketing company called Wire Stone from the U.S., but allowed them to remain independent entities so as not to lose their creative edge. “We knew about mining data, brand and marketing strategies, the cloud journey, etc., but lacked the creative edge. With these acquisitions, we have become the largest Internet advertising company in the world,” says Menon. Similarly, to bolster its high-end security solutions, Accenture in India recently acquired Israeli cybersecurity company Maglan, because firms providing high-end security systems are not available in India. “The company’s plan is rather simple: identify the gaps in the organisation and fill it with the best worldwide talents.”

So, how does having a consultancy and technology arm help Accenture get an edge over others? Having domain experts in various fields and technology experts help it provide customised solutions to clients on making their organisations more efficient and cost-effective, while the technology team provides the best technology solutions. “And then if the company wants, we can run it for them or they can do it themselves. We give them all kinds of solutions and not necessarily force them to take all the solutions,” says Menon.

No wonder, most of her long-term colleagues hold her in high regard. Says Rajeev Chopra, managing director and head of legal at Accenture in India and a person who has worked with her for more than 12 years: “Rekha has this incredible ability to understand and to adapt to changes—whether they are fluctuating industry priorities, client needs or the demands from our own people. She’s passionate about the Accenture brand and its innovation potential, and is committed to ethical and responsible leadership.” Adds Sanjay Dawar, capability network India lead, products global capability network lead, Accenture, who has worked with her for 15 years: “Rekha always leads from the front, and what makes her an exceptional leader is her inclusive and collaborative nature that carries everyone along.

This story was originally published in the September 15-December 14 special issue of the magazine.

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