Beautiful Leadership – Sacha Romanovitch


This is the latest in a sequence of posts on #BeautifulLeadership that all came from tweets and other news items I saw on the same day, November 29th. In the first post, “From Now On“, I noted that “at least four wonderful examples of Beautiful Leadership found their way to me”:

  • an NBA star and father empowering young women by walking the talk.
  • a brave woman CEO in the UK leading by example around income inequality, though with some sadly paradoxical behaviour in how I learned of her leadership.
  • an environmental activism movement masquerading as a large US corporation taking the Trump tax cut it received and giving it back to the planet.
  • a Hollywood movie star finding the power and passion of a moment irresistible and showing leadership which made real a project that has since touched millions.

That brave woman CEO is Sacha Romanovitch, who left her post at Grant Thornton on November 30th. Let me tell you the story of the tweet on November 29th, and the behaviour around it, giving my take on the broader story of her tenure as CEO.

Our story today is about #BeautifulLeadership and about the ultimately rapid departure of Sacha Romanovitch as CEO of Grant Thornton UK.

It is also about bravery, about what I perceived to be lack of bravery, as well as a linking factor, the risk in stretching too far as a leader and losing your followers.

I first heard of Sacha Romanovitch earlier this year, and at the start of April I wrote: “Playing the unexpected chess move“, talking about what I felt was her brilliant and bold strategy in announcing that her firm would no longer bid on audits of the largest businesses.

I started following her on Twitter, occasionally engaging in messages, through which she was always open and positive. I came to recognise that, though I came across her due to that strategic move around the issues of a closed audit market, a far deeper purpose and vision sat within her for her firm and for change in society.

Sacha’s sense of purpose, vision and drive absolutely inspired me, yet her 28 years at Grant Thornton all came crashing down between mid-September and mid-October this year, from which lessons may be taken.

Perhaps oddly presciently, right before that  all happened I published a post in the first week of September inspired by a tweet of Sacha’s: “Don’t be more than one hilltop ahead“, writing:

“imagine Don Quixote on his horse, and imagining in his fantasy world he was the leader of a great army who all followed him as he leads from the front on his horse. Though in reality his horse was constantly exhausted, he would have considered it a mighty and strong steed, and also his huge (of course!) army of foot soldiers so motivated and inspired and strong that they could keep up with him as he rode off to defeat a distant enemy army.

Irrespective of the imaginary nature of this fantasy army, Don Quixote raced off across rolling hills on his trusty steed, imagining the great victory to come. Up one hill he would go, then down another, always followed by the faithful Sancho Panza. After a time he stopped at the crest of a hill, looked back and found his army was no longer in sight. He waited, then waited some more, but they never came over the crest of the last hill into his sight. Sancho Panza, ever the realist, would have turned to him and said something like: “Sir, you rode too fast and too far, they have lost sight of you and can no longer follow”.

You are not a leader if others aren’t following you, you are simply a fool on a horse.

In leading people in your business, you may have a huge vision that can truly inspire. Leadership development is full of such stories. For example, we all know Steve “dent in the universe” Jobs. Such huge visions absolutely can inspire. As Simon Sinek says: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

It is therefore absolutely key that when a visionary leader looks at their organisation and sees a big, bold, brave, transformative vision, that they anchor on that and inspire, engage, enrol everyone around them and throughout their organisation and beyond.

However, and this is a big “but”, such a vision means nothing if your followers can’t keep up with you. Another “tom-ism” is “a leader is someone others choose to follow”, and part of that is to work with your team to break down the vision into manageable steps, to communicate it at as many different levels as people need to bridge the big vision into what they actually do in their role, and to work at the speed your organisation and people can cope with, even if it is a stretch and they are tired in following you on your horse. Inspired and motivated people can stretch, but be very, very aware of how fast to ride and when, as Sacha puts it, to have “staging camps to acclimatise, {to} assess the conditions before moving on.”

Literally, one week after I published that post, a group of 15 partners in Sacha’s firm anonymously sent a letter to multiple UK media outlets, including the Financial Times, looking to sabotage the opportunity for her term to be renewed as CEO. One month later, on October 15th, Sacha resigned, effective November 30th.

On October 20th, the FT then published: “Sacha Romanovitch: a challenger of the old guard cuts loose“. In reading this article, it appears that Sacha, absolutely a massively brave and bold leader, had, like my Don Quixote story, ridden too far ahead on her horse and had lost her followers. As the FT has a paywall (as a side note, am increasingly happy with paying for such subscriptions as I find them correlating with more in-depth and quality journalism), here are some excerpts telling part of the story and speaking to the point about how far to push. Bold highlights are my own:

“After taking the top job, she restructured the firm as a shared enterprise — a new model that meant profits are shared with all staff, not just with partners — and attempted to move it away from seeking profits at all costs in favour of “profits with purpose”.

A move that raised eyebrows among her competitors, as well as accusations of worthiness, was her capping of her own salary at 20 times that of the average worker at Grant Thornton — a precedent that was not followed elsewhere in the industry. These were profound cultural changes for an organisation that traces its roots back to the early 1900s.

News of her departure was met with surprise and sadness from many colleagues and competitors, who praised her warmth and generosity. “This is one of the few women in leading business positions and it looks like she was pushed out and for all the wrong reasons,” said Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Britain’s former secretary of state for business. “She was pursuing a genuinely enlightened approach to corporate responsibility that will reap dividends in the long term.”

…A question that has since been raised is to what extent the gripes about the firm’s financial performance, and its adoption of a “ socialist agenda”, stemmed from an old guard of mostly male partners, unwilling to follow…into uncharted territory…..Since Ms Romanovitch took over at Grant Thornton, the firm’s financial performance has been mixed….“The way to carry the partners is to raise the profits. It comes entirely from your ability to manage the finances,” said Ms Empson. “Only when you have that in place do you have the legitimacy to do things in a starkly different way. It starts and ends with the money. If she was delivering enhanced profitability, they would have forgiven her.”

Average pay per partner fell to £365,000 under Ms Romanovitch’s tenure — below 2014 levels. Meanwhile, those at its closest rival BDO nearly doubled to £531,000.

Ms Romanovitch conceded to the FT last month that profits had not grown as quickly as she would have liked. “You always want as a CEO to have more, faster. You are not doing your job if you don’t. Would I like to have delivered more sustainable growth by now? Yes.”

So, it appears to me that there was a gap between the brave and radical approach taken by Sacha Romanovitch in a firm and industry where partners (accounting firms are almost universally run on partnership models) typically are conservative, risk-averse, and prefer an incremental approach.

She may well have failed to take her own advice from the tweet I wrote around, that “you don’t climb Everest in one go. You have staging camps to acclimatise, assess the conditions before moving on. Same in business.”

Now, I also said this story was about lack of bravery, and that stemmed from this tweet and what it may be indicating to me about a broader organisational culture. Grant Thornton has 185 partners in the UK. As noted earlier, 15 of them penned an anonymous letter. 15 out of 185 is under 10%, so I hasten to add that is about individuals, not any overall firm. That said, I am wondering what broader culture informed what happened with the tweet on November 29th, as you will see below in this post/

As to those individuals and their choice to stick the knife in anonymously, I’ve written in recent days about brand being who you are. In a positive way, with Hugh Jackman, Steph Curry, Patagonia and their CEO, Sacha Romanovitch, people can show you who they are by their actions. Sometimes, however, we complex humans are less inspiring when we show you who we are, such as (to my mind) an anonymous letter.

Am reminded of this:

first time someone shows you who they are maya angelou

So, to the tweet on November 29th around Sacha. What happened was that a partner in her firm, in thanking her for her being the CEO as she was about to leave on November 30th, shared the following five-minute interview from August 2018 on CEO pay inequality.

In this interview, Sacha not only highlighted how she had capped her pay (as noted by the FT above), but also her drive in taking Grant Thornton beyond raw profit measures was encapsulated in the interview by her extending beyond the CEO pay conversation with: “it goes beyond the bottom line..if your profit motive becomes unhinged from the purpose of your business, that’s when actually some really bad things can happen in business”. Powerful stuff and inspirational to see a higher purpose that is NOT unhinged from profit, but, as I wrote about around Patagonia earlier this week, can be positively linked.

Anyway, back to bravery and the lack of it. That partner in their tweet linking to the video interview was strong in their praise and backing of Sacha in her leadership stance. However, within hours they had deleted the tweet, though in checking their twitter account they’ve kept posting day by day since. Perhaps it was a little too brave for them as a serving partner with the firm. In interests of their privacy, I too have deleted my tweets identifying that partner, as clearly they wish their backing for their now departed CEO to be less than public. I can empathise and understand how this can feel challenging for them.

In closing, a long post today, with several angles, reflecting the complexity of what it means to lead, to be brave, and to go too far yet not too far with your open and beautiful leadership.

Also published on Medium.

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