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PwC’s Carol Sawdye on Leadership and Living 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 Knowledge@Wharton recently to talk about leadership and why it’s imperative to take risks.

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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?

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.

Knowledge@Wharton: 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?

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.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is it necessary for people to be risk takers or as you call it “opportunity seekers?” What’s wrong with the status quo?

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?’”

Knowledge@Wharton: 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.

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 difficult conditions downtown for six months afterwards. But more importantly, the entire U.S. economy and the financial economy in New York City was very disrupted and I was working with clients that saw a lot of their fortunes get destroyed during that period and a lot of opportunities for companies to go public that never made it because of those singular events.

So it really reinforced my sense of urgency and my need to feel that I needed to keep my eyes open and look to see if there were other opportunities because many of my clients were in a difficult spot and life was hard and so I wanted to make sure that I was open to any potential moves. That was what made me answer the phone call from a headhunter who asked me if I wanted to have a cup of coffee with somebody at Skadden Arps, and that led to me becoming their chief financial officer shortly after.

Knowledge@Wharton: So what career advice would you give young women today or young men? And is there a difference? Should there be a difference?

Sawdye: I would go on record to say there absolutely is a difference. We need to be brave about that. We are different, men and women. And that’s a good thing, we should celebrate our differences. I do think, though, that women need one specific piece of advice which is [to be more confident].

Again, I bring up a story that Sheryl Sandberg told in [her book] Lean In, about the woman and man who look at the same job description for an opportunity and the man might have three of the credentials and say “I’m going to post for that job,” and a woman might have nine out of the 10 credentials for that job and say “I’m not qualified.”

You know, women have to stop saying they’re sorry and they have to be willing to take a chance, and some of that is all of us having the confidence to take those chances. I think we need to help raise each other up and that’s men and women, by the way. I think men should play a huge role in supporting and advocating for women to really break some of those societal norms [and] we shouldn’t be shy about the fact that those are truths — women have been raised differently and so they tend to think differently about their opportunities and qualifications than men. I think we all need to help try to turn that around, especially for those with the most potential.

“Women have to stop saying they’re sorry.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the characteristics that make for a great leader at a company and has your view changed over the years?

Sawdye: I think that there are some real fundamental qualities that are the same and tried and true, [such as having a] strong character, integrity. But what I do think is that the world has changed fairly dramatically in terms of the size and scope of companies, the global nature of companies, and society’s ability to access information on companies and people.

And that’s done something to a particular aspect of leadership: A CEO or anybody in senior leadership in a company represents the brand of that company. And so … it’s really important that that person not only be a role model but can stand up and be a representative of that brand, and some of that means being present in communications and press and social media in a way that [for] a lot of people [would be] outside of their comfort zone, and wouldn’t have been something that many would have thought would be an important quality.

I think today, it’s really important. The millennial generation wants to know their leaders and wants to see the authentic person that they are, so that CEO or leader needs to recognize that they need to be comfortable putting themselves out to their people. People want to get behind somebody and be inspired by somebody. But it needs to be real and it needs to be authentic, so that person has to be comfortable putting themselves out there.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s it like to be the CFO of a major accounting consulting firm, a major law firm and a major sports league? Which was more fun or more challenging?

Sawdye: Each and every one of those roles was challenging in a different way. Skadden — that’s where I made my first jump from being on the auditor advisor side to being a leader as the CFO and that was a big adjustment.… I would call it my first big challenge.

On the other hand, going from Skadden, which was a business professional services firm just like PwC, to joining the NBA [National Basketball Association] — a very different culture and at the beginning of the collective bargaining negotiations that transpired the entire time and then were resolved while I was at the NBA.

So each and every one of them had different but incredibly challenging aspects, but they built on each other. In terms of what was the most fun, it would be disingenuous to say that some of my moments, some of the most incredible moments were obviously at the NBA in terms of pure fun and storytelling.

But the gratification I get with developing people at PwC and being able to be impactful in developing an inclusive culture, a flexible work environment and a place where, we, the leadership team has the opportunity to serve 200,000 people around the world and make their lives different — that’s pretty fun too.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s the best piece of advice you can give other executives about how to manage people and bring out the best in them?

Sawdye: I actually think it starts with having a [good] relationship with [a colleague], because you have to [do it]. You can’t have trust between two people unless you develop a deep and meaningful relationship. You’ve got to invest in a relationship so that you have trust, [and] candidly, you can give feedback, good, bad or ugly, to that person and that person trusts that you have their best interests in mind.

You have to be able to give people regular feedback that’s genuine and unvarnished to be able to help them develop — and I don’t think you can do that without having a trusted relationship. So I think that’s the most critical thing you need to do.

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