PWC’s Carol Sawdye On Leadership And Living With A Sense Of Urgency by [email protected]
PwC’s CFO Carol Sawdye on Leading with a Sense of Urgency
Carol Sawdye, the vice chairman and chief financial officer of PwC, has been on an ascending career track precipitated in part by two major events in her life: the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Disease when she was 25 and experiencing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York up close.
These moments gave her a sense of urgency and fearlessness that has shaped her career choices and life decisions. For instance, after 9/11, she left an exceptional career path at PwC for a higher position as CFO at eminent law firm Skadden Arps and then at the NBA, before eventually finding her way back to PwC. Sawdye sat down with [email protected] recently to talk about leadership and why it’s imperative to take risks.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Q&A with Carol Sawdye
[email protected]: You’ve often talked about having a sense of urgency in your career because of a pivotal moment at the age of 25 when you were diagnosed with cancer. What did that prognosis make you do professionally and personally that otherwise you wouldn’t have done?
Carol Sawdye: Well, it’s pretty sobering to be told at 25 years old that you have a 50% chance of reaching 30. So I think that got me going, quite honestly, more than anything else. And it really crystallized for me that I needed to focus on what I cared about so that I didn’t have any regrets, personally and professionally.
One [simple] example of that is that I was living in New Jersey and I was commuting into [New York] City and it was close to an hour and a half each way. I moved into the city to get three hours of everyday back because time became very precious to me and I wanted to make the most of it.
And so similarly, from a career perspective, instead of sitting back and looking at my career as something that happened to me, I really felt like I needed to take charge of my career and make sure that I was seeking opportunities as opposed to waiting for them to come to see me.
[email protected]: So what does that sense of urgency look like in practical terms? Does that mean, for example, that you should just quit your job and join a kibbutz? Run away with the circus?
Carol Sawdye: I don’t think taking risks means being reckless. I actually think it’s bad to even call it taking risks, I think you should say it is seizing opportunities, you know? At PwC, we wrote a book on self-made billionaires and one of the things that we did was we tracked successful billionaires [and asked] “What was it about them that made them successful?” And one of the things [we discovered] was that entrepreneurs – and really successful entrepreneurs — saw not taking opportunities to be risks.
“It’s pretty sobering to be told at 25 years old that you have a 50% chance of reaching 30. So I think that got me going.”
In fact, the risk was really in staying still and so I like to think I have a little bit of that in me. Maybe I’m on a track to become a billionaire — I don’t think so — but I like to think of it as I see opportunities. I say to myself, and actually it’s a phrase that we use a little bit at PwC, which is “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” So I try not to be afraid and take opportunities, and then mitigate the risks associated with those opportunities.
[email protected]: You’ve said that you came from a very traditional, risk averse family. How were you able to compensate for that upbringing and get out of your comfort zone to climb the corporate ladder?
Carol Sawdye: Well, I hope other people can do it in a different way [than learn lessons through tough experiences]. They don’t need to be faced with a diagnosis of cancer to knock themselves out of a very conservative place. But my parents — and they raised four kids who all have become very independent and all had very responsible jobs — viewed accounting and engineering as important degrees to further people into independence.
That’s the biggest reason I became an accountant and I actually think that that was an important foundation. But having something [experiential] accelerated me into realizing that it wasn’t enough to just climb a straight corporate ladder.
As [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg says, it’s a jungle gym and sometimes you need to move left or right to move up ultimately, [after accounting for] all of those experiences, opportunities to do unique things, develop unique relationships, which I think is the most important thing that allows you to become who you are.
You need to encourage yourself to be different, not the same as everybody else and I think the corporate ladder inference is almost like you’re getting in line and following. In order to shake things up and actually accelerate your career, sometimes it’s better not to just climb straight up the ladder.
[email protected]: Is it necessary for people to be risk takers or as you call it “opportunity seekers?” What’s wrong with the status quo?
Carol Sawdye: There’s a tremendous amount of risk today. With the rapid changes that are happening in society — just think of the rapid advances in technologies, the seismic demographic shifts that are happening all around the globe, the shifts of economic power happening — staying in the status quo is a sure way to be extinct, I think.
I don’t think we all have a choice [but to embrace change]. In fact, any responsible business person, and I like to think of myself that way, has no choice but to constantly question the current business model that they’re operating in and say “What is the future of this business? How is technology going to change what we’re doing?” That’s the prudent and responsible path, as opposed to maintaining the status quo, which I think is the riskiest move of all.
“I say to myself, and actually it’s a phrase that we use a little bit at PwC, which is ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’”
[email protected]: You were living in New York during 9/11 and that was another pivotal moment in your life. Tell us what lessons you learned from that and how it made you decide to leave PwC after 17 years.
Carol Sawdye: Well, my diagnosis of Hodgkin’s, as you said, was when I was 25. 9/11 happened 11, 12 years later. I don’t want to say complacency completely set in because I don’t think it did, but it certainly was another wake up call about life being too short in a different way and to be honest, it wasn’t just a personal wake up call.
I lived a few blocks from Ground Zero, I was displaced during the days thereafter and lived in pretty