Balancing the Grind with Sophie Ray, Chair & Non-Executive Director

Sophie Ray is a Non-Executive Director, Board Chair and business owner, currently the Independent Chair of RSL NSW; Non Executive Director of Big Fat Smile Group and Peak Care Equipment; and Deputy Chair of the Shoalhaven Women’s Resource Group.

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

In 2007, towards the end of my fifteen-year career as a commercial lawyer with PricewaterhouseCoopers in Sydney and London, where I practised in competition, consumer and regulatory law, my now husband and I bought a winery, hotel and restaurant operation, Silos Estate, on the NSW South Coast.

We subsequently gave up our corporate careers and moved down the coast to run the business full time. After having our two daughters, and with my husband running the day to day of the business, I was asked to join the Boards of two local community organisations.

I found that I loved governance and strategy and have expanded that work so I am now a full time Non-Executive Director and Chair.

My current roles include Independent Chair of RSL NSW; Non Executive Director of Big Fat Smile Group (a subsidiary of Goodstart Early Learning) and Peak Care Equipment; Deputy Chair of the Shoalhaven Womens’ Resource Group; and Chair of the Shoalhaven Education Fund.

My work focuses on overseeing strategy, risk, governance and sustainability for these organisations, and in my Chair roles, managing the Board and the relationship between the Board and management.

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

I work from home, so my workday is mixed in with my family life and our business, which is just the way I like it.

The day starts with us scrambling to get the kids out the door to school – my husband does the lunch making and morning drop off, so I’m usually making beds, tidying the house and making sure everyone knows what’s happening for the day.

The girls are usually out the door by 7.45am, so I then start my workday in my home office. My workdays vary enormously. Often I’m reading Board and Committee papers to prepare for meetings; attending those meetings virtually; and having other virtual meetings and calls with Board colleagues or the CEOs and management teams of the companies I help run.

I may also be involved in preparing or considering documents, meeting with stakeholders (government, customers, donors and suppliers), visiting our centres and attending events.

I’m involved in a number of local community organisations so I may have a meeting or event to attend during the day in my local community, and I also mentor several younger women in business, so will have regular calls with them.

I try to build in some regular reading time to keep up to date with developments in the sectors I work in and do regular updates and refreshers training in best practice governance.

My husband and I catch up during the day, and will try to snatch a few minutes for lunch together, when he’ll often update me on what’s happening in the business, and we’ll talk about what’s on the family calendar for the next few days.

From 3pm on, it’s school pick up and running around after school activities, which keeps me (and on some days my husband) busy until early evening, when we try to sit down for dinner as a family.

In addition to running our business, my husband also sits on several ASX Boards, so sometimes he or I will have late afternoon or evening meetings but we try to manage those so that one of us is always home at night with our kids.

I also go to Sydney for Board meetings once a month, and try to go for a block of several days (rather than having to go up for a single day in separate weeks).

When I’m in Sydney, in addition Board, committee and stakeholder meetings, I try to fit in coffees and meetings to keep my networks alive, attend a networking event or face to face training, and will also often use the opportunity to catch up with old friends during the evenings.

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

My work as a Non Executive Director has always been fairly flexible, but this flexibility has increased since COVID, because more of my meetings are being conducted virtually, so I don’t need to travel away from home to meetings so often.

Dates for Board and committee meetings are generally set at the beginning of the year, so I can plan family and other personal commitments around them, and, conversely, can often also make sure my other, shorter term, work commitments are planned around pre-existing family commitments.

The flexibility of my days means I can be really involved with my daughters’ lives, attending events at school and doing canteen duty regularly; and also be involved in my local community. It also means both my husband and I can juggle Board careers, family and the business, as we have the flexibility of managing our own time and diaries.

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

For me, work-life balance means having choice. When my life is balanced, I am still extremely busy, but busy doing things that I choose to do – interesting work, spending time with my family, and contributing to our local community.

Achieving that balance is only possible with a lot of support and help. My husband and I are a team, managing and running our lives together and sharing caring responsibilities and I’m also very fortunate to have a weekly cleaner.

Living in a rural community, we also have a group of wonderful friends whose kids have grown up with ours, and we all help ferry kids to sporting activities, birthday parties and other events. It would not be possible for me to have any work life balance without all these people around me – it’s very much a team effort.

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

Prior to COVID, there was an expectation that Directors would attend Board meetings in person, so I was travelling to Sydney more frequently, which put more pressure on the family to juggle things while I was away.

However as we’ve all now become proficient at online meetings it has become much more acceptable to attend meetings remotely. Being able to finish a long Board meeting and walk upstairs so I’m immediately home, instead of driving for several hours, has made a huge difference to my energy levels, and to my family’s life.

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

I really enjoy Julia Gillard’s podcast A Podcast of One’s Own, in which she talks to female leaders from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences about their lives, how they juggle work and personal lives, and how they’ve dealt with being women in traditionally male fields.

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

My phone! My family says I’m addicted to it (and they’re right), but my phone helps me stay flexible. I do email, reading, business calls, checking my diary, and making appointments on my phone: being able to do this while I’m at children’s soccer training or dance rehearsals means less time away from the family when we’re all together.

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

I love talking to, and hearing the stories of the partners of serving defence personnel who are effectively single parents when their partners are away on deployment, and then have to return to shared parenting and decision-making when their partners return.

I have huge respect for how they and their serving partners manage day to day life, which can be challenging, so I am always keen to hear and read their stories.

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

I think there’s a perception that work-life balance means that you should be able to do everything perfectly all at once. We pressure ourselves to have fulfilling careers, be amazing parents, partners and friends, keep fit, have perfect looking houses and cook gourmet meals, and in my experience, that’s impossible.

Former Governor General Dame Quentin Bryce once said “Women can have it all, but not all at once” and I think that applies to everyone, regardless of gender. I do only basic cooking – in and out of the kitchen as quickly as I can; don’t do much formal exercise; and as I said earlier, have a lot of help with the house and family life, which I recognise is a privilege.

‘Balance’ is also very personal; what feels like ‘balance’ to one person will feel unbalanced to another, and I think an individual’s idea of balance will shift as their lives change. My advice to people reading this is not to be hard on yourself if you don’t feel your life is how you want it now, and not to let anyone else tell you what your life balance should be.

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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.