View from the Top: Sacha Romanovitch, CEO of Grant Thornton

Sacha Romanovitch was recently appointed Chief Executive of Grant Thornton. After three months in the role, Sacha spoke to the MCA about her vision for the firm, its consulting practice and the performance of the UK economy.

What is your vision for where Grant Thornton is going in the market place?

My clear focus is about us making a difference to the UK and helping to create a vibrant economy where business and people can thrive. I love the MCA’s strapline a positive force for the economy because that absolutely fits with what I have set out for the firm.

Our ambition is to become the go-to firm for growth by 2020. We work with many of the UK’s mid-size and growing dynamic businesses. These businesses have driven the UK economic recovery, grown through the downturn, and contributed £262 billion to UK GDP in 2014.  They are going to continue to be the engine room of growth for the UK economy.

Very deliberately we have defined our ambition by the impact that we have on our clients and the value we are creating, and the world in which we operate. As a consequence of making that impact, we shall also be more profitable.

What are the main issues around growth and the performance of the UK economy?

Our position is stepping back and asking ‘what do we think really drives a vibrant business economy?’ We have drawn it down into three elements if you are looking at the economy on a macro level:

  • You need the trust and integrity of the financial markets so that people trade with, and invest in, the UK.
  • You need to have the physical and social infrastructure that makes it easy for business to happen,
  • You have got to have entrepreneurial and dynamic businesses that are growing, creating value and thriving in a sustainable way.

Where do you think the biggest challenges are in those three areas?

The world has fundamentally shifted.  There is a lot of evidence out there that as we move from an information knowledge era into a social era, there are now three different drivers to these challenges

  • Connectivity and moving into this new networked world where things operate differently
  • Transparency and moving to the digital world. Chris Anderson from TED gave his wonderful quote ‘ it is a bad time to be evil’
  • Innovation is needed because the world is reaching its limit of sustainable resources, so we are going to have to change how we operate.  

The overlay between these challenges starts to get you thinking about what the really big areas are to address in the economy.

I am interested to know why you describe this as social rather than technological?

So much innovation comes from human connections. In many ways we are still operating in an industrial era of hierarchies and pyramids. In the networked world you actually move away from lines of reporting, which is a terribly inefficient way to work, into modes of connection and hubs of connectivity. These human connections are really important, and the advancements in digital and technology enables them at scale.

Looking at consulting, how are you going to help your clients to navigate this interesting new world?

I think it is really interesting that there are consultancies very much focused on judging their performance on the value they create for their clients and those who judge their performance on the fees they are generating.

This theme of connected worlds has shifted how we work with our clients. For example we could be working with a client where we bring some specific skills and expertise but to solve the client’s issue there are other skills and expertise needed which aren’t part of our core capability. That actually requires you to be thinking about what is in the client’s best interest rather than your own interest in selling a sub-optimal solution to the client just because it generates fees for you.

For example, the Kodak project worked because we approached it in a way that drove innovations. We wanted to create something new and different that hadn’t been done before which would fundamentally affect people’s lives.

We spend a lot of time with our consultants encouraging them not to leap to conclusions too quickly. I have a favourite story about a mother who has two daughters, and the daughters have one orange. There are no more oranges so the mother cuts the oranges into halves. However, one daughter wanted juice, while the other wanted zest for a cake. How often do consultants leap in with a solution, without first understanding what needs to be achieved?

Moving onto your career, what do you consider to be your highlights?

I was adopted when I was 18 months old and I was in care for a year of that first 18 months. I was lucky enough to be adopted by my family who provided me with a great upbringing. I got into grammar school where I first became fascinated with chemistry and from there I got into Oxford to study chemistry, I was the first in my family to go to university.

Did I always want to be a CEO? No, at different points of my career I wanted to be a forensic scientist, then a fashion designer, then I thought I would come into business. I think what has driven me to become CEO is that I always wanted to continue influencing and making a difference and that’s how I got here.

Every new CEO will see opportunities to make changes to their firm. Have you tried anything new?

We are entering a new era where operating in the way we always have isn’t actually going to work. If we want to be the go-to firm for growth, and if we want to create value for the clients in the way that I know we need to create value, then that’s going to require each of our 4,500 people to be part of it, to get it, to feel they’re actually sharing in the reward from it.

That is not going to work by cascades, someone at the top telling them what to do.  That’s going to work from operating in a much more networked, agile way. And so we have gone out to market and said we are going to be a shared enterprise. For us that means changing how we operate in ways that every person can share their ideas and contribute to the business plan. Share in the responsibility of actually making it happen. And these first two things will create superior value which all can share.  We have been inspired by other businesses but are very much doing this the Grant Thornton way. 

I have the disciplined training of a scientist, in science you experiment and learn, you don’t try and fail. So I am bringing that philosophy of looking at how we can make an ecosystem where no one is being told what to do because they are so much part of the fabric of what we are trying to achieve, that they are empowered make decisions.

How are you approaching the current recruitment challenge?

We have really switched our focus towards hiring, to be far more holistic. For instance we no longer sift our trainee intake solely on academic achievement. We also now offer 5 different types of apprenticeships. Dropping academic barriers to entry, and taking this more holistic approach, has meant an increase in our diversity, which in turn leads to a more diverse way of thinking.  This year, we now have 20% of new trainees who wouldn’t have got roles with us under our previous criteria.

There has been a lot of research about what is it that people want at work. In some respects I don’t know if this is just a millennial thing. I think that as the world has evolved there are things that all of us really want. People want to have some degree of autonomy and choice over the work they do. And the opportunity to become great at something.

If you can create an environment where people have clarity of purpose, the freedom to make decisions, and feel invested in achieving a successful outcome, then they will do great work for you and they will stay and grow. Even more, if they move on they will be a friend of your business and you will do business with them in different ways.

Moving beyond just our recruitment process, and back to how do we all help to create a vibrant economy where business and people can thrive? We are sitting in a smart office in the city and a mile from here there are estates where there isn’t a single working adult. That can’t be right. To have a system that actively prevents that, that is not okay. And I think there is a responsibility for all of us to do something about that.