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Balancing the Grind With Sara Tweedly, Group Executive, Digital & Marketing at CANSTAR

Sara Tweedly is the Group Executive, Digital & Marketing at financial comparison site CANSTAR, where she is responsible for developing and leading the implementation of the company’s digital and marketing strategy.

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

I’m a digital marketer by passion and trade, and have over 15 years’ experience in the finance marketing, digital and communications industries in Australia and the UK.

For the last six years, I’ve been in a fast-paced leadership role at Canstar, which includes Australia’s biggest financial comparison site, Canstar.com.au and Canstarblue.com.au, the site known for helping consumers compare their energy, telco, whitegoods and much more.

When I joined Canstar in 2013, I had just one direct report and a focus on digital marketing initiatives. Fast forward to today and I’m now sitting in a joint marketing and digital leadership role across a team of nearly 40 responsible for driving traffic to our digital properties, building brand awareness, improving our customer experience and generating revenue streams.

It’s an exciting time to be the Group Executive, Digital and Marketing in a growing digital company, and one that operates in a booming space like the comparison industry.

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

There are a few things that are constant in my day, that includes beginning the morning with a very large coffee and cuddles with my daughter, and making the most of my commute.

I drive to and from work which means I can listen to music to amp myself up for the day or wind down at the end. I also try to use this time to listen to news or to tune into a podcast or live audible books (love Blinkist) to learn from inspiring entrepreneurs, leaders and marketing experts. This time is never scripted but is a must in my day.

When I hit the office floor at about 8am, I usually have an hour of power to set myself up for the day and to list my priorities. But that’s where the routine finishes.

No one day is ever the same in terms of the structure or flow but it’s certain to be filled with meetings with my team members, catch-ups for project updates and collaborative gate meetings for various digital projects that we have running.

One thing that typically happens during my work day is walk-and-talk meetings. Our office is spread across three floors and taking the stairs gives me daily exercise and is a great time to squeeze in a 5-minute catch-up on the go. These quick meetings are important for me and my team. It helps us to stay nimble, keeps me up to speed and enables the team to act quicker.

We also have a number of tribes across the company, which I’m an Executive sponsor for a few. One that’s picking up the pace is focused on our machine learning trials, which are aimed at helping customers find the right product for them.

While it would be possible to work all hours to get the many things I want to get done, done. I make sure to head home at a reasonable time to spend time with my family and importantly too for my wellbeing, to fit exercise into my day.

I’m trying to make it more of a routine to cap off each day with a workout. I’ve found the best way to do this is to have the equipment at home so I save on travel time and there’s fewer excuses, plus picking hotels with gyms when travelling is key.

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

Thankfully for me and others in the company, Canstar is very accommodating to people’s living and working situations.

We have a remote office in Sydney with a growing handful of staff because you have to be where the talent is and not everyone wants to relocate for a role. We also have some team members who live on the Gold Coast and work in our Brisbane HQ so they’re able to work from home a few days a week to cut their commute time.

I’m fortunate to work a nine day fortnight but it’s a case of swings and roundabouts sometimes; I start earlier or work later on some days and I travel interstate quite frequently so that changes the game too.

I’ve found that a work-life balance is not doing 8 to 4pm and then doing your living part. It’s not about the time spent in the office, it’s about focusing on outcomes and getting the job done.

As long as that’s happening, it doesn’t matter where or when you work whether it’s from the boardroom or the beach – okay that might be a stretch as I’m sure laptops and sand don’t go hand in hand, but you get the idea.

If I need or want to leave early to spend time at home and pick up some work later in the evening, that’s okay as long as the outcomes are there. My family is grateful for this and I feel I’m better at my job because of it.

4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?

I wouldn’t survive if I didn’t make lists. For someone who works in a digital business and who likes to be an early adopter, I’m embarrassed to admit that I still like my lists to be written on paper. There’s something satisfying about scratching something off the list that motivates me. That said, I am a prolific user on Google Keep for taking notes on the go.

I typically spend 15 minutes on a Sunday evening after my daughter has gone to bed to map out my week and list the big priorities. This helps me focus on Monday morning and to prioritise my top three tasks for the day.

A big part of my role in the leadership team is to be looking for the next opportunity and to do this I’ve taught myself to make the most of my commutes, and not just my trips to and from the office.

I use travel time to stay ahead of the game. For example, my team often shares new ideas, concepts and interesting reads and it’s hard to find time to check all these things out so I try and use plane trips and taxi rides to focus on learning something new.

It can be as simple as checking out a new design approach on a popular site or new campaigns or more in-depth like listening to a podcast. I’m loving hearing from entrepreneurs on Seize the Yay at the moment.

I also make sure that my schedule includes exercise. It helps me burn calories and tension, which is great for my physical and mental wellbeing. My tip to working out regularly is to remove the blockers.

I mentioned I have equipment at home so there’s no excuses and when I’m travelling I always pack my gym gear for a run in a new park or use the Sweat app or a workout in the hotel gym.

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

I don’t feel that a work-life balance for me is about limiting myself to working the usual set working hours. I’m not a 9-5 worker and I’m okay with that, and so is my employer.

The balance for me is about getting the job done at the most opportune time for me and my family. I remind myself that where it gets done in the day is not an issue as long as there’s a balance.

Getting that balance right is challenging and in a role like mine, I don’t feel I can ever be completely switched off. I work hard to achieve the balance I have by making room for things I need to do and want to do.

6) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

The first would be keeping myself in-check with my to-do list. I’m a prolific list maker. My daily lists include a mix of work and personal tasks and it keeps me accountable to my priorities. I have a high functioning, growing team and their daily or weekly success can be impacted if I’m not on the ball.

It gives me the focus I need and at the end of the day I can compartmentalise it, move on and come back to it in the morning without thinking about it all evening. This has a huge impact the life part of the balance equation.

The second is surrounding myself with like-minded and really great people. At work it’s important to my success to be in a role that I enjoy working with people I like. This also applies to my friend circles and making sure I’ve got a good group of friends around me.

You want to have real conversations and not feel isolated so having supportive friends who can be your sounding board, your mentor or there for a laugh when you need it can make a world of difference.

Lastly, it has to be having fun and being open to new experiences. It is so true that life can be the thing that happens while you’re figuring out what you want to do, therefore I truly believe that it’s so important that you have plenty of fun along the way.

7) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I loved Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, I thought it was a great reminder about the fact that only you control your destiny and you have to take charge of your own career.

I love anything by Malcolm Gladwell as I think he has a great way of getting you to think about things differently. Outliers for me was a particularly good book.

I’m also a big fan of books by business leaders who share practical stories warts and all about their journey like How Google Works written by Google Executive Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt and former SVP of Products Jonathan Rosenberg, who explain what they learnt as they helped build Google.

I also really enjoyed Shoe Dog written by the creator of Nike, Phil Knight who shares the story the brand’s early years and its evolution.

8) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

I hold myself accountable for my goals.

I write down my priorities each morning, just the top three because anything more than that is a bonus.

I share with others what my goals are and what I’m working on both personally and professionally. I recently started cycling so telling people about this hold me accountable to giving them updates on my progress. I find it extremely helpful and motivating.

I celebrate wins, my own and my team for their accomplishments and milestones. It can be as simple as bringing a box of doughnuts to the office to share or splurging on takeaway at home.

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

Don’t beat yourself up about achieving balance. Everybody likely wants to strive for more of a balance.

I’m reminded of a saying that goes along the lines of where there is a will there’s a way, where there’s not there’s an excuse. If you want to make something a priority you will make time.

A few years ago I watched a great TEDWomen talk about how to gain control of your free time and part of it talked about a business owner who was very busy and had no time as she claimed.

Yet when her water heater burst and it consumed seven hours of her day to get it fixed, she managed to make those seven hours available. It’s about putting the big priorities, personally and professionally, at the top of the list and working down from there.

I feel that a priority that should be at the top of the list is about allowing yourself time to listen to your body. If you need an extra wink of sleep or a weekend at the beach instead of going to the gym or cleaning the house, then do it. You’ll be a better leader, peer, mother, friend or partner for it.

If you found the above conversation about work-life balance helpful, be sure to check out Balance the Grind’s 42 tips for achieving & maintaining a healthy work-life balance

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Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.