Balancing the Grind with Ilona Charles, Author & Human Resources Leader

Ilona Charles is a human resources leader and author of HR for Impact: Practical Steps for HR Leaders to Build Influence and Thrive.

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

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. My parents had suggested the standard professions back then – a doctor or a lawyer.

So I went down the straight sciences and maths route to becoming a doctor. My third choice was occupational therapy (OT) which I’d never heard of until attending an open day. That’s where I ended up!

My learning from that experience was to focus on what you enjoy and you are much more likely to get better results. This was the advice I passed onto my sons which led to much better results for them.

I started my career in OT but realised this wasn’t where I wanted to stay. I moved into occupational rehabilitation which took me on a path to my corporate career in human resources.

I moved into an internal OHS role for a major Australian bank, then moved to their main competitor where I stayed for 15 years moving through a range of roles in the people and culture team. I was enormously grateful for the opportunities I was provided at NAB. I grew up there, I made some wonderful friends, but most of all I learned what good leadership is and should be.

When I was doing OT, I always thought I would end up running my own business. That’s where I am now. Together with my co-founder, Sharna we started shilo. in March 2020. Taking all our corporate knowledge and learnings we set out to disrupt the world of human resources. We both knew HR could have more impact and we’d both seen the best and worst of the profession. 

In my spare time I also wrote a book – HR for Impact: Practical steps for HR leaders to build influence and thrive. I have learned so much throughout my career, I felt it was timely and important to give back – to provide aspiring HR leaders with the tips and resources to ensure they can lead with impact too.

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

Well at the moment, it’s all a bit like groundhog day. Sharna and I run the whole business, so everyday is spent in a similar way.

I get up between 6 and 6.30am and head off on a walk with my partner, Aaron and my dog, Otto. He’s a golden retriever and like most dogs during the pandemic has become very used to these hour long morning walks. Not sure how he will cope whenever we get back to ‘normal’. 

I check my emails, make a list of my actions for the day and then set about doing them. My role is primarily focused on business development and our clients. Our pipeline of talent is equally important and sometimes I will spend 80% of my day doing the second interviews for potential HR consultants. All my meetings are via Teams or Zoom.

Other days might be full of board meetings depending on the time of year. I sit on three boards which at times can be pretty full-on. I try to block Mondays for focussed business development work and Fridays for ‘running the business’ type work, for example, invoicing, reconciling accounts and other things I haven’t got to do throughout the week.

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

Running my own business should mean maximum flexibility and technically it does, but given we are only in our second year of operation, and I have a co-founder, we both tend to work very long hours.

We are both really open with each other and really try to encourage down time, but this can be challenging when there is no one else to do the work. Neither of us have had holidays due to the pandemic.

Sharna and I are passionate about supporting flexibility. 80% of our consultants work part time, many have family responsibilities and others just want more balance in their lives. We ask every single consultant how they want to work and we actively support this with our clients.

Our whole business is run remotely. Given we launched in March 2020 we have only ever worked this way. We have managed to grow the business, interview hundreds of candidates, run professional development webinars and have client catch ups – all via Teams.

Whilst we miss some of the social aspects of being in an office and meeting people in person, it has been a super-efficient and cost effective way to get our business up and running.

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

I have had a tendency for work to become all-consuming and there are definitely times where the balance feels out of kilter. I usually know when this is happening as I become increasingly intolerant and irritable and those closest to me bear the brunt.

For me, it’s about a mindset – particularly given we are an early stage business. I have to be really conscious about taking time out for myself.

This has been difficult because I’ve taken so much on in the last year or so, but I am actively trying to do less work on weekends, finish up working at a reasonable time e.g. 5 or 5.30  and commit to the morning walks no matter what. 

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

The pandemic and the consistent lockdowns are starting to take their toll. There have been times where it has been really hard to stay motivated. I used to attend my yoga classes 3-4 times a week.

The studio was great and they pivoted to online classes quickly, but for whatever reason, I really struggled to attend them. I maintained my membership (supporting my local business) which gave me access to on-demand classes – even that has been a challenge to maintain. I will get back to it – but I am a person that needs that discipline of attending a class in person.

Walking everyday has really helped and I’ve tried to refocus on reading novels. This is my time out, but it is so easy to be distracted with work, socializing, and other things in life. I will keep pursuing this passion. I love reading and it provides me with that much needed relaxation time.

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

My favourite book of all time was The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde. I’m not sure what that says about me. I really love non-fiction and literature. There are many penguin books on my bookshelves.

My own book of course, HR for Impact – although I have now read this so many times, I could probably recount it word for word.

My friends stir me up as I’m a real laggard when it comes to the podcast scene. I would much prefer to curl up with a good book.

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

My partner Aaron is a brilliant home barista. He basically has the full, but smaller, café set up at home. I couldn’t live without his coffee machine or his coffees after my walk each morning.

Boringly, I couldn’t live without my headset and second monitor now, especially given the amount of time I spend on video and phone calls!

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

Any founder of a start-up. Starting a new business is all consuming. Sometimes I wonder if some of the super successful tech founders ever get to a point where they feel they have work-life balance. 

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

I remember having a conversation with an executive at NAB many years ago about work-life balance. He worked incredibly long hours including evenings and weekends.

He’d just had a baby and he was calling me regarding work while he was at the hospital. I suggested he needed more work-life balance. He countered this and said the balance worked for him.

My response, which I still believe to this day, is that the concept of work-life balance is a very individual thing, however, if you are in a position of leadership, others will be looking to you for inspiration and your approach to work.

Many people young in their careers will think this is the way things need to be done to get ahead. As a leader, you cast a long shadow. Be aware of this and make sure that work-life balance is encouraged and be flexible enough to enable individuals to live this balance as they need to.

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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.