Balancing the Grind with Nick Williams, Founding Partner of Williams International

Nick Williams is a Founding Partner of Williams International, a specialist, boutique firm which runs leadership & management searches across the creative industries.

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

The best career decision I ever made came out of a time of crisis caused by the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

I set up Williams International in 2004. We are a leadership search and selection business focused on the creative industries. But I had never considered becoming a headhunter until the day I resigned my job to start my business.

My advertising career had progressed very quickly through roles in London and Chicago before moving to Sydney in 2000. By the age of 29, I was running the largest advertising account in Australia and by 31 I was on the management team and on the fast track to running an agency.

Over a period of about a year I slowly and painfully had a breakdown, caused in part by pushing too hard to progress as fast as possible and in part by the sudden death of my best friend.

I’d always worked very long hours out of choice, but I became increasingly obsessive and for the first time started to worry and get anxiety about the business. For much of the year I rarely slept more than 4 or 5 hours a night, I became driven by fear and not by ambition and slowly my reservoir of positivity and enthusiasm emptied.

I tried health farms, therapy and meditation (as well as alcohol and drugs). In parallel to this, I had asked several prominent headhunters for their advice and all they did was attempt to muscle me into new jobs

A visit to a naturopath changed my life. Within a week I realised that I wasn’t healthy and I needed to change. I resigned that day and decided to set up the talent partner I had always wanted to work with but never managed to find.

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

This is where I’m supposed to tell you that I’m uber efficient because I meditate, fast 22 hours a day, power nap and plan my activity in 8 minute increments. But, it’s taken 25 years in business for me to finally accept that a fully regimented schedule isn’t right for me.

My work mornings do look fairly similar, in that they start before 6am with coffee and the gym before I return home to help get the kids up and out of the house. After then, every day is different.

The highest value time I spend is meeting and speaking with my clients and my candidates, so I prioritise these above all else and build the rest of my day around these pillars.

Wherever possible, I try to meet or speak rather than email or text. It’s more time consuming but it’s more transparent, the communication is far more valuable and it builds stronger trust and deeper understanding.

I’m on the phone a lot – my weekly screen time reports from Apple are quite something!

My day is less structured than in pre-COVID times. Previously most of my interviews and meetings happened at 8am, at lunchtime or after hours. Now, with flexible working, it’s easier to schedule interviews during the day.

By mid afternoon I’m going stir crazy, so I make time to get out for an hour during the afternoon. Either to the beach to walk and swim or to coach one of my son’s sports teams. Then it’s back to the desk for ‘peak hour’ between 5-7pm and for international interviews.

Dinner with my wife and we attempt to find a family show that we can enjoy with our kids to keep them off their screens. The current one is the British show, Misfits. Politically incorrect but highly original and wickedly funny.

Most nights there is wine and more nights than I care to admit, there is also Scotch. I read fiction for at least half an hour before bed and the lights aren’t usually off til after 11pm.

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

I’m grateful to have created a business that allows a lot of flexibility, not purely in terms of hours and location but in terms of the organisations and people I work with.

I don’t need to support a huge overhead, so we’re not constantly ‘selling’ and we have the freedom to only work with companies, leaders and candidates whose values are aligned with ours.

Bill Bernbach said that ‘A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something’, but you have to be true to what you believe in and I have never once regretted saying ‘no’ to an opportunity that wasn’t right.

Prior to COVID, I was already working from home two days a week and this has temporarily increased to between 3 and 4 days.

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

Work life balance is impractical on a daily basis. It’s something to strive for over the long term. It’s about never losing sight of your core values and priorities, but retaining the flexibility to construct your day, week and year around the most important issues.

I have three pillars – family, health and business. I’m conscious of my goals for all of them but accept and acknowledge that at various times they each will demand more time and emotional energy than at others.

My only non-negotiable is to be able to talk with each of my children one on one each day, ideally in person but if I’m travelling then via Facetime. Whatever else I do or achieve during my time on earth, my children will be my legacy and nothing is more important to me than helping to give them the best platform to start their life.

Sometimes I work less than 35 hours a week and sometimes it’s more than 60. Sometimes I can make breakfast and dinner for my kids every day, other times it’s impossible. Some months I train every day, eat healthy and leave the wine in the cellar.

I never have a full day away from my business outside of the Christmas break because I need to stay in touch with ongoing searches while I’m on holiday. But for me that’s a small price to pay for being away with my family and continuing to service my clients.

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

The COVID-era mid afternoon time out to walk by the ocean has been an excellent addition to my routine. I thoroughly recommend it!

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

Right now I’m going through the complete works of John le Carre. The absolute master of spy fiction.

Favourite podcast is Nigel Marsh’s Five of my Life. Nigel was my boss at Leo Burnett and he’s created an original and compelling way to interview prominent people.

Favourite website is Two Plus Two Poker Forum – a poker strategy website. If I’m honest, it’s counterproductive to my work efficiency, because I’m on it every day.

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

I’m not really a gadget type of person, but Spotify is incredible.

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

The people whose work life balance I’m most interested in are single, working parents. I honestly see them as heroes.

We all gravitate to more visible examples of heroism; the fireman running into a building, the soldier fighting pitched battles, the adventurer facing terrifying odds and they are all heroic.

But I have almost limitless admiration for the guts, determination and persistence it takes to add value at work through all the professional pressures we face, while also handling the time, organisational and emotional pressures of feeding, clothing and housing a family while running a household alone. I honestly don’t know how they do it.

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

You’re more likely to be in balance if you’re working towards your own definition of success, not someone else’s.

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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.