Balancing the Grind with Anna Bowden, Chief Executive Officer of ICMEC Australia

Anna Bowden is the chief executive officer (CEO) of ICMEC Australia, a not-for-profit that empowers governments, companies, and NGOs to increase their ability to detect, report and prosecute child sexual exploitation crimes.

Let’s start with your background! Can you share with us your career journey and what you’re currently up to? 

I’ve spent almost 20 years working on innovations that straddle social impact and business and investment approaches. I feel very lucky that I’ve worked on some of the most fascinating, and ground-breaking initiatives, with leaders from across the globe.   

It totally happened by accident. I wanted to do humanitarian work and international development after university, but I couldn’t afford the costs of my Master’s degree to specialise in it.  So I took a job in a private equity office as the sole EA to the entire executive team just to save up money. I couldn’t help but think there was an awful lot of money and expertise floating around in that industry that could be applied to what I actually wanted to do, which was social impact.  

So this set me off on a course, and for better or worse, I’ve been doggedly convinced that we can apply new ways of thinking to public-private partnerships and impact. One of my earliest roles was with the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI) – at the time it was a handful of us sitting around a shared desk in a small co-working space in London trying to figure out how to support institutional investors to better mainstream ESG considerations into their investments (those were the days when people would still ask you what the letters ‘ESG’ stood for).  

Responsible investment was really about screening out the negative risks. Then this new idea cropped up called ‘impact investment’. At the time, many people thought it was crazy that you could make money, and proactively support environmental and social impact.  

In what feels like a bit of a calling, I’m now the CEO of ICMEC Australia. ICMEC Australia seeks to support better detection, reporting, and prevention of child sexual abuse that is facilitated online. We work to support industry professionals, especially from financial services. As a survivor of this abuse myself, I feel immense purpose being able to apply what I’ve learnt in developing and delivering these corporate ‘shared value’ initiatives to what is one of the fastest growing crimes in the world.  

We’d love to know what a typical day is like for you. Could you describe a recent workday? 

I’m probably not meant to admit this to a publication like this, but it’s… very full. 

I’m up early so I can be at the gym by 6am. Then I’ll come home, get cleaned up, and start work by 8am. I run my life from my calendar – I use time-blocking so the calendar will be pretty full with meetings and tasks I need to do. I usually leave the office around 4:30pm, collect the kids from school and daycare, bring them back home and then, I’ll be back at work for a few more hours.  

It’s usually a mix of meeting with stakeholders and my executive team, presenting at events and meeting, reviewing reports and documents we’re putting out, reporting to the Board and our funders, and right now – lots of strategy development and ‘agile pivots’ to the rapidly changing online and technology worlds and how that affects children and their safety.  

We are a not-for-profit organisation, and the team is just fantastic. We’ve recruited some of the absolute best experts from across the country and internationally – to  deliver our impact. But as a not-for-profit, we simply don’t have the same resources as businesses or government, so the team ends up rolling up their sleeves to do whatever needs to get done.

Can you define work-life balance for yourself and share with us your approach in maintaining it? 

The truth is, I have a long way to go to reach balance. I have 4 and 5 year old daughters and I’m leading a not-for-profit organisation in one of the most complex, challenging and technical areas that exist.  

Because of my personal connection to this work, it’s even harder for me to switch off. I still have that little voice in my head that says “but what if just one more email tonight, or one more meeting, will in some way contribute to protecting a child from abuse?”   

The way I’d define balance, and what I’m striving for is actually more “presence”. I want to be present with my stakeholders and colleagues when I’m at work, and do the best I can to support them at that time. Equally, I want to be fully present with my children and partner when I’m home. Too often than I’d like to admit, while I’m physically at home, my head is either staring into a laptop, or mentally thinking about that complex problem we’re trying to solve.  

What I’m trying now is “micro moments of presence”. I took my 4 year old daughter to lunch this weekend. We were at the cafe for probably no more than 45 minutes – but I left my phone in the car, and I was just entirely with her. It was blissful. All I could think was, “this is the reason I do the work I do. Moments like these are amazing!” 

I’m doing the same “micro” attempts at meditation too. As someone with anxiety and a history of trauma, the idea of giving my brain quiet time can honestly be pretty terrifying. But I know all the evidence around how beneficial meditation is – so now I’ve started to tell myself I only have to sit there for 10 minutes, sometimes even less.  

Change is constant, and it’s essential for growth. Have you made any lifestyle changes in the past year to improve your work-life balance? 

One change that I’ve recently started trying to be more diligent at is turning off the laptop and screens at night. I’ve experienced anxiety my whole life, and my panic attacks usually kick in at night, leading to some pretty nasty insomnia. I don’t need to tell you the importance of good quality, and enough sleep. 

So I’m trying to be better at switching off from work by 8pm, so I get a little time to “wash my brain” before going to sleep. It’s remarkable what a difference it makes to sleep quality.

We’re always on the lookout for new resources! Can you recommend any books, podcasts, or newsletters that have helped you in your journey towards balance? 

Oh gosh – so many. I’ve spent many years being a social researcher and impact consultant, so learning about these things is one of my favourite things to do.  

Just a couple of recommendations from this year’s learning; 

Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep is excellent, especially for over-workers like myself who have spent years neglecting full sleep (to my detriment) 

I love Johann Hari’s books – Lost Connections and Stolen Focus are two favourites  

I’m a frequent listener of Rich Roll’s podcast too – he gets all the best speakers on there, and he and his guests are always so open and vulnerable about what they’re going through.

Before we wrap up, do you have any final words of wisdom or insights on work, life, or balance that you’d like to share with our readers? 

As someone who has spent decades working too hard – burn out – collapse – slowly recuperate – then jump back in and repeat, cycle, you’d think I would have learnt years ago the importance of balance and sustaining yourself.  

It’s especially ironic for me, because I know all the literature on this stuff. I’ve read it all, I’ve even delivered strategic plans to dozens of organisations on how they can embed better practices that put human connection, values, and outcomes first.   

At the end of the day – I truly think most people, like me – already know what they need to do. But there’s a gap between knowing and doing.   

No one can do this for us, we have to draw the line ourselves.  

What I’m trying to do now is apply the same discipline I have to things like work and exercise, to other non-work things I care about, like time with family and friends.  

It’s a constant battle, but it really is our choice. 

The one thing I am absolutely stringent about, is exercise. I train every morning to start my day, and try to burn off my natural tendency for stress and anxiety. Lots of people say to me “I don’t understand how you have energy and time to exercise with all you have on”. My thought is, “how do you have any energy without doing that exercise!?

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.