Balancing the Grind with Suzanne Howard, Managing Director of IDEO U

Suzanne Howard is the founder, dean & managing director of IDEO U, the learning platform of global design and innovation company IDEO.

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

My training is in cultural anthropology; studying cultures passing through disruptive change. Today I apply these skills by studying people and culture in our fast changing world. My goal is to design technology enabled experiences that fit better with people’s lives. 

I’ve worked at IDEO – a global design and innovation company – for 2 decades. My main focus for the last 7 years has been on founding and bringing to life an online learning experience for change makers called IDEO U.

At IDEO U, we teach about design thinking, innovation, leadership and other powerful skills that help people be successful in the modern workforce. By studying what people need and how they learn, we’ve created an engaging and social learning experience that truly helps learning stick while people are having fun. 

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

Every day is different for me, and that’s the way I like it. There’s always a delicate balance of activities. I always need to focus on very near term puzzles at hand, but balanced that with time for thinking further out.

While the majority of my time is focused inside IDEO, I punctuate those sessions with making sure there’s time to be inspired by people outside our organization.

Most importantly, as a leader, I need to make sure that every minute is not filled with meetings. I work hard to get heads down time to truly think, plan and create. 

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

The experiences we create are all online learning experiences. Our team worked very digitally even before 2020 because we already worked from home at least one day a week. 

Since we were already comfortable working remotely and digitally collaborating, we had a relatively easier transition to being a fully remote organization. Still of course, when we work from home, there are all sorts of other factors at play including all of the people and things we take care of beyond work.

For this reason, we’ve set stronger patterns across our team for “no-meeting zones”. While this seems more rigid, the structure has actually helped us all have greater flexibility while staying in sync with each other.

We have a high-trust culture. And as long as people are delivering on their goals and not holding up other colleagues, we each have a lot of freedom in when and where we get our work done. 

In short, because of the amazing people and I work with, working remotely fits nicely with the rest of my life. 

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

Work-life balance for me means that I am able to support my other loves and passions above and beyond my work.

I’m a mother, daughter, wife, sister, aunty, a really great friend and a person who believes in doing good things for my community. I have multiple sports that I enjoy from rock climbing to surfing. And I’m an avid life long learner, always taking classes and reading. 

To make room for all of these other passions, work needs to stay flexible and cannot fill all of my time. I follow a “work hard, play hard” approach. In reality, this manifests through me being quite calendar-driven and planny.

I book time for all of these things on my calendar and that creates the perfect cocktail of activities for me over time. Early morning exercise balances with deep intensive worksessions followed by meals and activities with loved ones. 

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

My biggest challenge has always been leaving down time for myself. Stopping all of the “doing” so that I have time to rest, reflect and rejuvenate. The last 12 months have not made that any easier with caretaking of my family, friends and coworkers on top of everything else. I have been trying 3 things. 

My newest activity is piano. I played as a child, but have not for over 30 years been practicing. During Covid, I found an amazing teacher who gives me lessons on zoom. Practicing piano switches my brain into another mode and is a very relaxing gear change. 

Beyond that, I’m trying to get wiser about sensing I need a break before I hit my breaking point. That has actually gotten slightly easier with Covid-19. Since I have more time at home, I have been able to take time to meditate and literally feel it in my body if I am stressed.

I’m working hard to learn how to pause and decrease the effects of cortisol in my system. Sometimes that’s as simple as breathing or stepping outside. Other times it means I need to have some fun with my loved ones at night.

My favorite technique – started by some of my closest buddies – is something we call dis-dancing. We meet at sunset at the top of a hill in our neighborhood, bring music and dance a few meters apart from each other. 

Finally, I schedule time to get away. Every few weeks while my family has been working and going to school remotely, I try to go and work from somewhere else. I call it #OperationMaintainSanity.

I’ve worked from campsites, beaches, mountains and a wide variety of other places where we can still get wifi. This way we can get that balance of nature alongside our otherwise urban life. 

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

 So many books have touched me so deeply. This year I’ve been working to learn more about my own biases and systemic racism.  

  • I have appreciated the writings of Temo Okun, especially The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race And Racism To People Who Don’t Want To Know
  • I was deeply moved by Chris Wilson’s memoir, The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose.
  • My current favorite novel is Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.
  • And I’m balancing out all of these heavier books with Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetel Lee.

Podcast wise:

  • I have to give a shout out for our podcast from IDEO U, The Creative Confidence Series where we spotlight amazing people around creativity, leadership, innovation and growth. 
  • I also love the Moth because I enjoy hearing life stories from diverse people and RadioLab, because it is so well produced and enlightening. 

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

I hate to think I am attached to technology, but I think at this point, I have to admit, I couldn’t live without my phone or laptop. I’m a big communicator and reader. These are my life lines to the people and topics I care about. My favorite app is Headspace. After decades of trying to meditate, this app has helped me to do it much more regularly. 

My favorite products are much less digital. I adore well made outdoor gear although I know I can live without it. I love smart designs like the C gear sand free blanket and LuminAID solar powered camping lanterns. Such amazing products so that the outdoors got even more pleasurable. 

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

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

Does anyone really have it down? I certainly don’t. But I continue trying and I admire anyone who is always working to bring a better version of themselves to life.

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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.