Dame Cilla Snowball: Life after being CEO

One year on from stepping back as boss of Britain's largest advertising agency, Dame Cilla Snowball reveals the planning, practicalities and pain of going plural.

by Dame Cilla Snowball
Last Updated: 17 Jan 2020

There were many good things about working with and for Justin King when he ran Sainsbury’s. We were his ad agency (AMV BBDO) and he was both a superb client and a great leader. He had a philosophy on leadership around the 10 Cs – customers, colleagues, culture, communication, consistency, conviction, challenge, change, capability and (avoiding) complacency. All good stuff, apart from the fact that he would never shut up about his 10 Cs, to the point where I groaned every time he started up about them.

When planning this piece on going plural, imagine my horror on finding that pretty much all my observations began with the letter P. What a hypocrite for laughing at Justin. So I'm going to dive in and replicate Justin’s formula. It worked, it’s memorable and hopefully it will be helpful to those of you out there planning a portfolio career.

1. Planning when to make the switch isn’t easy. It isn't always an age thing (although I did choose to change path at 60). And it isn't about dissatisfaction either. I loved my day job from start to finish and left the advertising business as motivated and excited as when I joined. People ask how you know when to make the switch and the only answer I can give is that you’ll know when it’s the right time.

As Havelock Ellis wisely said, "All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on". Letting go to step into the unknown takes courage. But it’s way better to go when people are asking why you’re going not when you’re going. And in today’s uncertain business climate, it’s a privilege to be able to plan your own exit. So plan to leave on good terms and ideally your terms. While I set out my future financial plan in forensic detail, I didn’t spend too much time planning what my new portfolio might consist of. I waited until I'd finished my day job. Which brings me to my next point...

2. Pause a little before diving into new roles. Rather like returning from maternity leave, you’re not the same person when you return to work – and you’re not the same person when you stop work. Sensible people take a proper break or a holiday. I couldn’t, opting to sort out some eye surgery that put me out of action for a few weeks. But any sort of pause makes sense.

A period of reflection is essential. For many of us, working life is a pretty non-stop mission for decades. Going plural is a material change. A totally different structure and way of life. A reinvention. For me, it was the first time I’d been self-employed, and the first time I wasn’t working at full throttle. It was both delightful and weird at first. On the Friday afternoon of the first week, my friends took me to a matinee at the cinema and it felt very strange indeed, like bunking off.

Pausing helps you to think through how you’re going to fill the next ten years (probably) of your working life and what shape your portfolio will take, not just with work but with passions, hobbies and skill-building too. I decided really quickly that I wanted to work four days a week, that I wanted to learn new things, get more training on chairing FTSE committees and boards, and that I wanted more time for fitness, the outdoors and friends.

The other advantage of pausing is that it gives you time to change your mind about what you might want to do. Early on, I was interested in the possibility of lecturing, teaching and perhaps writing a book. Over time I’ve decided against all three options. It’s a big old world out there and there are endless options to explore. Going plural is a process and an exploration, not a quick fix.

What you think you want to do may change. Some headhunters advise it normally takes up to two years to complete a new portfolio. So take your time and be patient. Don’t rush to fill a portfolio with roles you might regret later or that might block you from doing better things.

3. You have to be picky. There won’t be any shortage of roles coming your way, and in great variety. The temptation is to check out as many out as possible, even if your initial reaction is lukewarm. Over time, you'll learn there's little point in finding out more about something that doesn’t excite you in the first place. Hold out for the one or – if you’re lucky  the ones that make you really excited.

The first "anchor role" in the portfolio is vitally important to get right. It helps to be clear on whether you want paid or unpaid roles, public or private, domestic or international. That clarity also makes saying "no" to roles much easier, something I found hard at first, conditioned by years of being super accommodating in a service business. The pro bono roles are much harder to say no to, largely because the causes are always so worthwhile. But again, you have to be picky. You have time now, but not unlimited time, so don’t give it away too freely.

4. Be proactive in your search too. Writing a wish list of companies and organisations you want to target, writing to people directly that you want to work with and briefing headhunters is all part of the process. On the latter, I found it pretty eye-opening compiling my CV, making sense of my career retrospectively and selling myself in that skills summary paragraph all good CVs seem to contain, but which filled me with horror when it came to writing my own.

A couple of head hunters were rightly brutal in getting my CV into shape and helping me identify and articulate my "personal brand" and my "pitch to market" as they described it, which is just as well because actually landing non-executive roles is a very competitive process.

5. The recruitment process is a long one because non-executive roles are so important. There's huge responsibility, accountability and scrutiny, not to mention liability at stake, on both sides. Recruitment takes longer than for executive roles, probably because of the number of panels and committees involved. But it’s a good and necessary process of rigorous and exacting selection on both sides.

6. As with most jobs, it all boils down to the people in the end. Who is as important as what. The best job in the world on paper with the wrong team won’t bring you any joy. In exploring new roles, your due diligence is as much about the finances as it is about the team you will join. Helpfully, interviews are brilliantly revealing.

Again, I was rusty, having been on the other side of the interview table for too long. Interviews this time round involve as much buying as selling, making careful assessments and choices about the team you pick to join, the leaders you choose to work with, the culture, the purpose, where and how you could add value. And vice versa, of course.

7. Personal development becomes a focus, a necessity and a consequence of doing new things in a new work structure. Portfolio work may not necessarily take up 100 per cent of your time and new skills are often required to handle new roles. I did training on FTSE chairing on the advice of a friend who’d gone through the same process a year previously.

It had the benefit of steering me closer to who and what I wanted and away from the things I thought I wanted. One friend took up Spanish lessons. Another did an Open University degree. All of us have placed a big emphasis on doing lots of mentoring and, in return, getting the full benefit of reverse mentoring from a youth squad so awash with ideas and potential and so keen to learn from experience.

8. Obviously there are new practicalities to sort – setting up a new company, VAT, possibly PA and IT support. I have coped better than I thought I would (so far) without the support structure that underpinned my career and quite enjoy my relative self sufficiency now, much to the surprise of friends who thought I would be hopeless.

I literally carry my office around in my rucksack now and am never apart from my phone charger and laptop lead. I am twice as physically active as I was in full-time work, walking as much as possible to and from meetings, with the all weather gear to facilitate. Less glamour certainly, but healthier by miles.

9. Be open to possibilities you may not have considered or planned. Portfolio life really is just the beginning: doors frequently open other (unexpected) doors. To take advantage of these, you have to be flexible, with the time and space to fully explore these options.

10. Go for premium. I’ve always said that the most important work decision you’ll make is choosing the company you work for. Starting afresh enables you to work for and with the best. In the rush to get your new portfolio sorted (not helped by people constantly asking you what you are going to do next), it’s tempting to rush in and get sorted out quickly. But holding out for premium organisations and talent more than justifies the wait.

So there you have it. Plural life is about planning ahead, pausing at every stage and being picky and proactive in a process that centres on people and personal development. It involves many new practicalities but endless possibilities and premium opportunities.

There are painful parts to portfolio life, of course. The worst, by far, is people asking me how my retirement is going, which enrages me. Finally, much as you are starting a new life, you can’t instantly wipe out the decades of investment and enjoyment in your old life. I’ve been corrected more than once from saying "we" when referring to my old business – and it will take more than a year to fix that.

The former group CEO of advertising giant AMV BBDO, Dame Cilla Snowball is now a governor of the Wellcome Trust, a non-executive director of Derwent London plc and chairman of the GREAT campaign Private Sector Council for the Department for International Trade. She is a judge for Management Today's NextGen Awards, recognising the businesses with the potential to be tomorrow’s superstars. If you have a team, a leader, an individual performer or a work culture that deserves to be an award-winner, then enter now.


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