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Balancing the Grind with Nicole Karagiannis, Head of People & Culture at Harrison.ai

Nicole Karagiannis is the Head of People & Culture at Harrison.ai, a Sydney-based clinician led healthcare artificial intelligence company.

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

I am a people person. I enjoy meeting people, hearing their stories, and helping them reach their goals. I lead the People & Culture team at Harrison.ai currently which means I get to work with clinicians, scientists and engineers to use AI for medical devices and improve healthcare.

I have the honour of setting the people strategy in partnership with some of the smartest people around! I have held a number of leadership positions in the people & culture space in public, for-purpose and commercial sectors.

My passion is leadership and have been busy over the past 3 years completing my executive coaching accreditation, and my master’s in social and organisational leadership.

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

If I was answering this a few weeks ago, when I was blissfully getting on with life in a pre-COVID way, I would have described my train ride, my morning coffee chats, my lunch with colleagues and would have not mentioned anything about following the news or chasing media releases.

But I am answering this in the present, heading into week 3 of lockdown in Sydney; funny how life can change so quickly!

A typical day for me would start by getting the girls dropped off to daycare, heading home for some laundry time instead of the train ride into the office. I then settle in front of my laptop to start my workday.

It still is and always will be about the people, so the first thing I do is send my team a little message, greeting them as though I just walked into the office. I connect with as many people as I can before I turn my focus to my tasks. I set my intentions for the day, review my calendar and mindfully prepare for any big meetings ahead.

I assess the balance of my day: reactive vs creative, tactical vs. strategic and ensure I have time allocated to work on a strategic business initiative, even if it is for 10 minutes, even if it is to a small tasks or time to think about an idea that counts towards that goal – that’s how all the big stuff gets done, one small step at a time.

I am ready to dive into my meetings and tasks, typically I have an amazing variety of these: I had a coaching session with one of our leaders, I facilitated a working group discussion for our return to the office, I reviewed our engagement survey action plan for the next 12 months, I attend executive meetings, hold team meetings or attend other department’s team meetings.

My meetings are balanced between internal and external, one on one or group style meetings.
I make sure I break for something to eat, a quick visit to the laundry, a few mins of meditation in the sun.

In between all those meetings (I am a people person, remember? I do enjoy them), I check emails and messages at certain intervals, work on my reports, document or review policies, get some admin work done, prepare communications and presentations for various meetings, send Covid related updates after checking the news and reading the media releases.

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

Absolutely. It’s kind of expected these days that office based organisations offer that flexibility and remote working.

Most of us work from home, including the Sydney team despite having a Sydney office. Some of us, and that includes me, like the routine of commuting into the office and connecting in person for a few days a week.

Flexibility for me takes on a whole new meaning, especially these days. My work day is my “me” time, so taking a child free long lunch every so often with colleagues or with friends, leaving early on occasions to get to the dentist or the nail salon, joining a webinar or learning a skill are my flexibility.

Yes, I also finish work early on some days to pick up the girls or to start the weekend earlier, but this is just part of life now, it’s business as usual and that’s what’s great about our organisation.

Flexible working for me has another side too, it’s the fact that people embrace my style of working and I embrace theirs. I am known for my passion of collaborating. For me this means I get to think out loud, share my energy with others and get some back too when I need it.

It means the output and delivery of an idea is so much better than how it was developing in my own head. I am never the smartest person in the room, I am all about bringing the smartest people together.

Not everyone likes to work like this, and so for me flexibility is when those around me let me be myself and I do the same for them. It’s also what we refer to as inclusion and diversity of thought or style.

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

Work-life balance has evolved for me from this concept of managing your time between the two to a much deeper sense of belonging and presence.

It means I can be completely immersed in either world and therefore enjoy both of them. There were times when I hid in one world to avoid the other. There were years when I chose to work 15 hour days to ignore the fact that I was lonely or heart broken.

There were times when I did not want to work because I was not happy at work or too happy in my personal life; times where I didn’t want to go back from a family holiday in Europe or when maternity leave carried such big emotions and torn feelings.

The balance is not about the balance of time, it is about the balance of emotions and energy. These days, I work on this balance from a number of angles.

I know for instance when my “life tank” is nearing empty, that it is time to work from my parents’ home, because having that coffee or lunch with my parents who care for my youngest daughter on Fridays cures just about anything.

I know that when I am struggling to switch off in the evenings, I stop and listen to my head and heart, I check in with myself, ask what’s eating away at me, can it wait or do I need to deal with it now.

On the 2% occasion that it cannot wait, I excuse myself away from my family for a maximum of 5 minutes, open my laptop and take one small step towards silencing my inner voices: send that email, set up a meeting for the next day, finish that report.

On occasions it is a mental load or a frustration with an event that took place that day; again I stop for 5 minutes and look for my support system, whether it’s talking to my husband, calling one of my siblings or reaching for that Spotify playlist and glass of wine (please drink responsibly) – there is always a way back to the present.

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

Oh yes! I finished my master’s degree, the sense of accomplishment cannot be described. It does mean I stopped the routine of staying up late to study and starting a new routine of staying up late to watch Netflix.

I started a new routine of 5 am gym classes with a friend and more walks (yes admittedly Covid plus winter means I am taking a few weeks to hibernate but it’s all about the balance right?!).

I started listening to music and reading books again (I don’t remember when or why I stopped, somewhere between having kids and studying, fun was no longer a priority).

I stopped feeling guilt or shame about being a wife, a mother, a full time busy bee, a student and whatever else I was going to be. I was going to be that brave person who writes about flexibility, meaning trips to the nail salon, because when you’re in the arena as Brene Brown says, you get to be that person.

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

I have to say Brene Brown’s podcast is a must have “Unlocking Us”; so are all her books. Grit by Angela Duckworth is an excellent book and so is Simple, Soulful, Sacred by Megan Dalla-Camina. And of course, a book written by my beautiful friend Nicole Treasure, Just a Minute Now, inspirations to help you steal back a minute in your busy day – how fitting!

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

Tough one, we love camping so my first instinct was to deploy my work in progress sense of humour here and say something like yes the new heater we installed in the camper or that headlight we just bought.

We also love cooking so it would have to be the sous-vide. These are life gadgets so I think I will lock them in as my answer in fact!

The work gadgets would include my beautiful white Mont Blanc pen because writing in my notebook is one of the things that ground me when I’m feeling overwhelmed or too connected with emails and messages flying at me in every direction.

Spotify, you would have by now guessed, is an app I cannot live without.

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

It would have been that of a published author. I have always thought about writing a book, even if it doesn’t get published but wondered how one finds the time and discipline to do something this big! Brene Brown or Angela Duckworth come to mind!

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

I wrote a LinkedIn article not too long ago about how I manage such a busy bee schedule. I enjoyed writing it and these interview answers so much, I might do another one soon.

I reflected on the importance of having your tribe, the people who have your back when things don’t go to plan. Here’s the thing, you don’t know you’re stuck in a rut or you’re not happy with one aspect of your life or work until sometimes it is too late.

Until, one night you’re wondering why your heart is beating so fast and how you can silence the million to do’s swimming in your head. The people who tell you what you don’t want to hear need to be on your speed dial.

For me that was my husband, who patiently waited for me one night while I shared every tiny thought in my head and said the shortest sentence ever in return: you need to get back to exercising.

That was it, no explanation why, no convincing me that it was good for my mental wellbeing, none of it. He knew that I knew those things and that it was a take it or leave it advice: if I wasn’t going to invest in my wellbeing, my husband was not interested in expanding his energy to do it for me.

He knew exactly what to say but how to say it: drop it here for impact then go to bed. It worked! Which reminds me I better dust off that treadmill soon or sign up for a Zoom class.

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.