Sarah El-Atm is the General Manager at August, an award-winning technology-led creative company based in Melbourne with offices also in Sydney, Brisbane, Toronto and Manchester.
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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your background and career?
My career started in the Arts – I’m originally a classical musician but never wanted to be a performer. I fell into arts and artist management and loved it.
I worked with a number of local classical musicians and organisations putting on festivals, organising gigs, booking orchestras and conductors.
It sounds exciting, and it was. But it was also a lot of hard work. I didn’t often work with a team of people specialised in PR, social media, etc. It was often me working on the marketing, PR, artist bookings etc.
Sometimes I worked with a couple of other people, or the artists themselves which was awesome. During that time, I learnt a lot about my own work ethic, discipline, and getting out of my comfort zone.
I fell into the digital world through one of the musicians I was working with. Her husband had started an online video streaming platform (well before its time).
The company was founded by musicians so that they could teach regional and rural students, but it soon grew to resonate with many other corporate and professional services clients. My role in that company focused on marketing and client engagements.
Working in a professional role with a background as a musician felt like a steep learning curve to me. I learnt a lot about commercial transactions, negotiation, what motivates people, and how to close business.
From there, I’ve stayed in the digital world. I joined August almost five and a half years ago after working at another agency and feel like I’ve melded my creative interests with commercial experience in a way that is exhilarating and challenging.
I started out as the Comms Manager and gradually accumulated responsibilities within the company. I also decided to go back to study seven years ago and became a lawyer. Long story.
2) What is your current role and what does it entail on a day to day basis?
We’re not big on titles at August – we tend to use them because they are a familiar marker to many clients and potential clients, but they don’t impact what we actually do day-to-day.
My role—listed as General Manager—involves me working across a number of areas of the business on a daily basis.
You can generally find me in one of three areas: HR, operations or client service/new business.
On a day to day basis, I could be in client meetings or negotiations, candidate interviews, a workshop for a new project, or working with our UK general manager to keep things moving over there or here.
3) What does a typical day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
I wish I had a typical day sometimes, but I love the freedom we all have at August to plan and choose our time and how we spend it.
A recent day usually starts with a mix of early morning meditation or exercise and a quick email/Slack check. I’m generally at my desk by 7 or 7.30am.
During the day, my time is often spent in meetings ranging from candidate interviews, new business meetings, client workshops, or catching up with team members to discuss operational questions or development within their Accelerator Program goals.
At August, we have a check in every day at 11.30am. We huddle as a whole team and run through our activity for the past 24 hours and what will be happening in the next 24 hours.
I find it a super helpful way to learn updates on engagements without having to interrupt people during the day.
We then have coordination time – something that looks like chaos but is incredibly organised and productive. It’s a way for the team to catch up with people they need to during a designated window during the day.
Once my UK teammate is online, typically around 4-5pm AEST at the moment, I often check in with him.
Depending on the day, I’ll finish up at the office any time between 6pm and 7pm. Sometimes I need to jump online with our UK team mate later on, otherwise I might catch up on a bit of work while it’s quiet or head to pilates.
4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?
I try to use my time as effectively as I can. Meditation has definitely helped with being able to focus. For example, I try to do my heaviest work in the morning because I’m a bit of an early bird and do my best thinking before midday.
When it comes to tools, I’ve found a rhythm using Evernote as my ‘to-do list’ organiser and an August Moleskine for meeting notes.
5) In between your job, life and all your other responsibilities, how do you ensure you find some sort of balance in your life?
Oh, this is hard. I think it has a lot to do with mindset. In my twenties, I was happy to put work first all the time.
It meant I sacrificed a lot, I didn’t always make people happy, but at the time I felt like I was making the best decision for me.
I learnt a lot during those years that I draw on regularly – skills to do with resilience and discipline, but also a sense of determination and drive that helps get me out of down moments.
When it comes to balance, I consciously started to change my mindset a few years ago. Looking beyond work and giving myself space to get back into my creative outlets has really helped.
For example, I’m an avid (though still amateur) sewer and I’m getting back into playing piano again after a break.
I started long distance running a few years back too – that’s been a key driver in helping me prioritise exercise to stay strong and balanced.
Over the last 12 months, I’ve started meditating before work and often at the end of the day too. I was one of the sceptics at first but I’m totally hooked and love it.
I find it easier to focus at work, I’m sleeping better, and I’m learning to worry less.
6) What does work life balance mean to you?
I’m not someone who separates my work life from the rest of my life. To me, it’s all one life. My work gets scattered throughout my day – partly because I choose that but also because sometimes that’s necessary.
Remembering that how you spend your time is always a choice – no matter what – can be helpful in managing the balance of life…and work within that.
7) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?
One of the best, but hardest, habits for me has been to seek help from others and delegate work. I’m someone who will often volunteer to help and sometimes I need to remember to flip that and seek help from others.
I’ve also tried to keep perspective and remind myself of how grateful I am. For example, an issue that I am struggling to manage may pale in comparison to what someone else is going through; sometimes pausing to reflect on that helps me make a better decision in the moment.
Finally, I am someone who doesn’t give up. The drive and resilience I have are not innate – I have learnt them over time and keep practising them in different ways.
Maintaining strong and healthy resilience also means making time for my brain to recover – for example, through a creative outlet, meditation, or some other activity that’s not daily work.
8) Are there any books on work life balance that have helped you over the years?
These aren’t specifically work/life balance books but they have helped me change my mindset and find more balance:
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeon; a fantastic book for simplifying your life and your mind.
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius; timeless and so relevant no matter where you are in life.
- The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking by Edward Burger & Michael Starbird; this is a book everyone in the team receives at August. It’s a useful tool for problem-solving and breaking things down.
- The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday; based on the principles of Stoicism, this book is a fantastic guide to worrying less, changing your mindset, and creating balance.
9) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?
No matter what is going on in my day, I make sure I’ve helped others with something in their day. That for me, helps me stay motivated.
10) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
Expect the juggle, and expect it to be tough. When you embrace that expectation, every moment that isn’t a juggle just becomes that much sweeter by comparison and therefore much more appreciated.
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