Discovering Change Management at Accenture was a revelation that shaped Elke’s career. As Head of Talent Acquisition EMEA at Microsoft, she is an acknowledged thought leader and pioneer of innovative and people-centric talent management approaches.

Elke’s career path:

  • 1985-1990: Master’s in Commercial Engineering – Solvay Business School
  • 1990-2006: Accenture BeLux – from IT Analyst to HR Director Resources (Global, EMEA & LATAM, Benelux & France) & Staffing Director France & Benelux
  • 2006-present: Microsoft – currently Senior Director, Head of Talent Acquisition EMEA & member of the Accenture Alumni Board

Why did you choose Accenture to start your career?

I remember many companies coming to present at Solvay Business School, including Arthur Andersen and the then Andersen Consulting. Audit was definitely not my cup of tea. The more holistic approach of consulting (variety of projects, mixing management, science, marketing and technology) was more appealing and matched my mindset. The big decider was the company culture. I was interviewed by other companies and found their culture rather rigid. Accenture people were the kind of personalities I was attracted to and could relate to. 

When did you discover Change Management?

Until the early 1990s, the concept of Change Management did not exist! However, liberalization of the telecom market in Belgium was just around the corner and the RTT (predecessor to Belgacom/Proximus) wanted to transform to be ready. Back then, when you moved to a new house, you had to wait three months to have a telephone installed. Not very competitive! Accenture was tasked with reducing that waiting time to three days. The project involved lots of different capabilities but the biggest challenge we discovered was that when you change stuff, it impacts people. That was a revelation to me! 

What are your outstanding memories of that time?

We worked closely with Accenture France on the RTT project. One of our French managers was incredibly driven, dedicated and determined to have an impact. He worked 24/7 for two years. Working breakfasts at 05:00 were a regular occurrence. He was a great person and I learned a lot from him. Although it’s an exaggerated example, I think it is a true indication of what differentiates Accenture. This determination to make a difference is something all Accenture people have in common. 

Later on, in an internal role as recruiting manager, I wanted to industrialize and scale the graduate recruiting process, which at the time was pretty much person-by-person. Since we had to hire 100s of graduates, that was way too slow. Of course, the technologies we use today did not exist. I rented a large theatre venue on Boulevard Adolphe Max in Brussels to host a recruiting event for 500 graduates. We were busy handing printed forms for students to complete in one hour when we discovered that the pages had been stapled in the wrong order! Our entire team immediately joined forces to un-staple and re-order the forms. A great example of the unique can-do mentality of Accenture people! And in the end, the event was a success. 

How did all these experiences define your next career steps?

They were all about managing and guiding talent. At Accenture I learned to focus on business objectives, context and data; to focus on what we wanted to achieve, the broader industry and market context, and overall business strategy. This way of thinking differentiated me in my next career steps. The ability to always see the bigger picture. I strongly believe you cannot design a good solution in isolation. “So what?” was the question we always asked at Accenture. It’s my most valuable takeaway.

What milestones stand out from your first years at Microsoft?

When I became HR Director for Microsoft Belgium & Luxembourg, I worked with someone who was very knowledgeable about the impact leadership vulnerability can have on an organization. This was exceptional at the time. By vulnerability, I mean not always having all the answers as a leader, showing weakness, asking for help, being open and transparent. I strongly believe that to have the right impact as a team, you need trust and the right level of connection. 

We designed an immersive training program for all Microsoft managers on how to build connections and ran it for the next two years. It resulted in a very different way of working. Based on the concept of family, we introduced the principle of brothers and sisters, because you don’t edit what you say to siblings. As adults, we tend to adapt our communication style, especially in professional environments. A lot goes unsaid or is said in a different way. This training helped to overcome that. In parallel, we applied the same training to a group of change agents (not management level). Their role was to flag things that were not aligned with our core values. They had the mandate to speak up and challenge the leadership. It was risky, but it worked.

By 2014, the outside world had changed, bringing new competitors and new technologies. To address this burning platform, our new CEO introduced the growth mindset. This was closely linked to the cultural change I had introduced in Belgium and Luxembourg back in 2006, only now it was at global level. For me, it really confirms how important company culture is, not only for the people working there but also for its long-term success.

Now you are a global Head of Talent Acquisition. What do you believe will be key to engaging and retaining the workforce of the future?

There has been a fundamental shift in the way we look at careers. It’s not just about salary. A career has become more about personal development. And as a company, you need to have purpose and relevance beyond making a profit. You need to be interested in having an impact in other areas such as education, emerging markets, third world, the environment... I honestly believe all people, regardless of whether they are experienced or fresh from university, are looking for that relevance. And if you don’t have a culture where people are rewarded for collaboration, experimentation, or if failure is not an option, people will leave. 

What do you look for in future Microsoft talent?

Above and beyond knowledge and experience, we look for a growth mindset and a willingness to learn. People who are ready to try, fail fast, change fast, who are open to collaborate and seek advice. People who are able to say, “I don’t know but I’m going to look for the answer”. Having a degree is great. But due to digitalization, things change so fast that three months down the line, there are new developments. At Microsoft, we offer many learning opportunities and certification is open to everyone, not just product designers. It has become the new currency. Companies need to provide the possibility for their people to continuously learn. If not, this will impact their jobs and ultimately the business. 

How will technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) impact the human workforce? 
Automation of certain tasks such as administration is a good thing. I believe value jobs will remain. Of course, no one is 100% sure which jobs will be impacted, but I’m convinced AI will lift up all jobs to deliver more interesting output. Which is why company culture is so important. That’s the part AI and automation cannot do. The culture, purpose and core values of a company must be rock solid. Otherwise people will automate in an unethical way.

Have you introduced special initiatives to foster diversity and an inclusive working environment? 

Diversity and inclusion are not only good for our business and morally right; they are also important for digitalization. For example, if the only a small group of likeminded individuals design algorithms, then the output will not be inclusive. Our customers represent the whole of society. Our products must serve the whole of society. Whatever you build, don’t build it for lookalikes.

At the end of 2018, we launched an adaptive controller for the X-Box gaming console for the disabled. We could do this because we have disabled colleagues on the design team. In Microsoft 365, there are features for people with limited sight or concentration problems. All of this is part of the Microsoft mission and purpose. But we need to include these people in our teams to achieve it. 

We also have clear strategies to attract more women. This target group is not so abundant in STEM subjects. But today, my team now uses technology to show the business the market availability for a specific profile. If that availability is only 4% of women, then we advise them to change the profile to attract more women. Working with data on market availability has made a huge difference. Many business leaders don’t understand why a person would not apply to their company or that recruiting is not trying hard enough. Sharing data generates a different dialogue and has a different impact. We can present real people behind availability. And at Microsoft, when we want to reach a particular person, we involve the business in contacting them. We agree a plan, we assess together. It’s no longer a case of what we think; it’s what we know. By truly engaging with available talent, we gain 360° perspective on every solution we design.

Looking back a decade or so ago, women were not considered aggressive enough to work in sales. Today, the tables have turned. Women sell products extremely efficiently, just in another way. They have a more solution-oriented mindset; they care about what the customer wants.

What keeps you passionate about what your role? 

Talent Acquisition at Microsoft is not an order taking role. The company culture and transformation, the burning platform a few years ago, all made Talent Acquisition very relevant. We had to find different, new profiles, also for the cloud. Whether Microsoft would be successful or not depended on the people. Talent Acquisition also had to change, to use data and work closely with the business. Our approach changed but that does not necessarily mean the talent we need is there. We needed to reinvent, innovate, try new approaches and technologies. This has made us thought leaders in the talent acquisition space. 

Do you have time for any passions outside work? 

Two years ago, together with 10 friends, I started a non-profit called GO!4it (acronym for Gemeenschapsonderwijs voor een Inclusieve Toekomst). The aim of our initiative is to help pupils who are struggling at school. This was based on our personal experiences and we decided to scale this. Today we work with primary schools in three cities in Flanders and with 30 volunteer tutors. They teach kids with problems, either because they can’t speak the language properly or for other reasons, for one hour per week after school hours in Dutch, French and mathematics, because we believe these subjects are the foundation for all other subjects. Next year we intend to scale to seven schools. It’s a small effort that pays off big time for these children. If any alumni would be interested in volunteering as a tutor, feel free to contact me!

As a member of the Accenture Alumni Board, what is your ambition for the network?

Once Accenture, always Accenture is a well-established fact. I think we can reach out to any former colleague, at any moment in time, for anything. It’s a given. As a member of the Alumni Board, I’m trying to scale this up to reach even more alumni. There is still so much untapped potential!

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