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Blog: The CEO to Chairman transition

Following the demerger of Sift and Sift Digital at the start of the year, Ben reflects on the transition he's made from CEO to Chairman in 2016


I co-founded Sift 20 years ago and for much of that time have been very busy developing the business - grappling with the myriad of challenges a company faces as it grows from 3 to 140 people.  And whilst my own role developed considerably over the period - from wearing multiple hats in the early days, to having 14 direct reports in 2006 (when I was stretched way too thin), to devolving responsibilities to divisional MDs over the last few years - there was always plenty to do.


As covered in a blog earlier this year, 2015 was busy working on a project to demerge Sift into two entirely separate companies (Sift Limited and Sift Digital Limited); right up to the final board meeting on New Year’s Eve, when everything was finalised.  I therefore spent much more time on the future implications for the companies than for me personally; effectively I was making my role redundant.


And with various handover stuff, it didn’t immediately feel different in January.  However, eleven months later, I’m chairman of both companies and Tom Dunkerley, the former MD of Sift Media, is the CEO of Sift - the title I held for 14 years.  I also chair eFiling Limited (a company I invested in 2 years ago), as well as Bristol's own currency Bristol Pound and I’m a trustee of Bristol’s music venue St George’s.  Life feels quite different - a new personal phase has dawned.


Some initial reflections on the transition to chairman:


  • From a Sift perspective, the two divisional MDs have transitioned to full MD / CEO roles very smoothly, which has helped to reinforce the ‘no big change’ message around the demerger.

  • The Sift & Sift Digital board processes feel stronger.  The major shareholder isn’t also the CEO and we’ve been able to bring in one strong new NED to each board.

  • From a personal perspective, I’m realising that you just can’t begin to answer the ‘what next’ question until you’ve got some space (which by definition you don’t have when you’re still CEO).

  • It’s nice to be reminded how much you’ve soaked up over the years.  One of my new Bristol MD mentees really does seem to get value from quizzing me over lunch every couple of months!

  • As chairman, you need to stay connected with organisations.  It doesn’t work if you’re just a board figure.  I’ve worked with five Sift chairmen, all of whom lived an hour or more from Bristol, and it’s always been a challenge to connect them.  As the 6th Sift chair, it feels good to be in more regularly and better connected with everything going on (and joining in with things).

  • In businesses such as Sift, staff turnover runs at 10-20% a year, so quite quickly you don’t know all the staff.  If you’re part time this means you have to make an even bigger effort to chat to people when you have the opportunity.  Inevitably you will know fewer people with time.  That’s the way it goes!

  • It’s genuinely fascinating and illuminating to be engaged with a wider range of organisations.

  • I think it’s probably relatively easy to do more of the same type of roles.  I’m going to try to resist this.  It’s important to keep pushing on.  And just because you start taking on chairman roles, it doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to get more involved in something again!




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