How to be a CEO in 2023: Something Big’s Sally Pritchett, winner of best culture of psychological safety

Sally Pritchett resized

“Yes, I know I don’t look like most female CEOs of creative agencies,” says Sally Pritchett, as she settles into her seat as we start our Zoom call.

She proceeds to make a self-deprecating joke about herself being “mumsy”, a lover of scarves, and entirely dressed in Marks & Spencer, for which her three kids mercilessly tease her for being “so uncool”.

She hasn’t got a speck of make up on her, either, which is indeed very different from the many female C-Suite executives that I’ve interviewed over the years in the creative industries. Already, I sense something very real, authentic and unashamed about Pritchett and I feel slightly embarrassed thinking back to my pre-Zoom rush to paint my face to save face.

A woman on a mission

Pritchett is clearly a woman on a mission to do leadership differently to what she’s seen in the past. Her background in the corporate sector was actually on the commercial side, rather than the creative side, of business. She was the only female in a group of about 20 men at director level, as well as being one of the youngest:

“I was made to feel very ‘grateful’ for being part of this group,” she says. “But I didn’t feel safe to be myself at all and regularly tried to be ‘one of the boys’ to fit in. Later, I found out the gender pay gap was about £20k+ between me and my ‘poor performing’ colleague.”

Prioritising psychological safety

These experiences were all grist to the mill because she left soon after to set up her own outfit, her own way, prioritising psychological safety and inclusivity; Something Big was born 22 years ago.

What also becomes quickly apparent about Pritchett’s leadership style is that she isn’t interested in ticking the boxes of what a CEO ‘should’ be doing, so she can put out a press release saying she’s doing it.

Opening the conversation by listening

For example, she explains to me why she doesn’t go through the bog-standard ‘here are our values on a credentials presentation’ with new joiners anymore because it doesn’t work:

“People used to see these words on a screen and go ‘oh yeah, that’s lovely’. But they didn’t really know what those buzzwords meant for us. They might relate the words to what they meant at previous workplaces, which wouldn’t necessarily be right. So now instead of telling people, we ask them. We say ‘what does teamwork mean to you?’ Or ‘have you heard of psychological safety?’ and we listen. That basically opens the conversation for us to explain what these values mean to us.”

Constant reinforcement leads to culture change, not one-offs

She’s learnt that psychological safety isn’t something that can be cultivated by sending someone on a one-off workshop, or doing a talk on the subject to all employees. It’s something that has to be constantly reinforced through words but, more importantly, actions.

“Psychological safety has to come from the top,” she says. “It has to be demonstrated time and time again, through vulnerability, active leadership, honesty and transparency, which gradually builds up trust. Then, over time, people will speak up and challenge the norms. When that happens, we celebrate it and take action because of it, then other people will feel more encouraged to do it.”

Compassionate, empathetic leadership

Pritchett personifies a compassionate, empathic leadership style which is often talked about as being ‘feminine’, but also ‘the future’ in business media. While she agrees with, and embraces this description of her leadership, she admits that she didn’t always feel this way. In the first half of her career, this style of leadership felt like a “sign of weakness”.

“I had to be careful of being too feminine, too much myself,” she says. “As I’ve got older, and since Covid-19 especially, I’ve realised that leadership which is about empathy and compassion is good leadership. I became a much stronger, more confident leader when I felt that this ‘feminine way’ was an acceptable way to behave.”

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Imposter syndrome

Nevertheless, she is honest about the fact that she continues to suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ and believes that everyone does. In order to deal with this, she’s had to carve out her own psychologically safe spaces outside Something Big, where she can share openly and honestly about the work challenges she’s grappling with. She attends a monthly peer group of other CEOs to do this.

“I know that no one here is going to ‘tell me off’ or judge me, and that’s critical because it enables me to be myself,” she says. “I was part of another group of CEOs previously, but it was American and full of alpha-males, which was not for me. There are men in my current group now but the difference is that I see huge empathy and compassion in them, and the way they lead.”

Typical ‘alpha leaders’

Her observation of the ‘typical alpha leader’ is that, under the immense pressure from stakeholders on generating profit, they often revert to a threat-driven ‘command and control’ style of leadership. She is determined not to do this under stress, which is one reason why Something Big is employee owned.

“We still have a lot of ‘I say this, but I do that’ type leadership going on in the business world, particularly when leaders are squeezed and that’s when not particularly nice behaviour can surface,” she says. “In larger organisations it can be easier to be more impersonal.”

But perhaps, then, there is much that larger organisations can learn from smaller organisations like Something Big, which are keeping it personal with employees? (Watch this space for inspiration soon about award winning initiatives that could be adapted for your organisation from Something Big.)

The power of leaders telling their stories

One thing other leaders can definitely learn from Pritchett is the power of telling their personal stories to pave the way for psychological safety throughout the company.

“Do we have to go first as leaders, in telling our stories?” she says. “Was it me saying that I had experienced anxiety that meant others opened up? Was it me first saying I had ADHD that opened the doors? Is it true that we can’t expect others to speak up if we don’t show that vulnerability ourselves? I don’t know, but I do know what me speaking up helped others speak up.”

People, planet, profit

Pritchett’s empathy extends to the planet – she’s just come back from a two day sustainability summit in Amsterdam – and is yet more evidence that firms with more women at the top make more climate-conscious decisions, like reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by about 5% more than firms with predominantly male managers (ref).

“It was kind of  COP, but for business,” she says. “But I think we’ll probably get more done than the politicians.”

I have no doubt, that if the other CEOS there match her drive and dedication, she’ll turnout to be right. The more leaders we have like Pritchett, the better it will be for our people, planet and profits.

Something Big won our Make A Difference Award for ‘Best Culture of Psychological Safety’ announced at The Watercooler Event in April 2023

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