Balancing the Grind with Anna Breimer, Managing Director at The Breimer Group

Anna Breimer is the Managing Director at The Breimer Group, a new type of consulting firm focusing on the future of work and the future of working. 

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I grew up in a rural part of the Netherlands and always dreamed of becoming a pilot. That dream got crushed when I was 17 and failed the admission tests for the KLM flight academy. 

As a backup choice I decided to study Architecture as I loved playing with LEGO. I felt out of place a lot, as my classmates had dreamed all their lives of becoming an architect, and for me it was a second choice.

But I enjoyed the curriculum and eventually really thrived. I look back thinking there could not have been a better education than Architecture as it taught me both structuring problems, finding creative solutions and systems thinking. 

After graduating I worked in the construction industry for a while but after three years I felt I had plateaued and wanted something more. A mentor told me to go talk with McKinsey & Company and see if that would be something for me. I ended up landing a job as a consultant and stayed for close to 10 years. 

Halfway through I moved to Singapore to do my MBA at INSEAD, followed by a short stint at Philips before returning to McKinsey, this time in Singapore. As I advanced in my consulting career I started focusing more and more on the people aspect of business, and I specialized in talent, leadership and teamwork. 

Two years ago everything came together as the right moment to start my own business, inspired by my husband’s entrepreneurial activities. I founded The Breimer Group, a new type of consulting firm focusing on the future of work and the future of working. 

One of the solutions I built is called Courageous Teams and focuses on helping leadership teams become more courageous and thrive in the challenging business landscape we find ourselves in. 

The latest solution we are just launching now is called Tomorrow College and is a new type of learning system aimed at helping new, young managers build metaskills like growth mindset, strategic thinking, creativity, communication and many others. 

I love my clients for supporting me in this journey and the warm response I’ve had on those solutions. It’s been fun to work with both large clients like the MNCs, tech firms and social media players as well as with tiny startups and VC funds.

2) What does a day in your life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

As many of us I guess, there’s no one day the same as others. Being an entrepreneur, I have created flexibility for myself to fit the day to what I need most. There are days where I leave the house at 8am and only come home by 7:30pm, working all day in my tiny office on proposals, preparations of workshops or further building our solutions. 

Then there are days where I give myself a break and start a bit later or take half a day off in the middle of the week. But I guess the constants across all days are pretty much that one of my girls wakes me up earlier than I was hoping for, and once I’m home in the evening, I’m all there for them: We play together, catch up on the day, just be together and then I put them both to sleep. 

Once everyone is sleeping I like to sit on the couch and do nothing but enjoy the silence. Even though it would probably be better to catch some sleep myself, I really cherish those quiet moments in the late evening to reflect on the day and life in general.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Yes absolutely and probably one of the main reasons I left corporate and will most likely never return. I can pretty much work from anywhere at any time. Of course I have scheduled client workshops and the best place to do them if they are online is from my quiet tiny office.

But in theory I could do that in a quiet space anywhere in the world. In terms of flexibility, this to me is very important too. I for instance love working on Saturdays, because I can move through a pile of to do’s without being disturbed by others who are at work.

In return I take off more time during the week to find that balance and spend time with my family. And all of this I play by the ear. There are weeks I worked ridiculously hard. Then there are weeks where I really take it easy.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, and I feel we get this one wrong a lot. During my time as a management consultant I would work long days (and sometimes nights and weekends). We would then measure work-life balance by how many hours you work per week, assuming that the less hours, the better the work-life balance. But I think this is flawed.

Many people enjoy their work, and enjoy spending time doing what they do at work. How many hours you work is not the right proxy for them and for many of us. This is when I came up with the concept of “Personal KPIs”.

To me work-life balance means being able to do certain things every day or every week. For instance, before I had a family my personal KPIs would be 4 times yoga a week, to be home (not traveling for work) on Thursday evening till Monday morning and being able to eat certain healthy things.

Now that I have a family these priorities have shifted and my personal KPIs now are about being able to be home before my kids sleep and put them to bed myself, spend valuable family time together every week and being able to work out twice a week.

If I achieve these personal KPIs while at the same time I work 40 or 100 hours, it doesn’t matter much, as I love what I’m doing. As a leader for my consulting teams we would always have these conversations.

One of my team members would say: I’d love to be able to have breakfast with my grandparents on Monday morning every week. It had nothing to do for her how many hours she worked, but seeing her grandparents every week really made her feel she had that work-life balance.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I became a mother three years ago and the first year was really hard for me. I came from a prestigious leadership role with a pre-eminent consulting firm and there I sat on the couch trying to feed a screaming baby.

I took extended maternity leave also because I knew I wanted to launch my own business and needed some reflection on where I was heading. Starting my business right after maternity leave meant that I wasn’t just building a business but I was also at the same time defining what kind of parent I wanted to be and how I would want to find my work-life balance.

It was too much, and a big mess. I ended up being frustrated for not being as productive as I was before, and at the same time frustrated for not being able to be with my child. I think only in the past 12 months, so 2 years into this entrepreneurship journey and shortly after I gave birth to our second child, did I start to find a bit of a routine.

Second time around was easier for me, because I was already a mother, I knew what to expect, so the change was not me, but only the baby. Within a few weeks I was keen to work again and I built it up bit by bit.

So this time around I think I had more routine of: finding a private office, leaving the house every day, getting into a rhythm and this has really made such a difference both for the success of my work as well as for how happy I am as a mother and how my family thrives also by that routine.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

I’m one of those people who reads multiple books at the same time, picking them up one after the other, then putting them down and leaving them unfinished for the longest time.

Some of my favorite books of all times are The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and also The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which is an incredible story about how doctors took tumor cells of a poor lady and those cells never died as they have been used and further grown for medical research around the world and till date are some of the default cells used by thousands of researchers around the world.

Lately I’ve been reading a mix of books, some relevant for my work like Mindset by Carol Dweck, Trillion Dollar Coach by Eric Schmidt, some more for fun or interest like Gut by Giulia Enders and Wolfpack by Abby Wambach.

I haven’t found a ritual for myself around podcasts, so I’m totally missing out on that but just enjoy the silence. And newsletters really overwhelm me, there’s so much information already in this world, I try to limit how much is being automatically sent to me.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

Of course my iPhone, which is sort of an extension of myself. My most used apps are probably Grab (transport and food), Starbucks (my chai lattes keep me going), my baby monitors Owlet & Nanit, the social media apps and my calendar app.

For my workshops and video creation I bought some gadgets like a Logitech webcam, a Sony ZV-1 digital camera, the Blue Yeti podcast microphone and a Rode lavalier microphone. In general I’m a gadget freak.

Like two weeks back it was my daughter’s birthday and I wanted to try out making fondant cakes, so I bought all the cake decorating gadgets I could find and loved trying it out. Whenever I start something new, I’ll look at what are the cool tools to help me be successful, both tech and non-electronics.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?  

I’m really inspired by Bozoma Saint John, chief marketing officer at Netflix. She’s really great and inspiring and I recommend everyone to check her own, either on Instagram or by watching some of her videos. She really helped me feel more confident about myself and the value I bring. 

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Figure out what matters to you most, and start measuring that. Don’t go with what others are telling you is the perfect work-life balance. If you enjoy working a lot, don’t apologize, be proud and be happy that you found something that you love doing.

Ask for help wherever you can. Outsource whatever you dislike. Automate whatever doesn’t add value. You have to really see your life as a project that you can optimize for, making sure as much of your time is spent doing what you love to do.

And take a break. Stroll through the mall on Tuesday morning. Go to the beach on Wednesday afternoon. Live now, don’t hope for doing things in a future time. Life is now.

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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.