Dame Cilla Snowball

Leading Questions: Dame Cilla Snowball

12 October 2018

Dame Cilla Snowball is Group CEO and Group Chairman of advertising agency AMV BBDO. She chairs the Women’s Business Council and has been named one of the ‘100 most powerful women in the UK’. In our regular series on leadership, she shares her insights on “cognitive diversity”, the business imperative of gender equality – and how she learnt to value excellence over perfectionism.

What did you learn from your early work experience?

I started as a fresh-faced graduate trainee in account management in 1981. I learned that you have to work very hard to get a great job – and if you are curious and willing, lots of responsibility will be given to you early.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting their career?

You’ve got to learn fast, so I’d advise people to dive in and understand the dynamics of the industry they’ve joined, and to learn from as many people as possible in a wide variety of roles in their company.

Dame Cilla Snowball

“Stop trying to be a perfectionist; excellence is fine”

Are there leaders you have worked with that you particularly admire?

I’ve had the good fortune throughout my career to work for good bosses who have not only been good at their jobs, but have also pulled me up the ladder behind them to progress my own career.

I’ve also been so lucky to work with lots of brilliant leaders in my own client base. Fiona Dawson of Mars Foods, Carolyn McCall of ITV. Chris Stibbs at The Economist. I admire leaders who are finding paths to growth, who build great teams and deliver a great product.

What’s the best piece of advice you have been given in business?

The best piece of advice I’ve had from a colleague was from a departing boss of mine who wrote me a letter as he left saying “stop trying to be a perfectionist; excellence is fine”. It came at a moment where I was in manic overdrive towards perfectionism in everything that would have killed me if I’d continued with it. So I was very grateful for that constructive criticism at an important time.

What skills mark out the best leaders?

The best leaders are obsessed with their customers and their colleagues. They obsess about customer satisfaction, quality in everything, and the motivation of their teams. They are people people. They get results.

How do you keep on top of your team when leading a huge company?

I think good leaders need to have good teams around them and always have an eye on succession and building the next generation of leaders. And in a world where we haven’t got enough women in senior roles in most industries, we’ve got to keep an eye on diversity – not just of gender but ethnicity and cognitive diversity so we get lots of different ideas coming from lots of different perspectives.


What do you do to keep things fresh when you’ve been leading an organisation for many years?

The market changes very fast and the needs of our customers are changing constantly. So we’re trying to create a culture where teams are always learning and skills are developed. There are a lot of jobs that didn’t exist 20 years ago, or even five years ago, so our teams and skill-base is getting much broader, with an ever-increasing number of specialists. Collaboration and teamwork has never been more important as the disciplines contained within a team become more diverse.

What do you look for in potential leaders?

A commitment to quality, integrity, growth and people.

Is it easier for a woman to progress to a leadership level than it was at the start of your career?

It’s an issue that’s important from classroom to boardroom. Some of the issues we’re looking at closely on the Women’s Business Council are whether enough girls are studying STEM subjects, eliminating the gender pay gap, whether there’s enough flexibility in the working environment, how you are supported if you are starting your own business, the role of men in driving change, what happens when you have caring responsibilities, and so on. We need to embrace the whole range of issues to get more women into leadership.

When I first started in advertising 11% of agency leaders were women – now it’s nearly 30%. So while there’s been huge change, if we continue at that pace I’ll be in my 90s before we get to parity. I’d much rather it happened before then.

What more can be done in banking to improve the proportion of female leaders?

Barclays is very well represented on the Women’s Business Council by the amazing Lynne Atkin. Women are underrepresented in financial services leadership and there are huge programmes being driven by Barclays and others to try to address some of these difficulties. The gender pay gap legislation has provided a good start point for analysis from which companies can plan the future and set targets. All the data shows that businesses with gender balance at the top do better than those without, so it’s not only the right thing to do but it’s a vital business imperative.