Balancing the Grind with Dr. Andy Marks, Assistant Vice-Chancellor at Western Sydney University

Dr. Andy Marks is the Assistant Vice-Chancellor at Western Sydney University, where he is leading the university’s strategic collaboration with government, industry and the community.

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

At 17 I was touring the US and Europe as a drummer with alternative band, the Vanilla Chainsaws. In my early twenties I went on to release two albums with Sydney band, Crow. We were a critical success, scoring five-star reviews, supporting Nirvana, Nick Cave and Pavement. But we were commercial flops!

I was a late starter at university. My PhD looked at how politics is played-out literature and the media. After graduating I took a job with Vinnies as their senior researcher, raising awareness of the impact of homelessness, domestic violence and mental health on marginalised people.

Seeing how powerful education was in breaking poverty drew me back into university, not as a student, but as a government relations officer with Western Sydney University.

I took chances in that entry level role and was bold and strategic with my advice. My approach was not without risk, and when – roughly five years ago – I was called to take up my current role as Assistant Vice-Chancellor, I was initially unsure whether I was being given my marching orders or a promotion! Thankfully it was the latter. But I always keep a box packed.

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

It must be a hangover from my time as a musician, but I’m not built for mornings. That works in lockdown, but the day builds in intensity pretty quickly. My role centres on telling the story of the university and Western Sydney to government, industry and the community.

Some days that involves almost back-to-back meetings with politicians, bureaucrats and business peaks. The message is the same: Western Sydney is Australia’s fastest growing and most diverse region. It will be critical to recovery. In those meetings I try and listen way more than I talk. It matters. Particularly when everybody – regardless of status – is going through a challenging time.

In lock down, my colleague, HelenBarcham and I started a weekly webinar called CatalystWest Conversations. Despite our inexperience, it’s been a hit! Mostly that’s been down to our guests and topics. ‘Can we have an arts led recovery?’ ‘Will multicultural Australia survive closed borders?’ ‘Space, the final post-COVID frontier.’ We’re discovering how much behind-the-scenes work these interactive forums require, but it’s worth it.

After a full schedule of meetings, my day recently closed with a 6pm international COVID recovery webinar called ‘Aperitif’, which I co-host with Tim Williams, a colleague from Arup. Strangely enough, I open that weekly forum with a few tunes on the guitar; an unexpected return of my previous life!

Watching the late news I got a little riled up about politicians attacking the university sector. I started writing an opinion piece on my iPhone. I find the Notes app is the perfect platform on which to draft a newspaper article. It even looks like a column!

Generally, if the writing isn’t flowing in the first 15 minutes then I abandon the piece. I have a lot of articles in draft, most of which don’t see the light of day. The odd one makes it into the Sydney Morning Herald or Daily Telegraph.

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

Thankfully, my role is able to be almost fully conducted online. There are positives and pitfalls. Lock-down blurs the edges of work and personal time. With a partner and two young kids I find myself ducking in and out of Zooms. Sometimes I give up and one of my kids winds up momentarily staring in an impromptu Zoom sit-com.

Colleagues on the other end of the line are generally okay with that. We’re all in the same boat. I’m hearing people say that they’re home but not always present for family. I agree. The seemingly endless video meetings can actually entrench distance from family, ironically when they are close by.

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

I reckon the idea that there’s a ‘balance’ is actually untrue and unachievable. It’s actually a state of constant imbalance, where the intensity of work knocks home life off-balance and vice-versa.

That’s generally okay with me. It is that changing dynamic that actually makes both aspects of life interesting. The main thing I try and do is make family the first priority. The same rule applies in both areas. Listen more than you talk. Give people your full attention. Be kind. Be compassionate. That is the true sense of balance I look to achieve. It’s hard.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

Wait. Don’t be unnecessarily impulsive or reactive with confronting emails, phone calls or decisions. Give it time. Write a draft response if you have to. Don’t send it. Mostly, on reflection, you’ll act differently.

Also, find the story, and build the narrative in any exercise you’re involved in. Always focus on the audience of that story ahead of your own motivations.

Lastly, listen, listen, and listen. For me, listening to music is a constant. It’s an unrivalled barometer of emotions and inspiration for creativity in any area of life. But it also trains you to listen closely to the cues of family and colleagues.

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

I’m reading Shayne Carter’s Dead People I Have Known, an honest account of New Zealand’s Dunedin music scene by one of its stalwarts. It’s a piercing lesson in staying committed to your idea against all odds.

The Roy and HG podcast on the ABC is always brilliant. It remains one of the most serious take-down of seriousness around. That is vitally important when government and others are all too ready to believe their own rhetoric.

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

Making time to laugh and be silly is vitally important. It is actually a state from which really deep creativity can come. It also reminds us that we’re human.

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

I’d like to read about work-life balance for our lowest paid and undervalued members of society. Single parents in cleaning, health services, child care and related roles have among the most challenging work-life balance experiences imaginable.

We need to hear those stories. We need to listen and learn. That’s vitally important if we are genuinely committed to improving as a society.

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

Listen. Laugh. Learn.

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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.