Sharon Baylay has years of experience at the very top of corporate life, but four years ago during maternity leave with her twins she took the risky step of striking out on her own as a coach and non-executive director.
Last month she was named one of the Top 100 Women to Watch by the Cranfield School of Management.
Sharon began her career at a computer hardware and software distributor in the 1980s and became a qualified IBM and Compaq trained saleswoman. In 1992 she was hired by Microsoft Corporation as their first UK Industry Marketing Manager. There she climbed the ladder to become General Manager of the Advertising and Online Division of Microsoft UK, a member of the Microsoft UK Board of Directors and won the Microsoft Chairman’s Award for sustainable innovation – creating and implementing a new business model based on search crawler technology and taking this “MSN lite” into all emerging markets. She was also an active member of numerous Government bodies for online privacy, safety and security issues such as cyberbullying.
In 2008, Sharon went on maternity leave with her first child and decided to change jobs. “I don’t like to make things easy for myself,” she laughs. “But I had been at Microsoft for a long time and had reached the limit of where I could be in terms of seniority and learning opportunities. Unless I moved to the US, I could not have progressed to a more senior role in the UK. I had stayed at Microsoft for so long because I had been able to change jobs a lot and I was able to build a very interesting career,” she says.
She adds that maternity leave was a good opportunity to reflect about what else was possible and to reconnect with herself. “I wanted to stretch myself and do something else,” she says. Fortuitously she got a call from a headhunter after she had put the word out that she was interested in exploring possibilities. The headhunter asked her if she might be interested in the post of Director of Marketing, Communications and Audiences at the BBC. She was quite surprised to be put forward and says the fact that she was fairly relaxed about the interview because she didn’t expect to get the post probably played in her favour. “I thought this was just the first of a number of opportunities I might consider,” she says. “I was on maternity leave. I was enormous and breastfeeding and I didn’t anticipate rushing back to work.”
Her digital expertise and international management experience secured her the job and her husband was working close to home which meant he could be the primary carer. She also became a member of the main Board of Directors of the BBC and was Non-Executive Director on the BBC Worldwide Board and Non-Executive Director of both Freesat and Digital UK. Her role involved leading all internal and external communications, re-organising the communications and marketing teams and overseeing significant cost reductions both in staff and budget. Some of the big issues for the board included the BBC’s move to Salford and concerns that the organisation was too top heavy with too many senior managers on high salaries.
Sharon says being on the board was similar to some of the internal boards she had been on at Microsoft. There was a lot of paperwork and learning to do, but she enjoys the strategic aspect of the role.
It was when she was looking at management in her own division that she realised that she was the biggest cost on the spreadsheet. “You have to be prepared to make yourself redundant, to consider yourself in the same group as everyone else,” she says. She highlighted that cost in her report to her finance director. As a result of discussions on reducing senior pay and management, there was a restructure and Sharon’s role was changed, meaning she would no longer have a seat on the board. “My role was vastly diminished,” she says, adding that others were similarly affected. It was 2010 and she was one month from taking her second maternity leave so she opted to take redundancy. At the time she was “reasonably relaxed” about finding something else. But the financial crisis started to hit hard. When she started to reconnect with headhunters opportunities were thin on the ground. Sharon started to think about other possibilities which would give her more time with her children.
She decided a portfolio career of non-executive director positions and coaching might work. She took an advanced coaching course through the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development to capitalise on her management experience and started investigating NED roles via headhunters. She says the process for hiring NEDs is different to executive recruitment and she had to face some knock-backs.
At 47, she is very young to be an NED. The average age of women NEDs on plc boards is 58. This is often because they need to acquire a particular skillset and many will have taken time out during their 30s to have families.
Eventually Sharon was appointed as Non-Executive Chairman of Dot Net Solutions Ltd, Microsoft UK’s Partner of the Year, 2014. She is also a Non-Executive Director of ITE Plc and Restore Plc and was previously Chairman of Havas EHS, UK.
She says: “I wanted to find a different way of working that was financially rewarding and intellectually stimulating, but did not take me away from my children every second of the day. For me, corporate life and children were not compatible. When I was at Microsoft I spent years of my life travelling. I know there is still a lot you can do from a parental perspective if you are at work from 7am to 7pm, but I waited a long time to have children. I lost twins before my eldest son was born. And I thought, you know what, there is a different way for me, but that is not an easy choice.”
“When you make the brave decision to take a different career choice, it is not just about how you see yourself, but also how the world perceives you. When you take a step back, you become quite invisible. You have to change that perspective if you want to return to work,” she says.
She says she couldn’t have created her new career without a supportive partner and without having enough finances to give her time to build her portfolio. She had a timeframe for when she would have to start earning a certain amount and she looked at consultancy as a possible back-up plan. “Having two children in nursery and one in private school and living in London focuses the mind,” she says. She also faced the challenge of keeping up to date in her industry and says her coaching role helps in this respect.
Recently Sharon, who works from her home in Wimbledon, has taken on an assistant to deal with administrative issues. She is enthusiastic about the opportunities her new career offers and aspires to a top chairman role. It’s not just the flexibility that appeals. She knows she will be able to work in senior positions in a corporate setting into her 70s as an NED. “It gives me another 25-30 years of earning potential in a brilliant career,” she says.