Author Gib Bulloch hopes a new generation of millennial leaders will be more successful than the former Grant Thornton CEO in challenging the status quo and espousing genuine purpose
Hire and fire is an expression that has always been an important part of the corporate vernacular, particularly in the competitive world of professional services. The subtext seems to be that your employment is dependent on one of two extremes: with the implicit deal that you surrender long-term job security and commitment from your employer in return for corporate rewards, whether financial or career-based. A case for making hay while the sun shines, as another saying goes.
I’m sure that Sacha Romanovitch had an opportunity to make a lot of “hay” during her 28 years in the sunshine at independent accounting and consulting firm Grant Thornton. But I wonder how prepared she was for the dark clouds that arrived in October, when her leadership style was attacked and it was announced she would be stepping down when a successor is found.
An everyday occurrence for business leaders, perhaps, so why should it matter? Look a bit closer and you’ll find that even CEOs can become the victims of what I term “the corporate immune system”; the invisible antibodies that seek to snuff out anything that doesn’t equate to short-term profit maximisation.
Romanovitch has tried to bring genuine purpose (and the word genuine is an important distinction) to a traditional global accountancy firm. News reports indicate that her “crimes” include capping her own salary, sharing profits with employees and taking proper summer breaks with her family – walking the talk as a role model for the power of a digital detox. A new style of leadership it may be, but was it really so threatening to the long-term financial stability of the company that she needed to leave?
Many have argued that more CEOs should follow in the footsteps of Unilever’s impressive (and sadly outgoing) CEO Paul Polman by repositioning their organisations to become more “ethical corporations”. Romanovitch attempted to do just that – and it appears to have cost her dearly. The irony is that even when you are captain of the ship, there are inherent dangers in rocking the boat.
The message, like my use of metaphors, is mixed. But until we diffuse the decision-making within these multinational institutions, incumbent power structures will protect the status quo and limit the ability to drive the positive change that could reinvent the nature of work. For this to happen, ultimately, we may require a new kind of democratisation within the multinational corporation.
Diversity is also about embracing the talents of people who think and act differently
Before taking this somewhat radical idea further, let’s look at the possible leadership dynamics at play in big businesses such as Grant Thornton. Might there be an underlying diversity issue in the upper echelons of the firm? Could it be possible that gender prejudice has been a contributing factor in Romanovitch’s lack of suitability?
Clearly, being a woman in a man’s playground will not have helped her situation. Here was a charismatic woman leader who could not only go head-to-head with a predominantly masculine leadership in the basics of running a business, but also introduce a natural empathy and intuition that her male counterparts either didn’t have or felt unable to reveal – moreover, according to her staff, she was highly successful.
For me, diversity is not just about a narrow definition of gender, sexual preferences or race. It’s about embracing the talents of people who think and act differently, too. There seems to be precious little of that in today’s corporate boardrooms. Let me put it to you straight: With a handful of notable exceptions, the people who are running our largest global corporations are hopelessly ill-equipped to drive the necessary change and innovation required to reinvent business for the socio-economic challenges of the 21st century.
Caveat that with “not on their own”, at least. Inclusive, responsible, sustainable business; shared value, corporate social responsibility and all these other terms were not part of the business vernacular in the 1990s, when many of today’s leaders were getting their Ivy League MBAs. The Friedman-esque view on the “sole purpose of business….” reigned supreme.
I saw the same thing happening in the consulting organisation where I worked (now known as Accenture) during the e-business boom of the late Nineties. The most senior, best-paid, longest-serving partners saw their traditional, deep business experience rendered semi-redundant in favour of the entrepreneurial, innovative, digitally savvy, risk-takers of the junior consulting ranks. And this new breed of leaders was happy to forego the promise of a golden carrot 25 years in the future by leaving the firm to create a new generation of internet-based start-ups. Might we be witnessing the same scenario unfolding when it comes to affinity to, and understanding of, sustainability?
The rise of the intrapreneurship movement fills me with hope for the future
Today’s oft-quoted millennial generation will account for 75% of the workforce by 2020. Indeed, they’ve already hit that level in professional service organisations like my alma mater, Accenture, and no doubt also in Grant Thornton. Career success alone won’t do —millennials are experiential-driven and want career significance, too. And they will go the extra mile to get it. They’ve grown up with the Millennium Development Goals and are now eager to engage with the Sustainable Development Goals.
It is this generation who are best equipped to drive change, from the bottom up, and from the inside out. I led the team that created Accenture Development Partnerships back in 2003, and was told it was crazy to suggest that Accenture employees would accept a voluntary salary cut to work in the non-profit sector. Today, over 50,000 Accenture employees are queuing up to do exactly that.
Vas Nasasimhan, the dynamic young CEO of Novartis, aims to “unboss” the company. In so doing he is likely to empower the internal mavericks, misfits, changemakers and troublemakers inside – the dormant Elon Musk-type social entrepreneurs or, indeed, intrapreneurs that are inside many businesses awaiting enlightened leaders like Nasasimhan to come along. The rise of the intrapreneurship movement, through the likes of The League of Intrapreneurs, Circle of Young Intrapreneurs and Aspen’s First Mover’s programme, fills me with hope for the future.
There’s also employee activism emerging from Silicon Valley in companies like Google and Microsoft. Just wait until these millennials discover they have both agency and voice when it comes to demanding change – without requiring a “c” in their job title. Power is definitely shifting downwards and outwards in such corporate hierarchies. If heads remain in the proverbial sand, the CEOs of large companies are in danger of appearing like black cabbies in an Uber world, or Blockbuster to the Netflix generation. I know where I’d place my bets when it comes to who will succeed in driving change.
Are these the early signs of an exciting new wave of corporate democratisation? It’s probably too early to tell. But here’s a pertinent question: How big do the likes of Amazon or Apple have to grow before the (wo)man in the street demands a say in how they’re run, and for whose benefit?
Romanovitch is a good example of an intrapreneur. She enjoyed an approval rating of 88% amongst employees, who clearly got what she was doing and why she was doing it. Sadly, it appears that her peers in the leadership didn’t – or perhaps felt threated by something more than Romanovitch herself. Had her fate been put to a democratic vote involving the firm’s entire workforce and perhaps even its clients, instead of Grant Thornton’s board, is it possible she would still have been in her same post next year? It may be small consolation, but on behalf of all intrapreneurs out there and those who respected (and understood) what you stand for, Sacha Romanovitch, we salute you.
Gib Bulloch is author of The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a corporate insurgent
Sacha Romanovitch Paul Polman corporate sustainability intrapreneurs