The Big Interview: Sacha Romanovitch

Grant Thornton’s CEO talks to BDLN about what inspires her and how a new clarity of purpose is driving her firm forward…

Sacha Romanovitch was announced as CEO elect at Grant Thornton UK in December 2014, becoming the first woman to lead a major UK accountancy firm. In May 2015, BDLN founder John Maffioli visited Sacha’s office to talk about her vision, ethos and why it’s so rare for women to take leading roles in UK accountancy.

John Maffioli:
“All professional services firms seem to say they’re different. Grant Thornton is no exception. What makes your firm unique?”

Sacha Romanovitch:

“Our point of difference is our clarity of purpose. In 2012 we changed our tagline from ‘audit tax advisory services’ to ‘an instinct for growth’ to articulate that our focus is firmly on unlocking growth for dynamic organisations.

“By fuelling growth we’re fulfilling our wider mission of taking a lead in shaping a vibrant global economy in a world where things are changing fundamentally as we move from the knowledge era to the social era, against a background of constant innovation.

“We’ve arrived at a place where we think, actually, there’s a part we can play here. We can be the go-to firm for growth and our 40,000 people globally  can make a difference by helping to shape a vibrant global economy. That mission and that belief have created a wonderful situation where our people are clear about their goal and have the freedom of choice to make it happen everyday.”

“So it’s very much about clarity of vision?”

“It’s about clarity of vision and clarity of purpose. It’s also a fundamental shift in the leadership model. Traditionally, the prevailing leadership model is like the human body: the senior team is the head and the rest of the organisation can’t move unless the head gives instructions. But in this new world the old leadership model doesn’t cut it. Now each person must make choices to further the overriding purpose without being hindered by having to ask permission.

“To give people control they need clarity of purpose and competence. Competence is a mixture of capability (skills) and knowledge (having enough information so they can join all the dots and see the whole picture).”

“Is it also about hunger and eradicating fear? One of the most important pieces of advice I received is that it’s OK to make mistakes as long as I’m out there trying to win. That was massive for me.”

“Yes, for sure. I’m a trained chemist and as a scientist you experiment and learn; you don’t fail and make mistakes. That’s the culture I want at Grant Thornton. To perform well in this ultra-connected, fast-paced world you need curiosity, a willingness to experiment and the tenacity to say, OK, that didn’t work, so let’s try again in a different way.

“I’m also passionate about the way you work with clients. In the past – during the information era – the model was: we’re the experts, we’ll tell you the answer. Today – the social era – all the information is out there, so the most valuable skills are the ability to understand what really matters to clients, to help them reach consensus so they can take decisions, and to help them make sense of complex information.”

“I think openness is key, too. During professionals’ exams, independence and objectivity is drilled into you but that actually ends up constraining you.”

“There’s so much talk about trust, integrity and independence in professional circles. But true independence – the ability to be a genuine, critical friend – only happens if you’ve got a fantastic, trusted relationship where people disclose information that might not make them look great. If you have that you can stand back and truly guide people. But as you say, this idea of being independent and not getting too close can take people away from forming that close relationship.”

“Is Grant Thornton trying to build a reputation as being the go-to firm for the SME market?”

“Our sweet spot is the mid-size market – the £50m-£1bn turnover space. Having said that, we believe it’s important to work with dynamic businesses at every stage in their growth cycle. What’s fabulous is we can be working with some of the largest organisations using learnings we’ve gained from working with some of our smallest, most nimble clients. And vice versa.”

“Is it on your radar to go after FTSE businesses that traditionally work with the Big Four?”

“For some time now our position has been that there are some FTSE companies for whom we can create good value, but we haven’t got a specific target of winning a certain number of FTSE audits. Our focus is always on where our skills bring the most value. In certain situations, going in with a me-too offer isn’t attractive for us or the marketplace.”

“When you were announced as CEO elect of Grant Thornton late last year you became the first woman to lead a major accountancy firm in the UK. Why is it such a rarity?”

“Since my appointment, three other women have been appointed to similar roles around the world and I keep getting jokes that I’ve kept the door open. I hope I have. That would be great.

“Certain things have allowed me to take up this role. First, personal attitude: the idea of sticking your hand up and getting stuck in. I was fortunate while growing up to have strong female role models who did well in business. My great aunt worked for Coutts in the 1930s and my other great aunt worked at the Bank of England. My mother went back to university after raising her family and got a PhD. So I was brought up by people with a can-do approach who believed I could change the world. That’s been critical in shaping my attitude and boosting my confidence. One thing I’m always encouraging people to do is stick their hands up and put themselves forward. Women tend to be – although it happens with both genders – reticent about putting themselves forward.

“Another idea I’m passionate about is this: if you want more women to progress, make it more acceptable for men to have a full life. My husband was working in corporate finance when we had our first child and asked for a sabbatical. His firm wasn’t happy and he had to fight tooth and nail for it because men in corporate finance aren’t supposed to take sabbaticals. But the fact he took one meant I could return to work confident about my home life.

“Another big question is how attractive does board leadership look? If women have to fight against a social paradigm to become business leaders then the goal has to look attractive and exciting.”

“If you could be famous for one thing in the next 10 years, what would it be?”

“Can I go completely fantasy? It would be handing to my sons a society where everyone can participate. We’ve done work in communities in Tower Hamlets – just one mile from here – where there’s not one working adult on the estate. People growing up there don’t have a clue that opportunities even exist, let alone that they are missing them. As a human race it’s not sustainable for society to create such a gulf between the haves and have-nots. I would love to pass on a world where everyone can contribute to their full potential and I believe that business – in partnership with government – is in a unique position to make that happen

“The capitalist model where companies go in and suck out everything possible to please shareholders is not sustainable. Really successful businesses with genuine longevity fertilise the fields in which they grow their crops. If you’re doing that, your business will thrive because you’re creating a flourishing environment. That idea really inspires me.”