How this CEO and BBC executive used grit and generosity to rise to the top

“Stories climb walls,” says Chantal Rickards. “Stories dig tunnels.”

Chantal, who recently wrapped up a nearly five-year stint as the CEO of the Los Angeles outpost of BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), has championed the power of storytelling throughout her 30-plus-year career in television.

“No wall can keep a story out,” she says. “If we can do anything to make the world a better place, it’s to encourage storytelling.”

As Chantal began her career in TV, she learned the art of telling great stories –– and leading others –– from legendary British broadcaster Sir David Frost. She spent 12 years at ITV working on shows like “Through the Keyhole,” a hit celebrity panel program hosted by Frost.

“That’s where I became a leader,” says Chantal. “People relied on me, as opposed to me relying on my own wits. And I had to rely on others. That’s a great lesson: you can’t do everything yourself.” 

Frost’s gracious leadership style still resonates with Chantal, who went on to become an executive producer at the BBC and a media consultant for marketing agency MEC (now Wavemaker). 

She describes Frost as “a natural leader. It was wonderful to be in his wake,” Chantal says. “He was wildly generous with his time and made everybody feel special.”

That’s the same way Chantal says she wants people to remember her.

“If they can remember my cheerfulness and I put a smile on their face, that will be job done.”

During our podcast conversation, Chantal shares her journey from seaside Britain to bustling London and star-studded Hollywood, along with her insights on generosity, relentless work and the meaning of success.

Feeling lucky

Chantal was born in Lancashire, England as the fifth of six children. Growing up with a “great, happy bunch of siblings” taught her to speak up.

“What I remember most is noise,” she says. “Eight people in the house demanding attention, always somebody trying to be top dog.” 

Yet Chantal reflects fondly on how her older brothers and sisters looked after her since their parents were both busy civil servants. Her physician father and social worker mom both joined Great Britain’s National Health Service when it was created in 1947. 

“Generosity was instilled in us quite young,” she says. “Looking after other people, not putting oneself first.”

Every Christmas Day, her dad took Chantal and her siblings to meet patients and their families who were in hospital. 

“I remember it with great warmth. We loved feeling as though we were helping make their day a little bit better,” she says. 

Stealth mode

Young Chantal originally wanted to study medicine. 

But, as Chantal says, “I simply wasn’t clever enough. But then I started thinking that I really wanted to pursue something in television.”

In her last year at university, she decided to apply to the BBC but soon realized that the venerable network hired mostly Oxford and Cambridge grads.

“You had to be in the very top tier,” says Chantal. “I thought, well, I’m going to have to get there by stealth.” 

She began forging that path by working in ad sales for a marketing magazine group. She was expected to generate 18 solid leads from her calls every day.

“It was a very good place to start,” Chantal explains. “You have to confront quite scary people, get them to listen to you pretty fast, and get results. Selling sets you up well for nearly anything you do afterward.” 

She spent a few years there and at a PR agency before she found the job that kicked off her TV career. That’s when she started working with David Frost, the man who famously coaxed Richard Nixon to apologize for the Watergate scandal.

“He had friends who were presidents, but he came from an ordinary background,” Chantal says. “He made people feel better for having spent some time with them.”

Frost “worked with both kings and criminals,” she adds, “by treating them equally.”

Giving forth

For the next phase of her career, Chantal found herself at the LA chapter of BAFTA, a global arts education organization. 

“Great British stars have had fabulous careers in Hollywood … We particularly felt that as foreigners in a foreign land, we should give something back to the community that adopted us,” says Chantal of BAFTA, which hosts after-school programs in underserved Los Angeles schools. 

“We don’t just show them films,” says Chantal. “We’ll show the credits first and say, ‘you could be any one of these 5,000 people.’ We ignite their creative flame and help with scholarships and internships.”

The organization focuses on disadvantaged communities because Hollywood still has a major diversity problem, and BAFTA aims to “change the balance within our industry,” Chantal adds.

Through her work there, she’s found that “giving back has become massively important to me,” she says. “And I want to expand upon it.”

True success 

As she reflects on her journey, Chantal says she was extraordinarily driven.

“I was pretty hard on myself, to be honest.”

She was so dedicated to work that, as a brand-new mother, she took remarkable measures to promote a show she produced.

 “My eldest son was born at 3:00 a.m. I knew the day before that I was in labor,” Chantal remembers. “But I also knew I had to do three radio interviews at 9:00 the following morning.”

So, she says, “I just carried on. I had a gorgeous little baby who was six hours old in the bed next to me, but I did those interviews for the sake of the show.”

Prior to her second child’s arrival, she attended a board meeting, made supper for her family and then drove to the hospital when she went into labor.

“It was a pretty busy day,” she deadpans. “I took no time off for maternity leave. Looking back, it was ridiculous. I think I shortchanged myself a little.”

Even so, Chantal says that “professional success is ephemeral,” and that her biggest successes in life are her two children, who are now in their twenties. 

“I’ve given my children a sense of industry,” she explains. “They’ve seen me work my tush off all of their lives. They won’t ever forget that. If you put your heart, mind, time and effort into something, you get results.”

Sudhir Ispahani is the founder and CEO of Alpha Global Partners, which provides independent strategic assessments of digital and IP-based communication and media technologies.