Leadership Stories: Sally Bridgeland

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Leadership Story: Sally Bridgeland is a 2023 winner in the Non-Executive Director Awards. From topping her year in maths at Imperial College to becoming CEO and Chair of several organisations, and Honorary Group Captain (Royal Air Force), she has gained an appreciation of the neurodiversity of her teams and the need for fun in the workplace.

What does leadership mean to you, and how has your approach or style changed over time?

A leader is someone who I follow joyfully. Someone who has made the purpose of my work clear and given me the flexibility to do my part in a way which suits how I work best.

As a leader of an actuarial team over thirty years ago, I expected everyone to be able to do what I could do, and to do it in the way that I did it. I was very specific and deliberate in giving instructions.

Working with more diverse teams challenged that leadership style and has evolved into one which works better for both members of the “drama club” and members of the “chess club”, which is my shorthand for neurodiversity. The key is to tailor your style to the people that you are leading and the type of mission that you’re on. Actuarial trainees are generally good at a “chess club” way of working, where the leader is directive and the moves and rules are clear.

In my CEO role, I learned to be more “drama club” by gathering the cast together and telling them the story of what the happy ending looks like. I also describe the twists and turns which might present themselves. If an experienced, knowledgeable and diverse team knows where you want to go, they can point themselves in the right direction and can add some magic that you weren’t expecting. An empowered team where people know that you’re available to nudge things in the right direction is essential when you are working part time, or in today’s hybrid work settings.

The one constant is making sure I don’t take myself too seriously, and as a team, that we make the time to have fun together.

What have been the biggest challenges and the biggest successes in your life, and what have you learned from them?

The biggest challenge, by a long way, has been going through IVF for a decade before becoming a mother. It has taught me patience, resilience, determination and how to deal with disappointment. I move on from setbacks very quickly. It has also taught me that everyone around me may be going through similar challenges and heartbreak in a way which is completely hidden; to tread gently and to be there.

Of course there’s been a good few doses of chauvinism along the way. My worst experience was a university internship in Switzerland in 1984 (only 11 years after women started voting) where my supervisor honestly believed that women couldn’t do maths. I was working on some knotty fluid mechanics equations so that was a bit of a challenge. He shouted a lot. That calibrated my scale for sexist behaviour - working in London was never that bad!

Most of the obvious successes - from coming top in my first year at maths at Imperial College and passing all the actuarial exams without failing, through to more public awards for part-time working and this year’s NED award - were complete surprises. I’ve learned that the best way to build someone’s confidence is an unexpected compliment!

My successes in business - negotiations and innovations - all took longer than I expected. I had to wait for a change in someone at the top to take the opportunity to try something different. Other innovations, despite being brilliant and completely logical, simply didn’t catch on. So I have learned that timing matters; understanding the market environment that you’re playing into matters; getting stakeholders lined up matters; knowing who really makes decisions matters. And you may need patience, persistence and a bit of luck.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

Don’t wait to be asked. If you see something that you think you can do well and that you’re passionate about, then ask for help in getting there. As a woman, sometimes you are less visible or obvious - or men may even hold back from asking you. Ask nicely and people will be delighted to support you. There were a couple of times in my life when I did that, and it led to wonderful opportunities to serve my profession and broaden my network in the City of London. In turn this led to some of the non-executive directorships I have today.

Learn to live without feedback. As a leader, you’ll have to have confidence in your own judgement. It’s tough at the top, but easier if you have weaned yourself off the constant appraisal and grading that we get used to at school and in our early years at work.

Be different. Grasp opportunities to take the less trodden paths - what seems like a sideways or even backwards move will take you upwards over time. Build your experience and network to differentiate yourself from the many others who see themselves as leaders. Having great technical qualifications and formal business credentials is only the start.

Know yourself. Don’t try to be a man. Don’t beat yourself up about not being as good as your favourite role model. Know your strengths and play to them: focus on the things that you are good at, passionate about and which are valued by the people around you. Know your weaknesses and make sure there’s someone who can cover those off: it’s what diverse teams are all about.

The key is to tailor your style to the people that you are leading and the type of mission that you’re on.

Sally Bridgeland
Sally Bridgeland

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