CEOs / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Helen Souness, CEO of RMIT Online

Helen Souness is the CEO of RMIT Online, the online division of the largest university in the southern hemisphere.

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

As the CEO of RMIT Online, I lead a 140+ team who are dedicated to achieving our mission of creating a “community of lifelong learners, successfully navigating the world of work”.

We are the online division of the largest university in the southern hemisphere – right here in Melbourne, Australia. For the past five years, I’ve been working closely with the university and leading an incredible team to bring the best digital methodologies and people to online education.

Our wholly online courses range from short, ‘snackable’ credentials to full undergraduate and postgraduate accredited programs. With a heavy focus on digital skills and emerging technologies, our portfolio of courses is co-designed and co-delivered with world-leading industry partners such Amazon Web Services (AWS), Adobe and REA Group.

Prior to this role, I worked both overseas and here in Australia with market-leading digital companies including SEEK, Lonely Planet, Envato and Etsy. I am on a couple boards for scale-up enterprises who are also doing remarkable things. 

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

A typical day for me is a healthy mixture of meetings with the university governance team, industry partners and my own brilliant team. At a university level, we discuss anything from budgets to academic frameworks.

From an industry partnership perspective, we consult on their influence on course development to ensure our content is up-to-date with relevant real-world insights. Since some of our partners are also our clients, we discuss how we can help solve their own workforce development needs.

My internal meetings involve discussions on how to continue to support our 30,000 learners who are currently studying with us, with the perspective to better navigate their world of work. Plus, throw in some external speaking engagements and a few board meetings; I really cannot tell you what a typical day is like since it is all an exciting blur. 

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

I am sitting in high country Victoria right now. After speaking with you, I will go feed my horses. So yes, I’ve literally been working remotely and flexibly with my 140+ formidable team for the past two years.

Since our reason for being is to support our students’ ability to work and learn 100% remotely, we are naturals at taking to remote work. Given that Melbourne has recently won the dubious plaudit of being the city longest locked down in the world, we have been able to navigate this new normal with our existing digital infrastructure.

With our focus on keeping people safe, we will not be back in the office until we reach high vaccination rates. 

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

I love my work but I also really like having a highly active and outdoor lifestyle. To me balance is doing a lot of both, whenever it works. RMIT Online has always been flexible but the pandemic has truly untethered us from the office.

I will be keen to see colleagues and spend some days back in our CBD office soon. Yet, I will limit these interactions to only the number I need to be able to connect socially and fulfil any creative work. When it involves routine meetings or work that is more individual, I will continue to do these remotely.

By doing so I will enjoy the added benefit of having more time for my family and healthy pursuits. When we do get together to collaborate; we will have a lot more fun and will embrace these physical connections. Having a more productive and healthier workforce is a net gain for all. 

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

Having been in lockdown for much of the past 18 months, there have been times where I have worked longer hours. But since I am working remotely and de-stressing in the country air with my animals and little family, I am overall healthier and fitter. By removing my commute time, I have been able to apply a healthier balance across my work and family. 

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

I love a good TED Talk. Both Brene Brown and Simon Sinek are two legends that have really influenced me for a long time.

I would highly recommend reading James Kerr’s Legacy – What the All Blacks can teach you about the business of life. I have Kiwi roots and the story is of my New Zealand’s rugby team and their high-performance culture.

With over a 75%-win rate across 100 years, they are one of the most successful sports teams in history. The number of Māori and leadership wisdom packed into that book blew me away.

Sentiments such as “champions do extra”, “plant trees you won’t see grow” and “sweep the locker room floors” truly resonate with me. Their lessons about the power of humility and legacy are profound. 

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

My smartphone is an Apple and I am unabashedly addicted. My favourite app is Audible. It finally got me ‘reading’ again during my drive time, something that I have missed in my juggle of work life balance. 

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

Without a doubt, it would be Angela Merkel who has just retired as the longest serving German Chancellor. Over 15+ years – in an extremely high-pressure job – she has achieved great progress for Germany in so many dimensions politically, socially, environmentally and internationally in the tricky environment of EU politics.

Yet evidently, she cooked dinner with her husband every night and always seemed to be so balanced and serene. I admire her enormously. I would love to hear how she made it all work and managed to keep her patience with some of her global peers. Angela Merkel started with a Germany that was in trouble and left it as a thought leader and mega power. Talk about a legacy! 

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

For me, work-life balance means the ability to be flexible in my work routine and what my days look like. Flexibility is being able to log off earlier on a Friday to take care of my horses with my daughter or doing long days when work really needs me to crunch through.

I generally think flexibility helps me maintain balance, but I find that scheduling has been very helpful to structure my days during lockdown. I find that horse-riding takes my mind off work completely, giving me a total break from my busy “monkey mind”. Doing something physical and fully immersive – like riding a half-tonne animal with a mind of its own – definitely takes my focus off work. 

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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.