CEOs, Interviews

Balancing the Grind With Leanne Williams, CEO at West Gippsland Libraries

September 11, 2019

Leanne Williams is the CEO of West Gippsland Libraries where she leads a transformation program across culture and technology, strengthening the community and ensuring the sustainability of the organisation.

This conversation is brought to you by HelloFresh, delivering delicious ingredients and simple recipes straight to your doorstep each week.

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

I am the Chief Executive Officer of West Gippsland Libraries and mum of three young children. I am passionate about building healthy communities and making a positive difference to my organisation, staff and communities.

I’m also a leader and advocate for Work and Family Integration, having developed the first Children in the Workplace Policy (watch a video here) of its kind that I am aware of. I reside on two Boards, I chair two Audit and Finance Committees and I sit on the Executive Committee of Public Libraries Victoria.

I am a Chartered Accountant, Graduate of the Institute of Company Directors and recently completed the Leading Transformational Change Program at the Melbourne Business School.

I started my career as an auditor, auditing businesses in regional Victoria and NSW such as Local Government, Health Services, Irrigation Companies, Licensed Clubs and Not for Profit organisations.

I completed my Commerce degree part-time while working full time before studying my Graduate Diploma of Chartered Accounting. I loved visiting and meeting the clients and learning about how each different organisation worked.

As an extroverted accountant (yes they do exist) it was the people that I loved most about being an auditor. From all the clients I audited, Local Government was the one that interested me most and offered huge diversity and opportunity.

I left being an auditor and undertook roles in local government that included economic development, risk and governance and corporate services before landing my current job as a CEO and relocating to Gippsland, Victoria.

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

No day is ever the same, particularly as a CEO and mum of three young children and working full time. I am always putting work and family integration into practice.

I start my day by going to the gym or a walk at about 5.30 am. This is quiet time for me and exercise is essential for staying sharp in a demanding role. It is then controlled chaos in the house getting three kids out the door and my husband and I take turns with drop off and pick ups.

I try to start work at 7.30 am because this allows for quiet time before any one else arrives at the office. My day is then filled with a combination of meetings on many and varied topics, travel to various locations for stakeholder meetings or visiting our libraries and people.

I finish work at 5.30 pm and pick the kids up from after school care and daycare. I try to cook dinner with the kids three times per week (this involves Hello Fresh) and this is great family time together. They are in bed by 7.30 pm and I chill out watching Netflix for an hour or two before repeating again the next day.

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

When I first started as a CEO, I felt this pressure to conform to what people thought a CEO should or shouldn’t do. Early on someone challenged me when I was talking about the difficulty of the 9 to 5 day whilst trying to settle my son into grade prep.

She said “If not you then who?” essentially saying that if I don’t lead work and family integration and celebrate it, then who will! Since then I deliberately and actively practice flexible working and work and family integration.

For me that can look like working from home to get uninterrupted time away from everyone or when the kids are sick, bringing my kids to work, working from a cafe in many different cafes across Gippsland or Melbourne.

It means starting work early and finishing late so I can attend school events during the day. Or getting a few quiet working hours on the weekend so I can have a long lunch with a friend during the week. Part of being a CEO is to not only lead flexible working and family integration, but make sure my teams practice it as well.

This is why I developed the Children in the Workplace Policy and I actively encourage staff to work from home as a way to achieve quiet deep work or practice flexible hours.

4) Do you have any tips, tricks or shortcuts to help you manage your workload and schedule?

I live by my calendar! My husband and I have a rule – first in best dressed with our calendars. We send each other calendar invites if either of us wants to or needs to go out after hours. It may sound impersonal, but it actually really works.

It has prevented many arguments in our house and that I am grateful for. I also raise my kids to work as a team. I couldn’t do my job if we all as a family didn’t pitch in and help.

This also means my kids are learning valuable skills that will put them in good stead as they grow up. My son who is 7 gets up at 6 am each morning and unpacks the dishwasher and packs the school lunches for himself and his sisters.

I also know what I value and what I can compromise on for a short period of time when I have competing priorities and deadlines before the wheels start to fall off. For example, I can miss out on my exercise for a day or two without any trouble, but any longer than a week and it then affects other aspects of my life.

So then I have to readjust which usually means rearranging my calendar and removing anything that is not essential to come back to a routine. I also make sure I get quiet uninterrupted time each week. To make sure this happens, I block it out in my calendar.

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

I don’t think balance is the right word. I prefer to use integration. I integrate work and family because for me they are not separate. I am a better leader because I have children and I am a better mum because I work. I learn everyday how to be a better mum and better leader and I can apply what I learn to both work and home.

Integration is a skill you have to learn. You don’t just get it one day when you wake up with kids. It is like all the other skills we have to learn and regularly practice. Since being a CEO, I have had times where one of my kids has had to come along to stakeholder presentations.

At first I was worried about what everyone would think. Then I reminded myself I was good at my job and ‘I could do it’. I fondly remember one presentation where I had my sick daughter with me (she had a cold) and she was 2 at the time.

It was one of the best presentations I have ever done. The stakeholders saw me being truly authentic as I presented data and recommendations to them whilst fixing Peppa Pig on the iPad for my sad little girl. Cancelling had not been an option because these meetings have to be booked four to eight weeks in advance.

They were so engaged and impressed and this is when I knew that the reason we don’t do it more is because we worry about what others will think and it really isn’t the case.

6) What do you think are some of the best habits you’ve developed over the years to help you strive for success and balance?

A routine is essential for success. As a CEO you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. However a routine helps provide a little structure to ease the discomfort. A routine is also essential for success at home with the family and to avoid tantrums and arguments.

I am very deliberate in how I integrate work and family. I have never ever asked for permission to do it which meant that there was no opportunity for someone to say I couldn’t do it. I make sure that I am prepared (I always have a full packed lunch for my kids with their favourite foods) and that includes an iPad for them to watch.

Most importantly, I make time for me. This could be by getting a massage or having a lunch date with a friend. Again these are all pre-programmed in my calendar to occur each week or month so that I get the benefit of the routine and ‘me time’ without the hassle of having to coordinate it all the time.

7) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I have so many good books that I could recommend. And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t suggest you go and join your local public library and explore all that modern libraries now offer. And for those who can’t get into the library, most now offer a huge range of e-books and e-audio books for free so you don’t have to join audible!

You can check out our library here.

The Third Space by Dr Adam Fraser is a great book which talks about how you ‘show up’ to each ‘space’/place or meeting. Adam talks about bringing your best self to each ‘place’ by allowing for a transition and routine to clear your head and ‘be present’.

This means the person in the meeting or your family get a better version of you, and not the version that is still thinking about the last hour, meeting or day. Be present.

I also love Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead where she writes about rumbling with vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust and learning to rise. Brene says ‘vulnerability is not about winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome’.

This is a leadership style that I deeply connect with and actively put into practice, despite the discomfort it may bring. However we learn the most from failure and being uncomfortable so lets embrace it.

8) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Enjoy the ride! It’s about the journey and not the destination. And (if I can sneak in an extra one) always assume positive intent!

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

Practice, practice, practice! It’s about trust and discipline. You can do it.

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