Grant Thornton's CEO: Parties should work together on Brexit

Sacha Romanovitch on making professional services purpose-driven and getting more women into top jobs.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 19 Jun 2017

Financial and professional services firms aren’t generally known as beacons of forward-looking business philosophy. They might be capable of making great heaps of cash, but there’s a reason that most of this generation’s bright, creative young workers are shunning investment banks and the Big Four in favour of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

It’s for that reason that Sacha Romanovitch made waves when she was unanimously elected the CEO of Grant Thornton UK back in 2014. As well as being the first woman to lead a major professional services firm in the UK, she soon announced plans to cap her own pay at 20 times that of her average colleague and to create a profit-sharing scheme to improve the lot of junior staff.

‘When you come through to CEO you think, oh yeah I’m gonna get there and I’ll be able to make all of these things happen,’ she said on stage at MT’s Future of Work: Digital conference last Thursday. But life at the top of a big organisation, especially a partnership, isn't as straightforward as it might sound. ‘Everything you do has to be through influence. My reward was a way I could make a really clear statement of intent that I really mean that all of the people in this organisation make a difference. The 20 times seemed like a sensible way to say I’m not massively more brilliant than the people that work with us, and we’ve got to be in it together.’ 

In practice, she said her salary is around 40% less than her predecessor’s – ‘My kids weren’t impressed. They said, "You did WHAT?".’ Tinkering with her remuneration was just part of a broader ambition to modernise the firm’s behaviour and make it more ‘purpose-driven.’

‘We were coming from this "knowledge era" of professional services firms where most of our people had been brought up in a world where our value was from our expertise – we had knowledge you didn’t have, and we could charge you handsomely for it. We are now in an age where anyone can have access to knowledge, there is more knowledge than anyone could get hold of, but it’s much more now about how can we help people to make sense of this information?’ It’s all been about ‘shifting people from their identity being attached to their status and knowledge, to being attached to the purpose of why they are at work and what they’re doing,’ she added.

Though she has spent most of her working life at Grant Thornton, Romanovitch wasn’t always set on being an accountant. She studied Chemistry at Oxford and long harboured an interest in fashion. ‘From a young age if I wanted clothes I made them; I seem to remember making some fairly embarrassing outfits out of old sheets that I thought were really cool at the time,’ she said.
‘I did think that I would go into fashion, but when I left uni it was 1990, the last recession, lots of fashion designers were going bust. I did have a vaguely sensible mind so I thought I’ll go and learn how to run a business and then I’ll go and set up my fashion business. But I found that actually advising businesses was really cool, so I’ve been here ever since.’

Romanovitch remains relatively unusual as a woman in a top finance job, but she’s not sold on the idea of boardroom quotas. ‘All of that presupposes that there’s hoards of women saying, "let us into these boardrooms, we want to be here." But I see really bright talented women finding much more interesting things to do than sitting in boardrooms that often operate in a very Victorian way.

‘There are times when I walk into rooms in the City when I’m the only woman in the room and there are 11 men and you sit and think the energy, the dynamism, the vibrancy, the openness to different ways of thinking just isn’t there. So I do think there needs to be a big shift.’

Unlike a lot of business leaders she’s also not been shy of speaking out in the Brexit debate. The uncertain election result present businesses with a ‘massive opportunity’ to shape what happens next, she said. ‘How do we want our country to be in the world, what is the future of the UK? What is the UK going to be absolutely world class at, and how will we equip ourselves to be that country? That was completely absent from the debate, now we can have that conversation and define that, and if you can get an alignment on outcomes, then the possibilities open up.’

Now she hopes the parties can work together to find a consensual approach to what happens next. ‘If you were picking your crack team to renegotiate our relationship with Europe and the world, well actually you’d have a David Davis, you’d have a Ruth Davidson in the mix, you’d probably have Keir Starmer in there, because he’s got a great track record, you’d have Lord Adonis, Nick Clegg has actually got incredible relations with Europe. You’d pick together your best possible talent – it’s what we do in our businesses isn’t it?’

She says she’s not on the verge of running for parliament herself though. 'The reason I'm in business is I do believe our ability to impact and make a difference to the world we live in is phenomenal and that was why I went to be CEO,' she says. 'When businesses start to believe that you can do well by doing good, the power of that is phenomenal.'

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