City female boss quits, chaps sigh relief. The old system grinds on | Stefan Stern

The resignation of Sacha Romanovitch from Grant Thornton shows ‘responsible capitalism’ still has a long way to go

Which senior business leader tweeted these words just over a month ago?

“We need a new operating system for the world – to move from self-interest, competition and hierarchy to shared purpose, collaboration and connected communities. The old system just isn’t serving us for the challenges the world faces today.”

The sender of the tweet was Sacha Romanovitch, the chief executive of the UK’s fifth largest accountancy firm, Grant Thornton. On Monday it was announced that Romanovitch would shortly be stepping down after three and a half years in the top job.

The news came at the end of a turbulent few weeks at the firm. Not long after that ambitious tweet was sent, a copy of Romanovitch’s annual performance review was leaked to some financial journalists. The leaker claimed to represent as many as 15 Grant Thornton partners, and said that the CEO was pursuing a “socialist agenda” which was damaging profitability. She was “misdirecting” the firm, it was claimed.

And so the one and only female boss of a big accountancy firm in the UK will take her leave, and the chaps will breathe an enormous sigh of relief. Romanovitch may have served almost 30 years at the firm, and been a member of the leadership team since 2008. But for some colleagues this talk of new approaches to business was clearly a bit too much. She had introduced a bonus scheme, which meant all employees could get a share of the firm’s profits, not just the partners. For goodness’ sake, she had even capped her own salary at no more than 20 times the firm’s average pay on becoming CEO in 2015. That is simply not playing the game. Where would it all end?

It is not as though “business as usual” looks like a particularly wise option for the accountancy profession just now. The scandal surrounding the collapsed business Carillion, which had been served by all the big four accountancy firms (KPMG, EY, PwC and Deloitte) at one time or another, has highlighted failings in accountancy practices. There is talk of a possible break-up of the big four, and a reassessment of accountancy standards. Indeed, Grant Thornton cannot be let off the hook here either. Its auditors failed to spot (or report) the irregularities that have seen Luke Johnson’s Patisserie Valerie chain undergo a near-death experience. Perhaps the Grant Thornton auditors assigned to this client had not been reading Romanovitch’s memos – or tweets.

As is clear from reading Romanovitch’s Twitter timeline, she does not approve of lazy stereotypes or careless caricatures. “Confining people to stereotypes denies the possibility of them being all of who they are,” she tweeted last week. The problem is that so many of her colleagues seem to have conformed precisely to the stereotype of the uptight, middle-aged Anglo-Saxon male.

She clearly has experienced some behaviour of that kind. “Had quite a forceful discussion with a group of older men at a dinner where they were saying how #metoo had gone too far,” she wrote recently.

The crushing inevitability of Romanovitch’s departure is perhaps the saddest part of all this. Of course the system struggles to accommodate and tolerate such a radically different ethos. Of course it will seek to drive out someone who threatens to upend convention and force people actually to think for the first time in decades. The grindingly slow process of corporate governance reform in this country is almost 30 years old. There has been some progress. Doubtless there would have been more and worse scandals without any reform at all. And yet, as Grant Thornton’s partners – some of them, anyway – have reminded us, there are some things that a chap is just not prepared to put up with.

For years, many hoped that a magical phenomenon called “enlightened self-interest” would steer business leaders towards a different way of doing things. Others have tried rational persuasion, making a “business case” for better behaviour. In practice, a twin-track approach – a genuine change of heart combined with the threat of tougher legislation – has brought about some improvements, on the issue of sustainability, for example. But the culture of many big businesses and organisations remains fundamentally unchanged and resistant to the idea that alternative methods are required. It is this attitude that has helped provoke the widespread popular cynicism and resentment towards business, which might encourage a future, more radical government to intervene more forcefully on issues such as executive pay and ethnic and gender balance.

A few weeks ago, Romanovitch tweeted this observation: “Think many leaders across business, local government and community leaders are moving in this [progressive] direction – yet in major tension with a world that mainly operates on the old system.”

That was perceptive and it prompted this response from one of her followers: “Why is it so hard for leaders to exercise their imagination and envisage a different world not predicated on growth and wealth for the few? Surely, any leader worth his/her salt would want every person in their charge to thrive – not just the chosen few.”

We await an answer to this question.

• Stefan Stern is co-author of Myths of Management and the former director of the High Pay Centre


Stefan Stern

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Leading lights in business and music: Sacha Romanovitch and Annie Clark | Letters
Letters: Kate Sutton champions the first female boss of a major City accountancy firm, who is stepping down, and Andy Moorhouse sings the praises of the singer, songwriter and ace guitarist also known as St Vincent


18, Oct, 2018 @5:28 PM

Article image
Here’s another job for migrants in Britain – taking on the City’s greed | Aditya Chakrabortty
A small union standing up for low-paid cleaners has set its sights on a corporate colossus, and its patronage of Tate Modern, says Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty

Aditya Chakrabortty

18, Apr, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
The failure of accountancy’s big four has one solution: nationalisation | Ellie Mae O’Hagan
PwC, EY, Deloitte and KPMG audit major corporations and banks. But a string of scandals suggest they aren’t fit for purpose, says freelance journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan

Ellie Mae O'Hagan

13, Jun, 2018 @12:28 PM

Article image
Harassment is just one of the unfair obstacles we women in business face | Sophia Matveeva
As a female CEO myself, I have seen the host of extra challenges we face in getting startups off the ground, writes Sophia Matveeva, CEO of the Enty app

Sophia Matveeva

26, Sep, 2018 @11:48 AM

Article image
The Bank of England’s view of menopausal women is demeaning | Ros Altmann
The Bank’s deputy governor described the UK economy as ‘menopausal’. This type of bias has no place in modern thinking, says Ros Altmann, the UK government’s former pensions minister

Ros Altmann

16, May, 2018 @3:21 PM

Article image
Why so few women in the boardroom? Because men won’t listen to them | Christina Patterson
We’ll stop the fuss about gender if the other half will just occasionally shut up, says writer Christina Patterson

Christina Patterson

15, Mar, 2019 @8:59 AM

Article image
The British Steel scandal is a corporate disaster entirely made in the UK | Prem Sikka
The government must stop appeasing the financial industry and start scrutinising corporations and their shareholders, says professor of accounting Prem Sikka

Prem Sikka

24, May, 2019 @9:55 AM

Article image
Deloitte names highest-ever proportion of female partners
But men still make up 80% of pool of senior employees at the ‘big four’ accountant

Rob Davies

30, May, 2016 @11:01 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on BBC pay: no more excuses | Editorial
Editorial: Why equal pay really matters: ‘It’s as though bosses had naked pictures of you in their office and laughed every time they saw you’


30, Jan, 2018 @6:21 PM

Article image
Sorry, chaps, but denial won’t fix the gender pay gap | Tania Branigan
There are many ways to tackle pay inequality – but trying to explain the problem away is not one of them, says Tania Branigan, a Guardian leader writer

Tania Branigan

24, Mar, 2018 @6:00 AM