How can you figure out how you should be devoting your professional efforts? In this episode of Career Relaunch, Sacha Romanovitch, CEO of Grant Thornton UK, explains why she decided to take a hiatus from work to figure out where to take her career. We’ll also talk about what you can gain by stepping away from your work and how you can be more intentional in your career. During the Mental Fuel® segment, I’ll explain how you can use the concept of Ikigai to clarify where you belong as a professional.
Key Career Insights
- Thinking about the intersection of what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, what the world needs, and what can I earn money from can clue you into your place in this world.
- Even if you’re not 100% happy with how things are going in your career, if you can be clear on what really matters to you as early as possible in your career, you can usually find a path that navigates you through that well.
- You have to be clear with yourself about what you’re okay failing at so you can focus on those areas where you want to succeed.
Tweetables to Share
- I referenced the book The Little Book of Ikigai, by Ken Mogi. Learn more about Ikigai in this video by Ken Mogi and this fantastic visualisation by Information is Beautiful (pictured here)
- Learn more about the Vibrant Economy and Inclusive Economy Partnership Sacha referenced on the show.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked the concept of Ikigai–the intersection of passion, mission, vocation, and profession–as a way of shedding light on where you may feel more fulfilled professionally and challenged you to make a 1-hour appointment with yourself to figure this out. What did you end up discovering? Leave a comment below!
About Sacha Romanovitch, CEO of Grant Thornton UK
Sacha Romanovitch is CEO of Grant Thornton in the UK, a £500m business with 4,500 people whose purpose is to shape a vibrant economy. Sacha became the first female to be elected as CEO of a major accountancy firm and took up the role in July 2015.
With a firm belief in how clarity of purpose liberates our people to deliver sustainable value for our clients, people and communities we serve, Sacha established the firm’s purpose of shaping a vibrant economy where we are building trust and integrity in markets, unlocking the potential for growth in dynamic businesses and creating environments where business and people thrive.
Regularly speaking on transformational leadership and a sustainable future, Sacha also engages her 6,000 Twitter followers about systemic change from self-interest, competition and hierarchy to shared purpose, collaboration and connected communities for a new normal of a vibrant economy working for all.
Introducing shared enterprise Sacha has opened the opportunity for all our people to share in profits. Sacha has capped her reward to 20x the average employee. Championing social mobility, including chairing Access Accountancy, in 2017 the firm was recognised as number 1 in the Social Mobility Employer’s Index.
Sacha has two sons (14 and 10) and relies on them, her husband and yoga/meditation to bring perspective to life.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): I haven’t really decided that being a partner in the firm was actually alluring for me. It was just like the next step in terms of this career ladder. That was part of the wakeup call for me: I’m going into this thing, but I don’t really know why I wanted to do this.
Joseph: Hello, Sacha, and thanks for joining me here on Career Relaunch.
Sacha: Lovely to connect with you, Joseph.
Joseph: I’m looking forward to talking through your career at Grant Thornton and what you learned from your sabbatical from work and also some of the initiatives you have going on right now to create a more inclusive and vibrant workforce in the UK. Lots to cover, but I was wondering, Sacha, if you could just kick us off by telling us about, first of all, what’s keeping you busy right now in your career and your life.
Joseph: A lot of work that I’m doing is about helping our business and other businesses to think about how the choices that we make through who we work with, through who we employ, through how we act as businesses, and through what we choose to influence, through all of that, we can make a really positive impact in shaping our future. We can’t sit and just wait for governments on their own to try and solve some of the really big challenges facing the world.
My mission is to really make a new normal that businesses become much more purpose-led and really go back to—obviously, people in business, they want to make money, but if you’re not solving problems that actually are valuable and important for the world and solving those problems in a sustainable way, then actually, you don’t have a successful business either.
Joseph: I think that word that you’ve used ‘purpose’ is a really important one that comes up a lot, especially for listeners on this podcast because sometimes, when people aren’t feeling super jazzed about their work, it’s because they don’t find it really meaningful or purposeful. I definitely want to come back and talk about the role you see business playing in that arena. I was wondering first of all though, if you could just give us a glimpse into your role there as CEO of Grant Thornton in the UK, and then we’ll go back and kind of touch on some of these other topics.
Sacha: As CEO of Grant Thornton in the UK, we have maybe 5,000 people working with us over 27 different locations. We’re really on a reshaping of our business so that everything we do does align to our purpose of shaping a vibrant economy. It’s also taking through quite a cultural change, because if you look at how the world operates and tick and how the financial services world operates, the leadership model has historically been very much one that’s based around self-interest, hierarchy, and competition.
What I see is that, for our business to be successful, we need to move to a culture that is very based around shared purpose, collaboration, and connected networks of people being able to achieve things together. My job of work, I suppose, within our firm, is how we grow our business sustainably, reshaping our client portfolio, align it to our purpose, and how we can work and influence convening people across our client base to be able to grow their businesses sustainably too.
Joseph: Why do you think the default operating model is still assumed to be this more cut-throat or intense competitive environment?
Sacha: Really, our business world today is very much shaped on a model that was designed probably about 200 years ago, really by white privileged men from typically the upper classes who shaped and designed a model that actually was based on the world that they knew, that they understood, that they could win in basically. I think that what we find is that that model has achieved certain things through to now, but actually, in a world where we’re now facing really limited resources, we need to be much more thoughtful as to how we actually work in the world that that model doesn’t really serve us for the future that we need to create. I think you can probably trace a lot of it back to the British Empire and just how that operated all those years back.
Joseph: I can tell by listening to you that you’ve got a very purposeful professional life. Yet, I know you haven’t always been CEO there at Grant Thornton UK, Sacha. I know under your Twitter profile or your bio—I thought this was interesting to read—‘I spend my life trying to create the space for us to think.’ I know that you yourself took a hiatus from work, which I was kind of surprised to hear. You think about CEOs and you figure they’re on that fast-track to climb the organizational ladder.
I was just wondering if you could take us back to the moment right before you decided to take your sabbatical. What was going on for you professionally and more importantly personally in your life?
Sacha: I went to Oxford to study chemistry. In my second term, I met the man who became my first husband. I’ve done most anything. I did my exams at school. I managed to get into Oxford University. I managed to then get a job in the accountancy profession. I was on this kind of corporate conveyor belt. In my personal life, I was probably on, without realizing it, a bit of conveyor belt as well. I’d fallen in love, I got married, and we bought a flat. We’ve done all of these sort of standard things, and then worked tremendously hard through all of that.
Then it was sort of getting to this point in life as to the ‘what next?’ My husband and I split up, which was a real wakeup call for me I suppose that, was the life I’d been living one that I’d really been choosing to live or had life just been happening to me? That then sort of triggered really a reassessment of everything in my life because if that relationship wasn’t true, then what else in my life wasn’t true? It really provoked me I supposed to re-examine all sorts of aspects in my life.
In my professional life at the time, I’d been doing well at work. I’d been doing well on my exams, doing well on my work with clients—I really loved working with clients—but I was also finding that my default, which is to keep working harder and harder, wasn’t a really healthy situation.
I, then, got to a point where I was really looking at my progression through to partner in the firm. There was this sort of thing of, ‘Do I want to be a partner in a professional sort of system?’ When I got into accountancy, originally, it had been because I wanted to learn how to run a fashion business because that’s what I thought I was going to do. I thought I was going to be a fashion designer. It was a real point for me of, is this actually what I want to do with my life?
I was very fortunate because my counseling partner at work, we sat down and had this conversation. He just looked at me and said, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I said, ‘What I really would like is just some space out to decide if this is what I want to do with my life or not.’ That afternoon, he arranged a year’s sabbatical for me so that I could have a year out and still have the guarantee of a job when I came back.
Joseph: Before we get to your sabbatical, you mentioned that you were thinking about whether or not you wanted to become a partner. I hear this a lot, like people want to make partner in their law firm or they want to make partner in the consulting firm or whatever the company is that they work for. Can you just share what was alluring about becoming a partner for you and what ultimately made you start to question that?
Sacha: I think that was partly the point. I haven’t really decided that being a partner in the firm was actually alluring for me. It was just like the next step in terms of this career ladder that you were expected to do. I think that that was part of the wakeup call for me: I’m going into this thing, but I don’t really know why I wanted to do this.
Interestingly I think, having supported a lot of partners coming through since my return and since being in my new role, I think it’s actually a rite of passage everybody has to go through, which is until they get to a point where they know really ‘why do I want to do this?’ you probably either won’t get there or won’t be successful and fulfilled when you do get there.
Joseph: When you thought about going on this sabbatical—it sounds like Grant Thornton was great about giving you the space to do this—did you have any concerns about taking a sabbatical? If so, what were those?
Sacha: The typical concerns, ‘Am I throwing away my career?’ and stuff like that. I don’t know if I was naïve or if I was just at the point where I knew I needed to step away and do something different. I didn’t have those, ‘Oh gosh, will I be able to come back?’ and that was really partly the environment that my employer created for me, which was very much of ‘There will be a job for you when you come back.’ They were really supportive of that. That was really helpful.
At the same time, I also sold my flat or apartment—if anyone’s listening in America—and got rid of a lot of my material possessions. Again, it was sort of quite a cathartic shedding of dust that was trapping me into a life that I wasn’t sure that I’d actually chosen.
Joseph: Tell us about your sabbatical. What did you do and how did you spend your time?
Sacha: I actually went out with my now husband, who wasn’t at the time. He had the idea he wanted to travel, and I thought that would be a brilliant way for me to get out and about. We basically got the one-way ticket to India, to Delhi, where one of my oldest friends had taken me to Delhi, and I stayed with her family just very shortly after my marriage broke up. That was a real opening up my eyes to this wonderful country and this wonderful world.
When we landed in Delhi, it was wonderful because you were, every day, being able to choose, ‘What do I want to do today? What’s interesting? What’s important?’ That for me was a really important part of this learning of ‘What did I really want to do? If I could do anything every day, what would I really want to do?’
I spent a lot of time traveling through India. I got to read a lot. I had that wonderful time where when you were reading books, a lot of exploring ideas and philosophies and things to help me understand the world. Through that journey, I met some really interesting people on the way, which took me into an interesting meditation and then into yoga. I went off and did a 10-day meditation program, a silent Vikasa Program in Thailand. When I was there, I found out about a yoga retreat in South India. You really have the luxury of being able to follow threads and ideas and time digesting them.
Joseph: Was there anything else that you learned about yourself during this process of taking some time off and having a little bit of space to just clear your mind?
Sacha: You can’t help but tap into a sense of connectedness with the world and a sense of a responsibility in not just what you do with your life but also how you live your life. Are you being intentional in how you behave with people every day? Are you living a life that you’re proud of? If that makes sense.
When I was traveling, one of the other wonderful things is that you’re meeting people the whole time. You have no context in which to put you. All the labels that you have when you’re in a professional career, if you’re a CEO or you’re an accountant or you’re a this or a that, all of those are shed in. All you had were people responding to you as you were, and so I think it was something that also helped me really just center myself in terms of, ‘What was my truth? Who did I really want to be? How did I really want to behave?’ which was not deformed by the context of societal expectations on me.
Joseph: Definitely. I think, so often, we use our titles as labels, and other people do that also, that question, ‘What do you do?’ and then people immediately start sizing you up and judging you, and we do the same. That’s really interesting to not have any of that pretense there. Was there a particular moment, Sacha, when things flipped for you? Because I know that one of the reasons why you decided to take this time off was to figure out what you wanted. Could you take us to a moment when you had a shift in your thinking or your perspectives on what you wanted to do next in your career?
Sacha: My last thing that I did—it ended up I think being 13 or 14 months out—was doing a teacher training yoga at Vidya Dham Sivananda Ashram in South India. I think that was an interesting one because I started to work out what was important to me because going through the teacher training, I had the thought that, ‘Maybe I’ll be a yoga teacher. Maybe I’ll do this.’ What really sort of came through to me was that what I loved in yoga and yoga teacher training was being able to make an impact on an individual, but actually, what I loved from my former life was actually being able to see that you can make an impact to scale.
Those two things came together that actually meant that I did choose to come back into the profession, but the mindset that I was coming into it with was wanting to actually operate in a way that was really reflective of what I felt was important in terms of how we behave in the world, what was the impact that we have in the wider world.
Joseph: Let’s talk about that, Sacha. You come back from your sabbatical, and I know that some people, after they take time off, they decide to do something totally different. In your case, you returned back to the same company. How did you approach your work differently upon returning? What changed for you?
Sacha: I came back, and I look back now, and I think the arrogance of relative views. There’s a new guy, a wonderful guy called Malcolm Ward, who was the new leader of the practice area that I’d come from. In coming back in, I said, ‘Look, I want to come back in, but I really want to work to help to shape our business area to where I think it could be.’ It was fantastic because I came in, and I sort of came in with this sort of PowerPoint deck of all these things that I thought we should change. He was like, ‘Okay. I’m going to give you the opportunity to work with me to support the developments and transformation of the practice.’
I got to do client work as well but also starting to work on the business as well as in the business. I definitely came in with a very clear idea of, if I’m going to come back into the business, I’m not just going to come back and do what I was doing before I left. It needs to be different so that I feel I’m making an impact on the things that I feel matter.
Joseph: I also know that we started this conversation talking about your family. I was wondering if you also had any sort of shift in perspective related to your life outside of work.
Sacha: I’ve been very blessed to have my sons. Probably the key thing is that it does leave you with a real sense of what are the things that you want to build into your children, what’s important. One of the things that are really important in the young men that we’re bringing up is actually that they are kind to people, that they listen to people, that they have empathy, that they’re thinking about what they can give to the world, not what they can take from the world.
I suppose it just comes into being clear about the values that you want to inculcate in your children and the values that you want in your family. That manifests itself in lots of different, small ways I suppose. For example, on birthdays, we always do some microfinance lending, and there’s a family we choose, ‘Which entrepreneurs you want to invest in?’ That’s one of the things that we do for each person’s birthday. Sometimes, it slips me, like we slipped three birthdays, and then we do a catchup.
It’s things like that that just keep us all focused on the things that we can do that actually can improve things in the wider world rather than just thinking about us the whole time.
Joseph: That’s a fantastic idea. I hadn’t thought of that before. What a wonderful way to celebrate a birthday.
Sacha: It’s really cool, and it’s also fun just having chats to the kids about who they’re choosing and why.
Joseph: That’s a great idea. I might steal that one for the future here. I guess the last thing that I was hoping to talk about, Sacha, before we wrap up with some of the initiatives that you’ve got going on was just some of your insights as a CEO. It’s not every day that we’ve got a CEO on this podcast. I was just wondering, as a leader of a large company and specifically someone who’s focused on what drives meaning in the workplace, what are some of the things that you’ve found really make people feel engaged with their work?
Sacha: People being able to find that personal connection to themselves of what is important in the world to them, and some of those things that are really important to them will be very personal things that maybe don’t come into the workplace. Other things in terms of what they actually care about absolutely can link into the workplace. That’s giving people the space to actually find out what is important to them.
My marriage failing was a real kick up the butt to me as to life is just happening to you, and you have a responsibility to choose what you do in life and not just let it happen to you. I do think that it’s very easy, technically in the modern world to get carried on on this sort of conveyor belt where you’re just doing stuff.
Being able to get that connection between what’s important to me and what’s the purpose of the business in which I’m operating and how then can I get the overlap between what really a matters to me and what I do day-to-day, if you can get to that place, then you really hit nirvana. I read the other day that I think in Japan, they call it ikigai.
Joseph: I just read about that too.
Sacha: I’ve never had the term for it before, but helping people to look at that overlap between, ‘What am I really passionate about in this world? What do these business need? What am I good at? What can I earn money from?’ If you can get something that’s happening at the intersection of those four things, then you really found your place.
Joseph: Speaking of ikigai, I had also just read about that literally a few days ago in a magazine. I know that one of the things that it talks about or that philosophy is all about is allowing yourself to slow down and to get that space that you’re talking about which is important to gaining perspective. Do you have any advice for people who are trying to find more meaning in their work, like a step that they could take to create that space to allow them to figure out what they really want?
Sacha: One of the things that we do a lot in the business is introducing meditation and just creating even short periods where you can just stop and pause so that you can actually just start to notice and be aware of how you’re feeling in a moment, what you’re thinking, because I do think that so much of creating space starts with noticing properly in the moment whether your acting as if you have space or acting as if you’re just busy, busy, busy.
One of the things we do is a really simple, just mindful minute that anyone can do which starts just building that discipline and that awareness of ‘What is happening to me right now?’ and ‘How is that influencing how I’m feeling and how I’m behaving?’ and ‘Is that who I choose to be?’ Just that basic discipline around creating a mental space I think can be very simple that anyone can build into their lives.
I think the other thing is making an appointment with yourself. Quite a lot of my partners now do this where they’ll either do it on their own or they’ll do it with a colleague where they’ll maybe just book an hour out which is catch up, but actually, that’s just space that they’re keeping either to do some thinking together or to have some space on their own together.
The final one, which is one that I have found really helpful, is I quickly learned that technically in the CEO role, there will never be enough hours in a day to do everything that people expect of me. However hard I try, I will never be successful if I set to completing everything. A great piece of advice I had from a coach was choose what you’re going to fail at. That lets you say, ‘What is really important in terms of what I’m doing?’ and to be able to let go of some things, because otherwise, you become used up in the process.
Joseph: Before we wrap up, also, I was just thinking about these twists and turns in your career and those moments when you started to reassess the paths that you’re on. Was there something that you learned along the way that you wish you had learned or known about before?
Sacha: Spend time early on deciding what really matters to you. Probably if I had spent more time on that in my early 20s, I’d have made different choices earlier on in my life I think. It’s a hard one. I just don’t know whether there are some things that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but actually you just have to live your life and just be paying attention to what life’s telling you as you go along.
Joseph: Sacha, I’d like to wrap up by talking a little bit about what you’re doing now as a business to create a more vibrant and purposeful workforce in the UK. Can you just tell me a little bit about your blueprint for the UK and the focus on profit with purpose to create a more vibrant economy here?
Sacha: Over the last year, we brought together over 1,200 people face-to-face in one-day city inquiries around the country. After that, we’ve got two things: the Blueprint for Business, which was a real manifesto for the government saying, ‘Here are the things that we think would make a massive difference to sustainable growth with the economy and profits with purpose,’ and really getting business focusing on wider stakeholder interest, not just shareholder interest, was really important.
Then later this month, in October, we’ll be bringing out our call to action, which is really summarizing all of the ideas that came out on the themes around what it is that businesses can do to step forward, because I fundamentally believe that if we want to shape an economy that we’ll be proud to pass on to our children, everybody needs to step forward, not just people stepping back. It’s raining mud at the politicians, etc.
Politicians have got a phenomenally tough job to do. Imagine if instead of everyone throwing stones at them, we all step forward and said, ‘Let’s collectively make sure that we’re taking the responsibility to really make the changes that we think will create the future that we want.’ My fundamental belief is that business can play a massive part in that, and that’s incredibly stimulating to your people too.
Joseph: That’s incredibly empowering, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how these initiatives evolve over time. I think it’s wonderful that you’re taking such a lead role in these important efforts to create a more purposeful workforce here in the UK.
You mentioned children there. I got to sneak one last question in here, Sacha. In your bio, you also mentioned you got two sons, and you rely on them and your husband to bring perspective to your life. How do they help you maintain perspective in your own life?
Sacha: My husband is an incredible man. He’s super smart. He went to Cambridge. He was the Dutch in corporate finance, but when we had our first son, he chose to be the person who stayed at home with our children. We’re fortunate that one of us could afford to stay at home and be with the boys. What is wonderful is he understands the world I’m in but is also looking at it from an outside in. Sometimes, if I’m getting really stressed and fraught about stuff, he just is that reality check of, ‘You know what? Wake up. Nobody really care about X.’ He’ll just do that for a reality check.
My kids just do it in a funny way. There’ll be things like if there’s been something in the papers, and my picture’s in there, and it’s maybe not the most positive comment, I’ll come home to find that they’ve drawn all over my picture and put mustaches and stuff on me and stuff, so it just becomes funny.
They also just do beautiful touching things. When I got home Thursday night, and I’ve not been at home for 10 days because I’ve been traveling with business, my youngest son had just made a wood-burning coaster for me just with a heart on it and left it for me. There are just those special, beautiful moments.
Also, they do some reaffirming stuff. The way we get it to work in my life is that I come away on a Monday morning, and then I try to go home on a Thursday evening and work from home on a Friday. That sort of means that the boys and I will have the rhythm of when I’m there and when I’m not, and so you have the same for work as well. I’m lucky in that I have that sort of balance and perspective just from being able to live in those two separate worlds.
Equally, I know how I’ve made it work and how we’ve made it work for our family sometimes aren’t options for people or aren’t how people will choose to do it. What I do think is helpful is to say, there are many possibilities, and if you look at what’s important to you and your life, you can usually find a path that navigates through. Looking to how different people have done it differently may give you some ideas, and that’s all you can hope for really.
Joseph: I guess you’ve got to make sure you find your own way that also works really well for you and uniquely you. If people want to learn more about you or any of these initiative to create a more vibrant workforce in the UK like the Blueprint for Business or the new governmental initiative called the new Inclusive Economy Partnership that I know you’ve just recently been selected to co-chair, where can they go to find out more?
Sacha: Our website, and technically if you look at everything under vibrant economy gives you an insight into all the programs on that, and also #vibranteconomy on Twitter. I’m quite active on Twitter. That’s where I love to connect with people and share ideas. I’m @romanovsun there, which is a brilliant place to connect as well.
I would say actually, the Inclusive Economy Partnership—it’s worth mentioning—was fantastic because the UK government had recognized this power of convening people from civil society and from business and saying, ‘If we bring together our ideas and resources and really back things that could be scalable across the country, that could really help move things forward, particularly when the government at the moment have got an awful lot on their agenda.’ I’m really proud to be co-chairing that with Caroline Mason from the Esmée Fairbairn Association.
If people are interested on that, if you Google Inclusive Economy Partnership, you can find out how to get involved in that too.
Joseph: I know that you guys just recently had one of your first meetings, and I’m looking forward to seeing how all that evolves. I think it’s a great contribution you’re making to the society here. Thank you so much, Sacha, for telling us more about your career and what drives purpose in your work and your life, the importance of creating space, and also how you maintain a healthy perspective in your own life. Best of luck with your efforts to create more vibrancy, purpose, and inclusion for professionals out there.
Sacha: Brilliant. Thank you.