35 Under 35: Sarah Odell, Manager, Talent & Organization Performance, Accenture

SarahOdellBy Cleo Thompson (London), founder of The Gender Blog

British born Sarah Odell began her career in the USA thanks to her youthful prowess with a lacrosse stick. Whilst at school in Surrey, she played for the English youth lacrosse team, was spotted by a US college recruiter, and won a sports scholarship to Vanderbilt University in Tennessee where she studied Human and Organizational Development. This was followed by an MSc from Capella University in Minnesota which in turn enabled her to stay on and work in the US.

“I was very lucky! I started in the US in the telecommunications industry in learning and development, spending seven years with Sprint Nextel, primarily working to develop Learning & Development capabilities in its contact centres and delivering training to its employees all over the country.

“In 2007, I moved back to the UK with Accenture, and I now provide Learning & Development consultancy for clients in the fast-moving consumer goods industry. It’s the full cycle of consultancy, from building relationships with current and existing clients through to delivering strategic and operational services.”

Pride and Achievements

She continued, “I’m very proud of the learning initiatives that I’ve implemented for large organisations, for example – completing the merger of two large tel-cos. I led the transformation work to train the contact centre staff of the new organisation, who were dispersed around the world. Culturally, this was very challenging because we were working with large teams in India, the Philippines and the United States. But it was my launch pad into consultancy.

“I’m also proud to be a contributor to improving female participation in Accenture’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. We launched co-coaching and provided access to organisations such as the Gay Women’s Network, which I co-chaired in 2010 and which helps gay women to network across industries. I believe networks like the GWN are so important to helping gay women to connect with one another. In the US, I was only out to my team but in the UK, I’m out to everyone.

“When I started my career, I wish I had known earlier that there were initiatives to increase and retain female numbers within organisations; I didn’t realise how important it was to get to know strong women. I floundered a little, trying to find my place within my prior employers and it was only when I arrived at Accenture that I began to appreciate how useful networks such as Accenture’s women’s network, Accent on Women can be.”

Next steps for Accenture’s networks

Odell is also on the steering committee of her employer’s LGBT network: Accent on LGBT. Accenture came in at 15 in this year’s Stonewall Workplace Equality Index and Odell described the company works very hard to integrate the LGBT group’s activities with those of Accent on Women, by running events such as workshops for women on authentic leadership.

Her enthusiasm is infectious, as she describes Accenture’s networks as being “… very mature; there’s lots of excitement around the LGBT network and we’re now trying to raise awareness by launching a “Straight Allies” programme. This provides sponsors within each function who serve as ambassadors and mentors for LGBT issues, cascading information on policies and serving as a bridge between the straight and the LGBT communities. The programme’s strap line is “I can’t be out but I’m in” and we hope to make it a global programme over time. We launch later this month at an event with Stonewall.”

Issues and barriers

“I’m very interested in encouraging women to enter and progress through the consulting industry. It’s important to explain that success here isn’t just about expertise but just as much about relationships.

“Consulting can have something of an “Old Boys Network” but women need to know that it can also be a safe environment in which they can be promoted.”

Asked for her advice to other women, Odell is quick to suggest that younger women at an early stage in their careers should “Dig into your networks both internally and externally; take opportunities when offered or find your own – seek them out. Men tend to be very good at creating a five or ten year plan – women need to get to be as good at this. Make a plan and find your sweet spot. Think about where you want to go and how you’re going to get there.”

Similarly, she urges senior women to serve as role models, suggesting, “Some women don’t feel they’re suitable [role models], but they are. Younger women want to learn from the success of other women, how they balance their lives. For those who may be reluctant, we need you to stand up and say out loud that you want to be a role model and that you will support younger women.”

Giving back

Although a knee injury means that Odell no longer plays lacrosse, she keeps fit by participating in triathlons and describes her biggest hobby as fund raising for organisations such as the Albert Kennedy Trust and VSO Voluntary Services Overseas, for whom she recently completed a fund raising cycle ride.

“I’m passionate about helping these charities – I’ve been very lucky and I want to give something back.”