As a 34 year-old female head of one of the country’s most established cultural institutions, Cressida Pollock is used to defying expectations. Graduating from Cambridge to flourish in typically male-dominated fields like investment banking and management consultancy, she was exploring oil rigs in Dubai and palm oil distributors in Indonesia before going on to help fight HIV with the Ministry of Health in Zambia whilst still in her twenties. Returning to London, she fought to get a position working with the ENO, and promptly fell in love. The thoughtful chief executive – who grew up sneaking into her parent’s living room to watch opera on VHS tapes – now sees its rejuvenation in the Millennial era as her personal calling. It’s good timing: NTS Radio has just started a weekly opera show, but how does one become one of the youngest female CEOs in the city? Here are her tips…
Don’t let your circumstances define you
I grew up in the countryside; I only moved to London when I was 16. My dad was a barrister and mum was a farmer. They were both very cultured people, they’d lived in New York and Paris in their lifetimes, but here I was living on a farm in Northamptonshire. So I used to watch everything I could on TV and VHS, I would listen to the radio. I remember it was Rigoletto that I first heard when I was very young – I just loved the singing! My family were really strict about watching TV though, so I’d sneak into the living room and sit right in front of the screen so I could immediately turn it off if I got caught. My parents recently confessed that they used to keep the room unheated so we wouldn’t be keen on hanging out there! But I still did.
It's ok not to know everything all the time
After I graduated, I was 24 and I’d just started as a junior partner in an investment company. The first week into my job I was told to go to a conference – I was just meant to be learning the ropes, what the best questions were to ask, that kind of thing. I had one meeting with a big bank, but no-one else from the whole group turned up – it was just me and the bank’s team of very senior, very successful businessmen. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me! I didn’t know the first thing about their company and after about 20 minutes, as I was clearly struggling, I said “Look, I’m very sorry, I was just meant to be here as an observer and I don’t want to waste your time.” They were so good and understanding about it, I took the opportunity to ask them what they thought the best questions that I could ask them would be. What they told me that day, I ended up using throughout my whole investment career.
You can fake so much, but sometimes it’s better to just come clean that you don't know the answers. That influential CEO who I confessed to always remembered me after that – he loved telling that story. Sometimes you can end up making a connection that you’d never have made otherwise because of it.
When you’re a young woman in any high-level business, to many men you can be a welcoming, non-aggressive, non-threatening person to speak to. You can get very good at that, and if you make that work in your favour, ok. Mostly people are very respectful, but you will have moments when inappropriate passes are made and you have to deal with them. The challenge is when you start transitioning from that position towards wanting to lead; that’s an extremely difficult move to make. There’s a change in authority that you have to be able to convey. I’ve been really lucky to be able to work with some top, top women and I just used to watch their body language in meetings. You must make people trust your authority. It’s in everything from how you sit in meetings, to how you talk. Women tend to lean forward, they tend to be more open in their body language. You’ve got to train yourself to be, and act confidently in what you’re saying. Women tend to work really hard so that they’re hyper-prepared for anything, but what was a big learning point for me was building up my confidence to the point that I accepted it was ok for me not to know everything – because no-one does.
Do what you believe in
I got to London when I was 16. I was living near Victoria, in the heart of the best city in the world for the creative arts. But it’s funny you know, theatre to me always felt familiar, going to see a gig always felt familiar, but going to say, the Royal Opera House was something I always felt was a ‘grown up’ thing to do. My dad took me after it had re-opened and that kind of broke the barrier for me; I started going a lot after that. I’d go and get student tickets, go after school. I started to go to a lot of ballet and dance shows at Sadlers Wells. All those years later when I was at a management consultancy and heard about this project with the ENO, it was like fate. I told myself “I want this. I’m going to manage this project.” I came back early from the holiday that I was on and parked myself in front of the people who were responsible for picking the team and basically harassed them for a week before they gave it to me. I was in the right place in terms of my career and I just really believed in this incredible company and the work they were doing, I became completely obsessed with it.