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Balancing the Grind with Sarah Smith, Chief of Staff at Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur

Sarah Smith is the Chief of Staff at Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur, which is focused on accelerating Queensland through innovation and entrepreneurship.

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

The majority of my career has been leading marketing and PR teams and now I’m in the startup and innovation space growing Queensland’s pipeline of unicorns which I absolutely love. 

Back in the day I ran my own marketing, promotions and event agency full time whilst also finishing my undergraduate degree in Business Communications full time. I had over 400 contractors and 6 full-time staff at 19 years old and worked with some of Australia’s largest brands. I had quite a bit of success with the business and often joked I peaked too young!

I then went from business owner to public servant, at the same time as completing my MBA, which was a massive adjustment. I am currently the Chief of Staff to Queensland’s Chief Entrepreneur, Wayne Gerard, focused on accelerating Queensland through innovation and entrepreneurship. I am so passionate about all things innovation and startups and working with cool, clever people day in, day out. 

The storytelling piece is really important to me – how do we raise the profile of innovation in Queensland to inspire the next generation of founders, showcase and celebrate our successes more widely and attract more founders, innovators, talent and capital to Queensland. 

I was also a board director with Women in Technology for a number of years.

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

I set multiple alarms, wake up, check emails and read the news in bed – bad I know! Breakfast is pretty much the same every morning – sourdough with high protein peanut butter and two piccolos. I always have Today on in the background whilst I am getting ready. 

Every day is a new adventure. I could be meeting with startups, investors, industry, team members, suppliers, stakeholders or other government agencies, presenting the Chief Entrepreneur’s vision, writing briefs and content, developing strategy or new initiatives, promoting programs and campaigns, connecting the ecosystem, planning, hosting or attending events. 

I’m always on the hunt for new opportunities for Queensland’s superstar startups and ways to add value to our innovation community. And coffee, lots of coffee. I am a night owl, so I often do extra work once the kids are in bed and always check my calendar before I go to sleep so I know what I have on, and where I need to be, the following day.

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

I am a mum of two, so I absolutely need flexibility. Ideally, I try to work from home a couple of days a week so I can do the school pick up.

These are my dedicated days for correspondence and strategy. I work between two offices, one in Brisbane city and other times at The Precinct, our innovation hub in Fortitude Valley. My office days are often back-to-back meetings or events. 

There are times when I need to travel, or be on the road visiting our regional innovators, so I work around that and mix up the routine. My role requires quite a lot of afterhours events but I love meeting new people and connecting so it doesn’t feel like work. 

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

I used to be terrible at work life balance but COVID was a game changer for me. I was the frazzled mum frantically throwing my kids out the car in the morning and then rushing to not be the last one to pick them up from after school care.

Not my proudest moments. I was trying so hard to be the best at work and home and the juggle was exhausting and relentless. I had this preconception that as a leader I needed to be always visible and available 24/7 to my team.

COVID forced us all to work from home and I did my first ever school pick up. I remember being beeped by the other parents because I got out of the car. Note to self, you do not leave the car under any circumstances! I discovered a whole new world I had been missing out on and it made me reevaluate my priorities. 

I’m incredibly lucky I have a super supportive boss, phenomenal team, the Queensland Government encourages flexibility and I’ve learnt how to set better boundaries. Work will always be there, but you only have one chance to turn up for the things that really matter to your kids. 

I also realised that I need to set an example for my team that it is OK to have a life outside of work. It’s give and take. I have always been about outcomes from my team, giving them flexibility and trusting them to deliver, whilst balancing their other commitments. Now I allow myself to do the same and try not to feel guilty about it. Honestly though I am still a work in progress. 

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

Such a cliché but the last 12 months have been about self-love. I did a 12 week challenge which was life changing. It was the kickstart I needed and completely transformed my mindset and habits.

I had lost myself in the busyness of life juggling work and kids and then COVID came and the kilos crept on. Uber Eats was on repeat, no longer a treat, and my exercise was scrolling on social media late at night to try and destress.  

Since then, I have continued on my fitness journey and I’m now back running. I aim to do 6km 5 times a week. I squeeze it in whenever I can throughout the day, before work, lunch time or after work. I am very competitive though and find myself obsessing over my Garmin watch and trying to beat my time, every single run.

When I slow it down it’s so much more enjoyable. I have to remind myself that every run doesn’t need to be a race. Running and fitness definitely helps with mental clarity, and I know it makes me a better human at work and at home.  

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

I actually don’t listen to too many podcasts, I am old school and like reading books and actually turning pages. I do love listening to music when I am running though. My current playlist is 11 hours long and I’m always pumped to see what song comes on next, anything from Eminem to Ed Sheeran. 

I recently listened to Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights audiobook which was such a surprise. He is much more spiritual than I expected. And of course his voice narrating was “alright, alright, alright”.

Right now I am reading Atomic Habits by James Clear which is about “tiny changes, remarkable results”. I’ve also recently rediscovered my love of reading fiction. Given how intense work can be I am fond of easy, lighter reads in my downtime, anything from Liane Moriarty, Sally Hepworth and Adele Parks. 

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

My phone (Samsung), Garmin Fenix and Garmin Connect for running and activity tracking, airfryer (so helpful when you are a disaster chef, not master chef), Nespresso coffee machine, My Fitness Pal, Spotify, Audible and I use LinkedIn all the time. 

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

You have actually already covered two women that I find super inspiring. Sara Blakely and Whitney Wolfe Herd, and no I don’t wear Spanx or use Bumble! 

They are both working mums, hustled hard, got knocked down along the way and have been hugely successful in their fields.  

In the spirit of hustling hard and flying the flag for Queensland of course I would love to hear more from our amazing cohort of Queensland founders and innovators. 

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

One of our guiding principles at the Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur is “Give first” and it’s such a positive way to look at all of your interactions. I really think it’s what makes our innovation ecosystem so friendly and supportive. 

I am also a big fan of quotes. A few of my faves are 

  • “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself” George Bernard Shaw
  • “If you want to fly, you have to give up the things that weigh you down” Toni Morrison 
  • “You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will” Stephen King 

Finally, work has always been a huge part of my identity. I truly believe you spend too long at work to be miserable so go where you are valued, add value, be authentic, set boundaries and always trust your gut.

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About Author

Balance the Grind is a work-life balance publication on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.