After the United Kingdom’s June decision to withdraw from the European Union, shockwaves reverberated through stock markets around the world and business executives huddled to discuss what came next.
1985 University of Virginia graduate Carol Sawdye, having just stepped into her new role as global chief operating officer for multinational management consulting firm PwC, was among those carefully monitoring the fallout. She returned to Grounds on Friday for the McIntire School of Commerce Fall Forum, “Europe at the Crossroads,” where she and other global business executives examined threats to the European Union and discussed how businesses can navigate present uncertainty.
UVA Today caught up with Sawdye, who is COO for the network with 157 territories worldwide, to hear more about the business challenges and opportunities she sees within the European Union and how businesspeople, from top executives to students just entering the workforce, can succeed in this environment.
Q. What do you see as the most significant challenges facing companies operating within the European Union?
A. Let’s put aside the most recent events and look at what has been going on in the European Union for some time now. The aging of the skilled labor force across Europe is a huge issue, particularly in northern Europe. This causes scarcity of resources for everyone who needs them and has dampened productivity and challenged growth across Europe.
Immigration can be of some help by filling in for that aging demographic. Making significant technology investments could also increase the productivity in the current labor force. I see that as a huge opportunity, and believe that rapid changes in technology and the move to cloud computing could have exponential benefits.
Q. As the consequences of the Brexit vote continue to take shape, how might that sea change impact PwC and similar firms?
A. London is the biggest economic center in the European Union and Brexit certainly created very challenging issues across Europe, especially regarding the mobility of the workforce. A big part of what my business does for a living is working with global companies to assist in business transformations. It makes no sense for us to view talent as contained within individual countries in the European Union. Tariffs and other constraints on mobility could make it much more difficult for us to bring together, in an economically viable way, teams of people to work on projects. I think this decreased mobility could be a real challenge for us and for many other firms.
The vote also impacted our employees in the U.K. We have a very global, multicultural team, and many of them in London are now concerned about their futures.
Q. What key factors will you look for as the U.K. triggers Article 50 and negotiates with the EU?
A. I certainly hope there is a compromise that allows the critical issues of labor mobility and capital flows to be resolved. Fortunately, there is time. There will be no changes for two years once Article 50 is triggered, and it will probably be a decade before changes are fully implemented.
However, economic forecasts and dire predictions have already hurt many companies in the U.K. Much of my staff works in London, so I spend a good deal of time there and I was actually right before the Brexit vote. The real estate market, for example, was impacted literally the next day and I witnessed that firsthand with friends and colleagues.
Even with that initial shock, I still believe that, given the time and the opportunity to negotiate, Brexit, which appeared as such a stark, dire reality the day after the vote, the outcome could ultimately be more balanced by negotiations.
Q. Looking at the European market, where do you see opportunities emerging over the next decade?
A. Uncertainty always brings opportunity. It might bring risk, but it also brings opportunity. We operate very successfully in an uncertain environment, because companies need our advice. We spend a lot of time looking at data across various clients and countries, and people come to us for insights on that information.
There is a real opportunity to invest in technology. People must look at the broader issue, which is that the demographics of many of these Western countries are causing the skilled labor force to shrink. We need ways to inject productivity and broaden the labor pool. We might also need to find new ways to control or organize that process so that it can happen in a safe and secure way.
Q. What advice do you have for students eager to work internationally? How can they set themselves up for success in the current climate?
A. Everyone – and students are in the best position to do this – should remain agile. Coming out of school, the world is your oyster. You have not yet made life decisions that have restricted your ability to move, pivot or to start again. You are in a great position to operate in an uncertain and ambiguous environment, so don’t reduce those options. Stay mobile. Rent versus buy, and I’m not just referring to homes. Our sharing economy is a great opportunity for people of all ages to stay agile and mobile.
Raise your hand for opportunities to spend time abroad, especially in emerging markets. You don’t have to go for six years; maybe you could find a three- or six-month project. Most companies, ours included, have realized that we need to build our people’s global acumen earlier in their careers and in shorter spurts. We all need an inclusive mindset in approaching our work, because we have to navigate a world where we must be empathetic to people of very diverse backgrounds. Globally, I believe we are more co-dependent than ever, despite what it might appear.
Students today have grown up in a world where mobile technology and rapid technology changes are second nature to them. This is a great advantage, and they can teach leaders in their organization about new technology. Our company is in the process of switching to Google tools, and we tapped into our millennial workforce to coach the partners of the firm. So, students have a real opportunity to be technology leaders.
Finally, have fun with it. Keeping your head down and developing technical skill is only a fraction of what your long-term career is about. Keep the relationships that you make at school and early in your career. The person I met on my first day at my firm is now our global chair and a big reason why I am in my current role. We had no idea where we would end up at the time.