Balancing the Grind with Melanie O’Brien, Vice President, Advisory at Gartner

Melanie O’Brien is the Vice President, Team Manager of the Finance and Assurance Advisory practice in the APAC region for Gartner.

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

I have had quite a diverse mix of roles in my career thus far. I have jumped from roles that celebrate good communication and brainstorming, consultation work and facilitating large events and workshops.

I have worked on infrastructure projects as a stakeholder engagement consultant, managing the government and community relations as well as project managing effective communication campaigns throughout.

I worked with Deloitte as a lead Stakeholder Engagement expert across consulting and economics projects and now manage a team of finance and assurance advisors at Gartner, as the APAC Advisory lead, coaching clients best practice approaches to solving common challenges.

My team of advisors are the experts in specific fields and transfer our best practice research to our clients in various different ways – Executive meetings, board discussions, reviewing strategies or reports, or host team presentations and project meetings.

I coach and manage the outputs and delivery style of this information, helping my team understand then ensure that the challenge our clients face is adequately met by our research in that specific area, that the root cause of the challenge is uncovered and that clients are continually evolving, planning and that we are helping them uncover and respond to the next priority.

It’s a dynamic role that keeps us all on our toes and gives us access into some of the high level strategic thinking going on within certain functions of some of APAC’s largest and most diverse organisations.

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

I know you’re not supposed to do it but a typical day for me involves looking at work emails over a morning coffee or before a morning stroll to catch up on what I missed overnight in the Gartner global circles, and give me ease that I’m in control for the day ahead.

My team is on-call for clients and are hard to contact during the main periods of the day due to the nature of their work. Checking and responding to calls outside of hours helps me respond to things my team needs without disrupting them when they are responding to client requests.

It does mean that I have busy periods early in the morning but this then allows me to do more business-as-usual and attend meetings and planning sessions in the afternoon to evening. While it may be an unconventional way to start the day, or against healthy recommendations, it reduces my stress and lets me make a fast start to the day, which I prefer.

As we enter the final month of the year, a typical day includes me joining sales strategy meetings to discuss new deals and strategies for engaging less active clients, discussing trends impacting CFOs and Assurance Leaders and recommending new pieces of research and workshopping various communication approaches for clients with my team.

We are also planning for 2021 events and ways to inform APAC clients using different mediums and continually evolve the offering and the research we position to APAC clients.

Personally, I try and get a few ocean swims in during the week and frequent the Centennial Park walking track most mornings and evenings.

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

Definitely! Gartner is such a big believer in enabling remote working to find the best talent anywhere in the world. Of course we have central offices but the Gartner model is really based around finding the right person.

I’ve never really worked from home for long periods, preferring the social element of an office, and at the beginning I found remote working very hard, especially as a lot of my work involves my team coming to me to help on various activities.

As we all moved to our home office, I noticed my days were less easy to plan around, and I lacked a structured routine – which I needed to be effective. After a few weeks I noticed that my days did have peak times, but they were different to how they would be in the office.

Therefore, I worked out that the middle of my day allowed for me to go for a walk, get a coffee, enjoy some sunshine in time for the afternoon rush. To help further foster this new flexible style of working, I moved meetings that usually would be in the middle of the day, to the morning or the afternoon and made myself take a break each day to recover from the morning and prepare for the afternoon.

Of course there are days where you don’t leave your desk, and the thought of going outside at midday for a walk is laughable, but on a whole this has been manageable and has allowed me not to panic – there are enough hours in the day that I can fit in a walk or a break.

I am looking forward to spending an equal amount of time in the office and at home in 2021.

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

I don’t see answering emails early in the morning, late at night or on the weekend as a risk to my work-life balance. I know some people see that as a complete invasion, but it doesn’t worry me.

Work-life balance to me is knowing that when something critical happens in my personal life, such as recently losing a close family member, that work can take a backseat and your team and colleagues will step in if needs be, and that you can take off without a second thought about what might be in your calendar.

This recent experience has demonstrated that Gartner definitely has the right approach and the best interests of their employees in mind and yet previous roles I’ve held haven’t shown the same courtesy that I require and in the end have forced my exit or made me contemplate a change.

I know none of my colleagues expect late night and weekend emails from me but sometimes it’s what puts me at ease for the next day, or week ahead. I don’t expect it of my team but I understand that some of them think in the same way and like to clear their heads by sifting through emails at all hours. I try to use the delay send function as much as possible!

I know that when my days are hectic and long, that I can pay it forward and take an early mark one Friday afternoon, or be a bit slower another day. And that’s how I manage a very healthy work-life balance.

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

I decline meetings if there is no clear role for me to play or objective for the meeting or cancel a meeting if I don’t have a clear reason for bringing everyone together.

In doing so I have created a habit for these things to be thought about prior to sending out the invitations. I have also tried to do a start of the week plan and set goals but that has been less successful due to the nature of our work, and the year we have had.

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

I’m recently running a Gartner-wide book club as part of my role as APAC lead for Women at Gartner and we have chosen the first book to be Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss which is an extremely interesting and practical book full of tips to use in both your professional and personal life. I also recently finished, and immensely enjoyed, Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed.

I try and listen to a news podcast each morning, something such as Sean Aylmer’s Fear and Greed or something similar so I only concentrate on the important news of the day and don’t get distracted.

I do like switching off completely so limit my podcasts but once or twice a month I will listen to the Gartner ThinkCast podcast as a way to stay up-to-date on all the new research from practices outside Finance and Assurance.

When I want to switch off from work entirely, I like to listen to university podcasts on latest research and discoveries, listening to all the remarkable things that researchers are exploring.

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

My Garmin watch has been a lifesaver during COVID lockdown and ever since – and has instilled a healthy rivalry with myself to be more and more active as the year has gone on.

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

I’m curious to see how start-up bosses manage work-life balance, particularly as they enter the ramp-up phases.

We often hear from people after they become successful rather than during the incline, I’d be interested to hear from those that are currently in the midst of setting up an organisation from an idea, and whether they to manage a work life balance, can still manage some version of flexible working that suits them or its something they need to put on hold for the short term.

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

Remember that your work life balance doesn’t have to follow a set criteria or neatly follow anything you read. Those with children will need more ‘me’ time at different stages and may be insulted by a late night email from a different team or a global manager, whereas these people on the other side of the email may just be clearing their to-do lists ready for the next day.

Clear communication is the only way to ward off these feelings, make sure you are all on the same page before going missing for hours on end but always make sure you take the time when it suits you – as long as you are doing a good job, any good boss won’t care if you’re not sitting at your desk for the 9-5pm period but rather expect you to deliver when it makes sense to do so.

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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.