Balancing the Grind with Stephen Graham, Partner – Brand and Marketing Strategy at Shadowboxer

Stephen Graham is the Partner – Brand and Marketing Strategy at Shadowboxer, an independent venture consultancy and product studio.

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

My early career was a mix of journalism, public relations and brand editorial work in the UK. It was as the global managing editor for Jaguar’s print magazines out of its agency of record, Spark44, that I began to make the switch to more strategic roles across advertising, content and brand though. 

With a mandate to transform the print magazine businesses for both Jaguar and Land Rover, I got to put theory to practice with regards to the changing media landscape, harnessing culture as a brand and textbook marketing exercises like segmentation and positioning. Not to mention I was lucky to be rubbing shoulders with some really sophisticated marketers and creative agency folk who inspired me daily.

After deciding to move to Australia in 2015 with my wife, I spent several years sharpening up my strategy toolkit at digital agency Isobar, building digital businesses, which is coincidentally where I also met my four other business partners who I work with today at Shadowboxer. 

We foolishly decided to launch Shadowboxer, an independent venture consultancy and product studio, mid-lockdown in 2020 but it’s been the ride of a lifetime so far. We’ve built a team of over 20 people across strategy, creative and technology, and partnered with some of Australia’s most exciting founders already.

Specifically my role as a partner in the business is to co-lead the strategy team, focusing on creating propositions, products and brands for new and scaling ventures.

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

Truthly I don’t think about routine too much but I am a big believer in picking your shots, and making them count, so I try to focus my work efforts around when I’m going to be the most up and about. A good day would look like: 

6.00: just one snooze of the alarm, before somewhat reluctantly taking the dog for a quick, brisk stroll. I always return home happier than when I left. So does the dog. Admittedly the hit rate for a 6am start isn’t 100%.

6.30: A combination of breakfast and emails or a task that requires thinking and writing. I find that my output is double what it would be during the day at this time.

7.30: Gym and commute. The gym blows away the cobwebs and I quite like a little train time listening to podcasts.

9.30: Likely to be team, project and client meetings for a few hours with a coffee stroll or two peppered in before lunch. 

We work on a lot of product strategy, prototyping and design work for very early stage businesses, helping them get ready for seed or series A investment rounds, so it’s likely a healthy mix of research (primary qual and quant) and strategy development is on the cards – brand, product and go-to-market. 

12.30: Lunch. It’s sacred and should be shared. Yeah sometimes meetings happen but in most instances it’s a respected punctuation mark in the day for me and if we are going to be talking shop, why not break bread at the same time. 

13.15: The afternoon is pretty much the same mix as the morning, with another coffee stroll peppered in there. I find walking to get a coffee with teammates is actually a really valuable part of the day.

Usually work related topics sneak into the conversation and new ideas or thoughts surface without having to look for them. The hiring strategy at Shadowboxer was always to stand on the shoulders of giants, unashamedly, and I never go a day without hearing something provoking or inspiring from the legends at work. 

18.00 (ish): home time, although when I can, and the office is empty, I don’t mind making the most of the quiet for another hour. 

19.00: Very boring stuff like making dinner and tossing up between reading a book or flicking on the streaming service du jour. One often wins out over the other, but I won’t reveal which.

And if I’m not in bed before 10 (most nights) I get a second wind and end up powering through work quite late, or just reading, or an internet hole. 

Not that it’s been possible as often as I like in recent times but Thursday’s we do usually try and go out for dinner or a drink, either the two of us or with friends. It’s an important ritual that opens the door to the weekend imho. 

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

Well for the first six months operating as a business we were 100% remote, and not by choice, so I think we’ve been built with a remote working mindset as a default. 

I’m very much a social person though and thrive being around my teammates. For me the serendipitous thinking that comes from being with each other, not necessarily for a meeting, creates the kind of alchemy you need in a business that thrives on creativity. 

But, I also love a day working from somewhere else or home and not seeing anyone for the day (or just a part of the day). It’s just wonderful to have the choice and I think everyone should be free to exercise that choice for themselves too. 

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

Being a partner in a business changed my attitude to work life balance. I technically work a lot more than I would if just taking a salary, but I’m also 10 times happier doing that work as my life and future plans are wrapped up in the business itself. I will gladly carve out part of my weekend to think about work if it’s what’s going to make me happy.

However, one thing I’m acutely aware of is that it’s really easy to obsess and only ever think about the business, neglecting other parts of life that deserve a far greater share of attention. I’ve always been good at avoiding these bad habits but I do set up some mouse-traps for myself to take my mind away from work.

For example, my wife and I usually have an end of day debrief session where we sit down, have a drink and talk about each other’s day before anything else needs to happen. I’ve definitely found the closure this creates on the day really valuable. 

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

One very new habit is trying to read a book a week, alternating between fiction and business books. It’s good to feed the mind a bit and at the very least, two pages before bed and you’re straight to sleep, much better than the iPhone scroll for half an hour before staring at the ceiling until 1am. 

Other than that I’ll be honest, my strategy during 2021 has been more about avoiding introducing bad habits! I’ll focus on progress post-pandemic.

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

I’ve just read Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty by Patrick Lencioni.

Ultimately it’s about being vulnerable so as to build loyalty with your clients, and tackling the three fears that ‘sabotage client loyalty’ – fear of being embarrassed, fear of losing business and fear of feeling inferior. Definitely recommended for new leaders in businesses. 

And I’m a big fan of The Generalist and Not Boring’s memo’s and newsletters. Both provide razorsharp briefings on new tech businesses, investment opportunities and trends. And both are packed with amazing business stories and case studies that I end up referencing anecdotally day to day.

I also love listening to The Prof G Pod with Professor Scott Galloway. Half for the content and half to hear him refer to himself as ‘the dog’.

My other podcast would be Monocle 24’s The Entrepreneurs, really just because it’s a wonderful directory of interesting businesses from all over the world. 

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

I’m not a gadget or app person really, and whilst I’m not a dinosaur either, push come to shove I just need pen and paper, although noise cancelling headphones was an incredibly impactful purchase last year. 

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

There are so many people who walk the work life balance like a tightrope and often those who achieve so much push themselves to the limit. I’d love to read those stories more – people who’ve played with fire and learnt from the burns.

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

Perhaps this isn’t a practical thought to leave readers with, but someone I admire and hold dear once said to me ‘Design the life you want, work towards it and enjoy the journey’. For me it’s often when we veer off of that path that we become unhappy or unsatisfied with how we’re ‘balancing the grind’. 

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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.