Balancing the Grind with Leah Ellis, Founder of Candid People

Leah Ellis is the Chief People Officer at Bumper, a peace-of-mind car servicing platform, as well as the founder of Candid People.

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

After finishing school, I went to Warwick Uni and studied The History, Literature and Culture of the Americas, for no real reason other than I liked History and I wanted to spend a year in the states (I did and it was everything I thought it would be!).

After 4 years I left with no clue about what I wanted from a career, other than that I was done with studying and I didn’t want to work in a corporate company. What I really wanted to do was continue working in hospitality, and then move to Australia.

But that wasn’t the ‘sensible’ decision, not good for my career, and 6 months later I found myself starting the Capita Future Leaders Graduate programme (Capita is a corporate company with 72,000 employees at that time) studying for a masters in Management and Leadership!! In hindsight, this was a brilliant start to my career as it built a huge network and opened up lots of opportunities for me.

I spent 4.5 years at Capita, where I worked in two different divisions and fell into working in People, mostly due to my amazing boss at the time and friend, Charlotte Young. After finishing the graduate scheme and achieving a distinction in my masters (MSc), I secured a full-time role in the People Team, starting in People Operations and progressing to People Business Partner in 2 years.

After 4.5 years, one of the leaders I worked with at Capita approached me and asked me to join him at eve sleep (a start-up of 100 people in Camden) where he was CFO. He wanted me to join him and take on the role of Head of People, the first person in their people team and with the scope to design things from scratch, with complete ownership.

Whilst I loved my time at Capita, I knew this was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down and I joined Eve in 2016. Making the leap from corporate to start-up was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Start-up culture is one I thrive in. I love the scrappiness, the progressive outlook, the ability to be yourself, to build things, to make an impact and where there are no rules for rules sake. I loved it!

So after my time at eve, I stayed in this world and joined Goodlord where I had the pleasure of reporting to and working closely with CEO William Reeve. The amount I learnt during my time at Goodlord was insane and it was a fantastic career move for me.

It was also the most challenging role I have had in my career, and it taught me a LOT of lessons. Last September I took a career break (more info below) before joining Bumper as interim CEO and setting up my own business, Candid People. 

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

I’m a morning person, always have been. For most of my early career I used this to what I thought was my advantage. I would get up at 6, be in the office for 7.30, have time to focus on what I needed to get done before everyone else got to work and started wanting time with me.

I was putting their needs first, doing the work I needed to do in the morning and in the evenings, mostly with no break. This was my daily routine, and I thought I had it sorted (I wasn’t, I was running on empty!).

Then 3 years ago I discovered the gym and now my morning is my time. I wake up at 6.30, have a coffee, go to a gym class, have breakfast whilst listening to radio 4 and spend time with my partner.

This means by 9am, I have made time for myself, I am in a good headspace and ready to take on the day. No longer will I make 8am meetings the norm, instead they are the exception. Mornings are my time, and I love them.

After that, my days are never the same; working with people means there is always variety. However, I do make sure that the first thing I do every day is eat my frog. This is a tactic my old boss taught me; your frog is the thing you must do that day, the thing you have been putting off but that is important and urgent.

Before anything else, that has to be completed (treat yourself to a cuppa and Freddo after if that gives you extra motivation). Then I check my emails and slack (notifications are turned off as they stop you from focusing), and then I will work on my to do list for that day.

At the end of the day, whenever that might be, I will write a list so I know what I am coming back to, so I can be fully present in whatever I am doing next. 

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

This year I set up my own business called Candid People. As a consultant providing guidance and support to start-ups and scales-ups, I set my own schedule, and I am 100% remote. This is new to me, so being smart with my time is a challenge, but I love the freedom and flexibility I have. 

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

To me, work-life balance is a bit of an outdated term. Work-life balance used to mean 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, with no interruptions outside of that. Today, technology means we are always contactable, we can always access work and for many of us our homes are now our workplace.

Separation between work and life isn’t really achievable; work is a part of our lives, and it shapes us. We can’t deny that, and for many of us work gives us a sense of purpose, it keeps our brain active and it’s something we are passionate about.

But the key word here is part. In everything we do, we need to have balance, otherwise it becomes an obsession that negatively impacts us. The other thing to remember is that we have a relationship with our work.

In any relationship we need to set our boundaries, communicate these and make sure we stay within them. These boundaries enable you to achieve a balance. When they are impacted, you need to reassess if the relationship is still working for you, if it is still mutually beneficial. If not, make a change. Life is too short not to. 

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

Working in People is always challenging, but I have always loved it and given my all to it. But in summer last year I had fallen out of love with the work I was doing, mainly because I was emotionally exhausted and my body way just saying no!

So I took a few months off, moved to the sunshine and let myself reset. It was the best decision I have ever made. I actually slept for the first time in a longtime, I woke up not dreaming of work, I became less obsessive about slack and emails, and put my time and energy into my friends, family and boyfriend.

For the first time since I was 16, work was not my number one priority. That time gave me the space to think about what I really wanted, something I am not great at doing as I always put what others want first.

I made a list of the things that are super important to me, the things I won’t compromise on moving forward; flexibility, the ability to work from anywhere (from September I will be embracing the digital nomad life), being my own boss, balance, fun, respect and transparency.

Having reflected on this for a while, and with a lot of encouragement from my partner, I made the decision to set up my own business, Candid People. Candid People offers People support, advice and People ´MOT´s’ to start-up / scale-ups. (If you’d like to know more just get in touch).

That short career break was the best decision I have ever made; I will always work hard, I will always give me all to everything I do, but to do that I need to be fit and healthy and have variety in my life, something I had lost during my career, and especially in the pandemic. 

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

  • When the Body Says No, Gabriel Mator (book)
  • Louis Theroux, Grounded (podcast)
  • Becoming, Michelle Obama (book)
  • The Hard Things About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz
  • Shoe Dog, Phil Knight
  • Happy Place with Fern Cotton (podcast)

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

Considering I have worked in tech for the past 4 years, I am the least tech person going (much to my boyfriends despair – founder and CTO!). So I can’t say there are many gadgets or apps I can’t live without.

However, I cannot switch off until I have written down what’s in my head, so I can jump straight back next time I start to work. So for me, I am lost without my notebook, Trello board and magic whiteboard paper (I would 100% recommend it if you like to scribble and get creative, allowing you time to focus on the bigger picture).

Saying that, the one gadget I couldn’t live without is my apple watch. I became a little obsessive throughout lockdown, so I had to really reassess what I was using it for, and not allow it to take over. But for me, making sure I stay active, making time to work-out and being able to track my sleep is really important as it has a positive impact on my wellbeing and stops me burning out. 

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

Can I have two?! A lady called Dawn Marriott-Sims who was the COO of Capita Group when I was part of their Future Leaders Graduate Scheme back in 2013. Dawn has started at Capita aged 18, a mother of one, working in a Customer Services role.

By 2013, Dawn was on the Capita Group Board, a mother of 6, balancing work, her children and a passion for cars. A truly inspiring woman who has continued to do breast things T

Nicole McNamara, the wife and business partner of big wave surfer Garrett McNamara. The documentary 100 ft wave gave a really interesting insight to her life, and I would love to know how she balances everything.

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

Everyone is different, and everyone has different values and boundaries. Just because someone works in a different way to you doesn’t mean that their way is wrong, or yours is right, or that any judgement should be made.

To really thrive in what you do, you need to understand what makes you happy, what makes you feel in control and what balance you need to avoid burning out. Don’t compare yourselves to others and don’t try to be someone else. Just like in any relationship, to be successful you need to understand yourself and be true to that. If your work doesn’t allow you to do that, make a change!

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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.