Q&A with Sacha Romanovitch - CEO of Grant Thornton

Lynn Barlow
Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Creative and Cultural Industries Engagement | UWE
27th October 2017

UWE, in partnership with Business West, runs an annual lecture series that brings top business leaders to Bristol. We caught up with Sacha Romanovitch, CEO of Grant Thornton, before she gave her address:

1. I understand you’re the first woman to run a major UK accountancy firm; do you get paid the same as your male predecessor?

Great question.

In terms of partnerships and how our reward works, it’s based on units. 

I have the same amount of units that my male predecessor had. However, for our culture and where I want our firm to go, I felt that it was really important to make a statement about us all being in it together, toward a shared enterprise culture.

So, I chose to cap my reward to twenty times the average employee.

2. Before becoming CEO you did quite a lot of work around people and culture (at Grant Thornton); how important was that to your development as a leader?

It was interesting!

I got very interested in running our business, and thinking about how it would make an impact on our clients and wider society.

In doing that I quickly came to realise - in leading our London practice - that if you get the people right, and liberate them to express all of their ideas (and take them forward), then everything else is taken care of.  This has been central to my leadership ethos.

And it’s something we’ve evolved into - this idea of shared enterprise, where we can unleash nearly 5,000 people to share ideas, share responsibility for taking them forward and share the reward.

That is what will really set us up as a firm to be sustainably successful.

3. So you didn’t start off in accountancy, you studied chemistry, is there an ordinary day at Grant Thornton?

No! What’s wonderful though is the commonality with chemistry.

Chemistry is something you study if you’re really curious about the world; why it works, how it works and how you can use that information to change things for the better. That’s what chemistry is all about.

What I found fascinating coming into the business world, was that the same kind of qualities are needed to be successful; that curiosity of what a client is trying to achieve, what things you need to pay attention to, how things can be improved.

I think that my career has progressed because of this, because I’ve always been in interested in the bigger picture. And I’ve always followed where I think I can make a difference and where the next interesting problem is to solve if that makes sense?

4. What is the difference between managing a group of people and leading a group of people at a major company?

It’s interesting.

Not only is there a difference between the two (leadership and management), there’s a difference in terms of what they have meant and what they need to mean in the future.

In some respects management is often a machine view of the world. Are all the levers working? And are you pressing them in the right order to deliver the required results?

I think what leadership has, and will need to continue to recognise, is that organisations don’t work anything like machines. They’re these wonderful, organic eco-systems and what you really want to be able to do is give some direction and then really create an environment where you can liberate the talent of all the people in your organisation.

As a leader you move from a machine view of the world to being a catalyst. And being a chemist I like that analogy: the idea you are a catalyst that unlocks the potential of your people towards a shared purpose.

That’s really where I think leadership takes hold. 

5. What is it going to take for accountants of the future to keep their jobs and not lose them to robots and AI?

I think the key thing is – something that has been really fundamental to the work we’ve done around purpose – if you can always think about what is the ultimate outcome you’re trying to achieve.

So, for us, our purpose is to try and help shape a vibrant economy, and within that we’ve identified three areas where we’re trying to make the biggest impact:

  • Building trust and integrity in markets
  • Unlocking growth in dynamic organisations
  • Creating environments where businesses and people can thrive

So if I take just one of them ‘building trust and integrity in markets’, it relates to one of our key propositions to market - statutory audit - which underpins the integrity of capital markets.

What we know is that actually the statutory audit that we currently deliver today doesn’t meet what stakeholders really want. What stakeholders really want to know is that there hasn’t been a fraud and that the business is going to continue into the future.

Now we expressly say that we don’t do those things in an audit, why is that?

This is to do with human resource. Whilst it could be possible, it would be prohibitively expensive to do.

As we move into a world of robotics and AI, we have that possibility of real interrogation of data and potentially of every transaction in audit, and can use predictive analytics within scales of certainty. 

What you find is that you are better able to meet market demand and to focus human capability on the judgement, analysis and insight - rather than the number crunching and stuff that goes on within it.

An example that helps bring this to life: what is it that humans can do uniquely which machines cannot? This is about making sense of the analysis and the data to draw a conclusion - bringing in that human perspective. 

I think the key thing for today’s students is to make sure they have that curiosity of looking at the world, looking at context. They’ve got that ability to notice and spot patterns, to think of the possibilities of what they meanand to be able to work in a world where we can see things from other people’s perspectives. 

Those are the things that are much more of a human quality, which if augmented by computers, mean that we can achieve that ultimate goal so much more.

6. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘creative with accountancy’, but is there a strong element of creativity in your work?

There is.

Our ability to have the imagination to conceive of how the world is evolving, and how we can actually continue to add value in what we’re doing - often in fundamental ways -  is really important.

This week I was sitting in our canteen and one of our young people came over to me and said ‘I’ve been thinking about a talk you did recently about modern slavery’. 

We’ve been doing all this work with big banks on anti-money laundering. We’re working within this big box of what exists at the moment. So it made me take a step back and say how can we be supporting our clients to make sure they are not inadvertently funding modern slavery? What else might we consider then it opens up a whole new range of possibilities? 

I think there is that thing of really developing the creativity and imagination to think about what are we really trying to achieve and not just operating within the tramlines of a fixed set of rules that exist right now. I think this is fundamentally important.

7. When you were graduating and thinking about your career, did you realise what would make you a success today?

No. I had no idea.

I think it’s such a challenge for graduates and people coming into the professions. 

When I look back to just after my final year of studying chemistry, my real reason for wanting to join the profession was because I was making and selling ball gowns, and I had this idea that maybe I’ll set up in business on my own!

It was in the middle of the recession and I thought ‘ah, I’d better learn how to run a business before I do it’. That was my motivation for coming into the profession!

Did I recognise the qualities? No!

But my motivation for coming into the profession - and perhaps it is worth having some clarity on why you’re really interested - for me, it was the interest in running a business.

And I am running a business, just not in fashion as I thought I might be!

This series of free public lectures brings top level business leaders to Bristol. You can discuss these events on Twitter using the hashtag #BristolLectures and view further content from Sacha Romanovitch's lecture here. For more information please contact events@uwe.ac.uk.

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