Elizabeth Whitelock is the CEO & Managing Director at Houston We Have, a company building human-centred AI technology.
1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?
I started my career in the IT industry in London in the world of data – a subject that is still near and dear to my heart.
I moved to Melbourne and then Sydney where I still live. Creating a business – the team, the customers, the partners – has been my passion and focus for analytical software, data integration and quality, data science and AI.
10 years ago in a kitchen in Neutral Bay, Simon Pope and I started, what is today, Houston We Have, an ASX listed technology company. I am the CEO and Managing Director and proud of what we have achieved and of the incredibly talented team of people who are the bedrock of our success.
I believe passionately in supporting innovation and Australian businesses. I am delighted to be an ‘Entrepreneur in Residence’ at a new venture hub in the City of Logan, Queensland working directly with founders and their teams.
2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?
With Sydney’s under stay-at-home orders (lockdown) I’m working from home these days. With an office and clients in the UK and prospect discussions in the US, means my days can sometimes be long with calls starting early in the day (to coincide with the afternoons in the US) and finishing late to coincide with the UK morning.
Lockdown means the impromptu conversations we can easily have in the office, typically at the coffee machine, become booked sessions, timed with the spontaneity of the idea or the challenge to be solved slotted into a window in everyone’s diary.
What that means for me are days of meetings that will include some or all of the following: internal, external, technical, sales, finance, marketing, investor relations, management, board, demonstrations and presentations. Plenty of variety and generally little time for breaks (good for the waistline).
3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?
Absolutely. Our business has always been structured on the basis of providing secure and accessible ways of working remotely. Even before the pandemic we operated this way to a great extent, and it means that even now we can easily take care of clients and develop new solutions. Our work life has barely been affected.
4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?
This is one of life’s great questions. I rarely get it right. But I have figured out there are little things I can do to create a sense of balance.
I am blessed to live surrounded by nature. Plenty of space. Bird life and farm animals surround me. I find it therapeutic to leave the mobile phone behind and walk. Try to be in that moment. To listen. To feel the sun, the wind, the cold.
Trying to create a moment or two of calm away from the busy-ness of work helps me to be more creative and focused. Nature is restorative and it is good to see it have more consideration in urban environments.
6) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?
I’m a big reader so there have been many. But the books that have really struck chords with me fall into two camps.
First camp has Dan Gardner’s Future Babble and Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. These are books that align completely with the philosophy behind our software at Houston We Have.
As someone running a company though, there’s a second set of books that have made a huge impact: Robert Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule (on how to build a civilised workplace without toxicity) and The Psychopath Test by John Ronson. Creating an environment of inclusion, innovation and collaboration without toxicity is important for everyone and something I strive for at Houston We Have.
Beyond books I subscribe to various newspapers from around the world as well as the Harvard Business Review and Forbes for perspective, trends, leadership, technology, strategy. And when I’m driving to and from Canberra, I like to put the 8 hours to good use. I like to listen to podcasts on the same topics.
7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?
It’s not for everybody, I’ll admit but I run two diaries. One has all my meetings and commitments and the other is more about commitments to myself. It’s where I make space in my day for thinking, for doing something for me such as a walk/exercise. It’s a way to schedule the things that matter which is so important right now when lockdown sees us stuck indoors most of the time.
8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?
I don’t have a specific person, but I do know the type of stories I like. Anyone who has had to overcome adversity; who had nothing; who worked hard to achieve their success and still made time for their family, friends and health – they are my inspiration.
There are plenty of books on the topic by people who are generally financially secure. Their decisions to achieve work-life balance have not left them struggling to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the balance gives them time to write about how others can achieve it. It isn’t easy and there is no off the shelf solution that will work
9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?
We live in a world where comparisons and expectations are thrown at us every day from every corner. This is especially difficult for our youth, for minorities, and for women.
We have expectations of our offspring. Parents expect them to be high achievers. Parents living vicariously through their children. This pressure to perform and achieve is unbalanced. Kids can learn through play – teamwork, leadership, problem solving. Let’s try not to set our kids up for a life that is one sided.
We are all different and this difference gives us diversity of thought, of experience, of problem solving. We have a nation steeped in history, beauty and resources. And people who are innovative and talented whose contribution should never be accepted or rejected because of their gender, ethnicity or religion. Time to balance our books and be more inclusive.
And food for thought: a nurse working in palliative care reports that one of the top 5 regrets of the dying ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’.
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