When Sally Hopson started out in retail some 30 years ago, she didn’t have plans to be a CEO. But her expectations changed, and in 2018 she took the reins of Sofology – her second CEO role, and Sofology’s first female leader in its history. Now, she’s got big plans for the British brand – and they’re as much to do with people as they are about selling sofas.
Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we sit down with Sally to talk about the stereotypes of the past, what encourages her about the present and on to her hopes for the future.
1. What stereotypes and expectations have you had to overcome?
I think the biggest one is when behaviours that women have are seen as different to the same behaviours in men.
An example would be a passionate man, but an emotional woman. One seems quite positive and one is seen as a negative – but in fact, they are the same trait. So women are very hard and tough, while men are driven. The language tells you how people, in an unbiased way, see the same trait differently.
2. How has the world of work changed since you started your career?
It has changed massively – largely for the better, I have to say. When I started, for example, I wasn’t allowed to wear trousers. I was told the type of tights I had to wear. It’s unthinkable now, for men or women, that those standards of dress would be dictated in such a way. It’s an indication, for me, of how much control there was – that you were not encouraged to be yourself.
In my early days, one of the very senior leaders in the organisation – an amazing man – had a very distinct way of presenting. And we all copied it. We all became little clones of him, because being ourselves didn’t feel comfortable. Modern business is much better at embracing people in their own way and letting them be themselves.
And I think society genuinely does believe that women and men are equal. That doesn’t mean to say that they’re necessarily helping to create the opportunities for women at work as much as they should – yet – but there’s been a mind shift in the past 25 years.
3. Did you always want to become a CEO?
I had no plan to be a CEO – I had no plan at all. There are days when I pinch myself that I’m even here.
When I left university, I had this idea that I was going to do a PHD, but I needed to get a job. So I got a job in a shop and went from one role to the next. I became a store manager and then area manager, just working up the ladder that exists within retail and taking every opportunity that came along. I took some which I didn’t like, but I learnt from those, and that’s absolutely fine too.
The thing that worries me about plans is, when you get there, it’s not always what you thought it was going to be. You get very driven, but I think you start to exclude other opportunities – and that’s a real shame.
4. Have there been any inspirational people along the way?
I’ve been really fortunate in that I had a couple of line managers early on in my career – both men – who were really encouraging. One said to me: “You do realise you could run a business one day?” And I was like: no, I couldn’t. And he said: “No, you can. You might choose not to.” I’ve never forgotten him saying that. The fact that he said I could, that it was my choice – rather than you should or you have to – was really motivating.
5. What advice would you give to yourself if you were starting afresh?
I would remind myself to always have fun – and not to think I have to cut my hair to be taken seriously. That’s what I did when I was made a store manager. I went to have my hair cut –short. I was convinced it was the only way people were going to take me seriously. And I look back now and I think: how ridiculous.
6. What’s the most encouraging thing about work at the moment?
I love watching young women and young men come into organisations and start to realise their potential. I look forward to trying to help find roles where they can grow and flourish. That’s what’s great about working in retail businesses; watching so many people deliver and find potential they never even knew they had.
7. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt in your career?
That leadership is about lifelong learning. You never know everything, you’re never good enough. Don’t beat yourself up but get comfortable that there’s always things to learn.
8. What is Sofology like as a workplace for women?
I think it’s okay, but we could do more. We need to have a blended mix – I don’t think all-female or all-male teams are right in any organisation. But we’re making some great progress with more female store managers. We just need to work a little bit harder, looking within our organisation and finding talented women so we get a really healthy balance. That’s what I’m striving for.
9. How do you cope with the pressure of work?
I love my holidays – anyone will tell you. I plan them about two years out. But I’ll still check my emails in the morning and the evening, and I have absolutely no problem with that.
Running a business, you have to understand that not everyone’s the same. Some people have to go on holiday and completely switch off, and you have to respect that. But I find that when I love what I do, I get completely absorbed by it. I don’t worry about it, I don’t find it stressful – I find it energetic and energising.
10. What are the most important decisions you make as CEO?
The people. It’s the most important thing – finding your team and getting the culture of the organisation facing in the right direction. If you do that, it generally will come good, because you’ll have people who are doing the right thing for the business.
One of the ways to think about it is if you step out of it, does it keep going? It should. It might be a little bit different when someone else is running the organisation, but the fundamentals of it should be so bedded in the business that they stay put.
11. Finally, what’s been the proudest moment of your career?
The Women and Work Commission for Tony Blair in 2004 to 2009, because it was completely and utterly unexpected, and outside my experience base – I’d never worked with central government.
It was very stimulating, you felt you were making a difference and it gave me opportunities I’ll never get again. And then at the end of it, I was lucky enough to get an MBE. Watching my parents go to Buckingham Palace was a real high.