“My First Thought Was That I Couldn’t Imagine Doing That”

But Carol Sawdye’s first thought about a return to PwC didn’t last long. Her career is newly energized by diverse responsibilities and a wide-open ...
David McCannFebruary 22, 2013

This is the final article in a three-part series profiling Carol Sawdye, recently named CFO at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Part 1 focused on her move 12 years ago from PwC to become finance chief at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, the world’s biggest law firm. Part 2 followed her to her next job heading finance at the National Basketball Assn.

In the summer of 2012, Carol Sawdye was once again contemplating a career move. The main projects she had been working on for two years as CFO of the National Basketball Assn., related to the league’s collective-bargaining negotiations with its players, were finished. Exciting as those projects were, she didn’t see that she had growth potential in the organization.

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Sawdye was mulling what other kinds of opportunities she could find in the media and entertainment field, which had been a career-long passion, when she got a call from Bob Moritz, the U.S. chairman of PwC. 

A call from Moritz wasn’t unusual. The two were close, having started working together at PwC on the same day in 1985 as new college graduates. But the reason for the call caught her off guard: would she like to come back to the firm where she worked as an auditor and partner until 2001, this time as the firm’s CFO? 

“My first thought was that I couldn’t imagine doing that,” says Sawdye. “I was biased in that I didn’t want to go back to that culture.”

In the classic professional-services-firm model, retaining a large percentage of new hires long enough for them to become partners was not a goal. The firms’ economics wouldn’t work if the ratio of partners to staff were too high. Turnover was always rampant, as the firms’ modus operandi was to “burn and churn,” heaping long hours and much stress on their young workers.

But at the major professional-services firms like PwC, that attitude underwent change in the 11 years Sawdye was away working at other jobs. It’s no secret that the firms have been greatly challenged in recent years to hire enough graduates to best serve all their clients. As long ago as 2008, CFO published a lengthy article in which the seven largest public accounting firms all positioned themselves as having become flexible on working hours and far more employee-friendly.

Moritz’s pitch to Sawdye rested heavily on an assurance that not only had the firm’s culture changed, but that he wanted it to change a lot more.

As was the case when Sawdye left PwC to become CFO at law firm Skadden Arps, the job offer prompted a lot of soul-searching. “If I took this job, it would mean I wasn’t going to pursue entertainment and media anymore,” she says. But her introspection and her talks with Moritz led her to a realization that what she was best at doing was managing professional-services firms.

“The opportunity to be the CFO of PwC was compelling, especially coming at a time when [it] had a tremendous leadership team,” Sawdye says. “Bob had a real vision for the firm, and I saw that we could be both the best at client service and the best to our people.” She accepted the job.

Since she rejoined the firm last October, she’s devoted more than half her time to “an enormous, multiyear global-transformation project.” It is partly about upgrading and standardizing the technology tools at the disposal of partners and staff, and generally standardizing service delivery and support practices around the world.

It’s also partly about continuing the process of unlocking the old high-turnover model so as to improve client-service delivery. One way to do that and keep the firm economically sound is to promote the idea of part-time professionals, some of whom, for personal reasons, may have little or no interest in being a partner.

“We are now building a contingent workforce, and that’s a big part of the transformation,” Sawdye says. The company is tapping into all kinds of part-timers, such as retired people and women who have stepped out of the full-time workforce to raise children. “If you want to work only during our busiest 10-week period, you’re helping us, you’re getting some work every year, and you’re more confident that if you want to come back full time, you’ll be able to do it without having lost your currency,” says Sawdye.

Flexibility models are being created for everyone, not just part-timers. “We literally don’t care where or when you’re doing your work, as long as the results are there. You can balance your personal life. And this is from the bottom of the organization to the top and across all lines of services.”

The transformation project is borrowing elements of Skadden Arps’s business model for delivering streamlined services globally, about which Sawdye says she was “very passionate.” Such a model is more difficult to achieve at public accounting and consulting firms like PwC, which are more highly regulated than law firms, and because the global networks of PwC and others consist of affiliated partner firms. “Nonetheless, from an aspirational viewpoint I’ve always thought PwC should have that kind of seamless global-service delivery,” Sawdye says. She says the ongoing transformation “is the single biggest bet we’re making with our business right now.”

Her finance role in the transformation’s execution is to monitor proposed investments in the project and analyze what revenue or cost-saving benefits would result. “I’m the one saying, wait a minute. Where the rubber meets the road is in our planning and budgeting process. We have to make sure all of these ideas make sense from a dollars-and-cents viewpoint.”

Meanwhile, if Sawdye’s goal was to find an employer that would offer her plenty of room to grow, she feels she’s found that now. Her role is an extremely expansive one that serves as another reminder of how much big multinational firms expect from their CFOs.

In fact, she’s far from just the CFO. For one thing, she was appointed as vice chairman in addition to CFO. What’s most important to her is that she’s a member of the firm’s 15-person senior-leadership team. Everyone on the team has responsibilities beyond his or her primary functional areas.

As the CFO, Sawdye oversees the usual stuff: the firm’s accounting, treasury, tax, investment, budgeting, and financial-planning activities. But also reporting to her are real estate, security, and much of PwC’s nonclient-facing support infrastructure. On the leadership team, she represents the heads of the firm’s human-capital, IT, and legal functions, as well as finance.

All of that is still only part of her role. She serves as senior client-relationship partner and gets out in the field visiting clients. She also heads the firm’s recruiting activities at several universities and its women’s initiatives. 

And the future? The firm is oriented toward having leadership roles last three to four years. The intention is that after she’s been the CFO for that amount of time, “we’ll see what makes sense,” she says. “But because of my background and having grown up at the firm, there’s no reason I couldn’t lead a line of service, or sales and marketing, or play a role with our global network. Really, there is nothing prohibiting me from doing any of that.”

Sawdye doesn’t say so, but one could suppose that the broad experience she’s collected so far and is still developing might position her to run the firm herself one day. Moritz was just reelected as U.S. chairman for four more years, after which the partnership’s bylaws will prohibit him from running again (although he could become global chairman, as his predecessor did).

What then? Sawdye presumably will be ready for her next role. We’ll be watching.