Transformational Tales: how I aligned my career with my passion

Written by
Sally Bailey, chair, Pilotlight

07 Aug 2020

07 Aug 2020 • by Sally Bailey, chair, Pilotlight

After a successful career in retail, former White Stuff CEO, Sally Bailey, began a journey to refocus her career towards 'giving back'. 

When I stepped down from running White Stuff in 2013, I felt really lost. I’d just walked away from the most brilliant job in the world and now had to decide what to do with the rest of my life.

I was lucky enough to be financially secure, but also unfortunate in that problems with chronic pain limited my options. What I did know was that the vision I had created for White Stuff – to 'be different', 'make a difference', and 'make the world a little happier' – was definitely my own personal mission, too.

My challenge was how to curate a new life where I could combine a number of interests, continue to earn some money, and give back to society at the same time.

Identifying my purpose

I decided that ‘making the world a little happier’ was too unfocused to be helpful, so I narrowed my purpose down - my goal would be to help persuade businesses that there was more to life than just making money.

My belief was and is that the old model of philanthropy is outdated. It is no longer acceptable to make money while causing environmental damage and treating people as dispensable, then try to make amends by donating lots of money to good causes. Instead businesses need to help enrich society at the same time as make money for investors. In other words, they need to do good while doing well. 

Reaching out to my network

To help me decide my new direction, I looked for other people who had less traditional ways of working. I spoke to a few people in my network who worked as Non-Executive Directors, and realised that some aspects of this role appealed to me. I liked the flexibility and the variety of that way of working, but at the same time I didn’t like the fact that it was purely for commercial purposes. I wanted more than that.

A lightbulb moment happened when I spoke to an old friend, Mike Dickson, founder of the charity Whizz-Kidz. Mike splits his life into thirds: a third is spent doing paid work, a third helping other people, and a third in pursuing his other interests. This really appealed to me so I tweaked it to my own purposes. I decided to retain the idea of spending a third of my time working for money and another third helping other people. Mindful of my health constraints, I decided to spend the other third on travel or self-education when possible, but also reluctantly admitted that when my health demanded it I might need spend this time on rest and recuperation.

I felt a great sense of relief on making this decision. Now I could earn a bit of money, help some great causes and still have time to nurture myself.

Define your own career goals

If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a similar position to me, I’d recommend being ambitious but also pragmatic. One really helpful thing that I did was work out how much money I needed for a happy life. Of course you could always spend more, but what do you really need? This allows you to establish how much you need to earn each year and thus know how much time you need to devote to working. From there you can see what free time is left.

Then comes the fun task of working out how you can split that time between making a positive impact on the world and keeping yourself happy and healthy. I’d also recommend checking in once a year to make sure that the mix is still right and working for you.

For me things have worked out pretty well. I have worked with some amazing companies and brands and visited some wonderful countries. At the end of 2018, I was delighted to be asked to become Chair of Pilotlight, a charity that connects business people with great causes – precisely the kind of values-based amalgam of business and social responsibility I am passionate about. 

As you might expect, all of this keeps me extremely busy, and I have to be disciplined about carving out time to do a MOOC or go on holiday. However, I am happy knowing that whether I am advising the board of an ethical fashion company on strategies for growth, mentoring the founder of a startup in the sustainable space, or working with my team at Pilotlight, I am doing my bit to make the world a better place. 

Sally Bailey has a 30-year career building, leading, and mentoring management teams in the consumer sector. Previously CEO of White Stuff, Sally now works as a non-executive director, chair and mentor. A lifelong advocate of business ethics, she chairs Pilotlight, a charity which connects businesses with not-for-profits to achieve positive social change.


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