Kathleen O'Reilly | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Kathleen O'Reilly


Headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, Accenture is a global professional services company that combines experience and specialized skills across more than 40 industries to provide solutions in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations. With a presence in more than 120 countries, Accenture partners with about three-quarters of the Fortune Global 500.

The Mistake:

Earlier in my career with Accenture, as I was developing new relationships with potential clients, I felt like I needed to constantly prove myself to establish credibility. At one point, I was asked to develop our relationship with a large media and communications company in the U.S., so we could see how we could help support them at a time when they were facing a lot of changes. It was a bit of a cold call situation, and I figured I should start at the top – the chief operating officer – so I started those discussions and dutifully prepared myself for our upcoming meetings.

I probably had three or four 30- to 60-minute-long meetings where I went in with a very structured approach, with PowerPoint presentations like: “This is how we understand your industry, your company, and your business.”

I really wasn’t understanding what was most important to him because I was so focused on being prepared that I wasn’t ready to go out on a limb and say, “I have years of knowledge and experience, let’s just have a discussion and co-create and innovate together." As a result, the meetings weren’t really going anywhere.

When you take up somebody’s time, especially a very business executive, you want to walk out thinking “that was really worth their time,” and that you really helped them advance their thinking or solve an issue. I had a feeling that the time we were spending together was more valuable to us than it was to them.

You can’t develop a relationship when you’re giving a PowerPoint presentation

The Lesson:

It was after this experience that I ended up spending time with my team in a conference room white-boarding everything we heard from the meetings, and realized the potential client was facing a big turning point in its ability to maintain its brand in the marketplace. So I called the COO and asked for a fast meeting. When we sat down together, I said, “This is what we think we heard, and this is how we can help and solve your issues.” It was a completely different discussion after that, and the COO said, “That’s what we were waiting to hear.”We signed our first major partnership with them after that.

What I realized was that you can’t be prepared for every scenario that could potentially happen in a meeting. If you have a broad understanding of the industry in which you are working, a good set of ears and an ability to think on your feet with clients, that agility will usually carry you through.

Another thing I learned was that relationships are really at the heart of the matter. Launching into a presentation and having a forgone conclusion gives meetings a transactional element. You can’t develop a relationship when you’re giving a PowerPoint presentation – you have to listen, be able to react, and go in saying, “I know I’ve got the knowledge. Now, let’s talk about how we can innovate.”

I stopped using pages and pages of PowerPoint presentations as a crutch after that.

Follow Accenture on Twitter at @Accenture.

Photo courtesy of Accenture


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