People

“I Couldn’t Think of Anything I Would Like to Do Less”

For her first CFO job, a veteran public accountant followed a path that she never would have considered, right up to the time she said yes.
David McCannFebruary 20, 2013

This is the first article in a three-part series chronicling Carol Sawdye’s round trip from PricewaterhouseCoopers partner to CFO jobs with the world’s biggest law firm, a major sports league, and, in a homecoming, the accounting firm itself.

Without really knowing it, Carol Sawdye found herself standing at the precipice of major change. It was just after 9/11. The terrorist attack on New York, so close to her home in lower Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, had thrown the PricewaterhouseCoopers partner’s world outside of work into confusion. And on the job, she had spent more than a year trying to cope with the bursting of the dot-com bubble, which had decimated much of her clientele, which was heavily new-media, and had shut off the spigot of initial public offerings.

“Life just seemed both professionally and personally hard at that point,” says Sawdye, who was named last September as PwC’s new finance chief. And “for whatever reason,” it put her in a frame of mind to explore career options with a recruiter who, some time before, had aggressively urged her to contend for a CFO job at a youthful online music company.

She hadn’t really pursued that direction. After some soul-searching, she had decided that working for a start-up wasn’t her style, even though she had acted as client-service partner for many such businesses. There were two components to the decision. For one, her husband’s work was (and still is) with venture-capital-backed entertainment and media companies, “and it wouldn’t have been wise for both of us to be at that end of the space.” More importantly, she simply viewed herself as more of an “institutional” person. “I decided my skill set wasn’t to help 29-year-olds run through the $10 million they had raised,” Sawdye says.

Still, such a move might have made some sense. During her 17 years at the public-accounting firm, she had been focused almost exclusively on clients in the entertainment and media fields. “I never thought I would leave PwC for anything other than a job in [those] industries,” she says.

It so happened, though, that the recruiter had another idea. There was an opening for the CFO spot at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, by some measures the world’s biggest law firm. Sawdye wasn’t buying. “I couldn’t think of anything I would want to do less,” she says.

But persistence is high on the list of qualities that make up the art of recruiting. Bending to the headhunter’s relentless missives to at least meet with officers of the law firm, Sawdye eventually agreed to the proverbial cup of coffee. One thing led to another, and before long she was well caffeinated, having endured “about 40” interviews for the job.

Forty? Really?

Really. “It was a really big deal for them, because they’d had only one person in that role in about 30 years,” she says. “And even though my bias was absolutely against going to a law firm, and I was very skeptical, they convinced me.”

She was most impressed by a sense that Skadden Arps didn’t conform to the stereotypical culture of elite law firms, with the partners viewing others working there, even executive managers, as outsiders.

“Skadden wasn’t like that,” Sawdye says, noting that the firm’s history differentiates it from most others. It was founded in 1948 by three Catholic attorneys who couldn’t find work in New York law firms despite their Ivy League credentials and whose first employee, Joe Flom, was Jewish and in the same predicament. “They treated me essentially as a lateral hire into their partnership ranks,” she says.

The firm also convinced her that the business models of law and accounting firms were similar enough generating revenue primarily through billable hours that the transition would be smooth. “They said, what better business could there be for me to make a move into management than one I already knew?”

Indeed, looking back now at her eight years at Skadden Arps, Sawdye says that while the firm has a reputation for being “fierce,” in reality “there couldn’t be a more collegial place to work.” She credits Flom with shaping the firm as a “total meritocracy: all you had to do was work hard and be smart. That applied to lawyers and nonlawyers alike.”

The job was also ideal for facilitating professional growth. The plan from the beginning was to hire her as CFO and then add on the chief operating officer title a few years later, as had happened with the veteran executive whom she would be replacing.

That plan was realized. But even from the beginning, Sawdye wore a lot of hats. The management structure there was much flatter than it had been at PwC, which was and is many times the size of Skadden Arps.

“I would say that, compared to the CFO role in most companies, I had far broader responsibilities,” she says. “It was an excellent experience.” Her duties, both as CFO and COO, encompassed “what practices we should be building, what offices we should be opening, what lateral hires we should be bringing in, what business models we needed to change, and whether we could charge for services as opposed to just billing hours.”

Still, despite the collegial environment, at law firms it’s inevitable that “the care and feeding of partners” is a principal responsibility for someone in an executive, nonpartner role, Sawdye notes. “I might be dealing with very large strategic issues, but any partner might call me and ask about something related to [his] travel, for example. When partners didn’t know what to do, they came to me, and it was my job to navigate an answer to their problem. That can be frustrating and is something that would make it more difficult to move from a corporate environment to a place like Skadden.”

Next: Sawdye plays basketball.