Directors, Interviews

Balancing the Grind With Melanie Johnstone, Strategy Director at Splendid Suggestions

September 12, 2019

Melanie Johnstone is the Strategy Director at Splendid Suggestions – one of Australia’s leading B2B IT marketing consultancy – working with customers such as Microsoft, Intel, Citrix and Brennan IT.

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

I’ve been in marketing and strategy roles for over 20 years. In 2002, after working in a really busy digital / customer experience agency for a number of years, I felt burnt out and was craving work- life balance, so I decided to start my own strategic marketing consultancy. I went on to work for myself for 16 years and Splendid Suggestions (my now employer) was one of my clients.

When Splendid asked me to join them full-time in the Strategy Director role, it was really a no-brainer as their business was going from strength-to-strength, they were working with progressive tech clients like Microsoft, and I was really enjoying being on a steep learning curve again.

The projects were really interesting and strategic with the potential to deliver significant long-term value to clients’ businesses. I was also really enjoying being part of a great senior team, with people who don’t take themselves too seriously. And amongst all those positives was the fact that Splendid has a successful virtual working model—so I could keep working from home.

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

I drop the kids off at school, most days, between 8am and 8.30am. I try to be at my desk by 8.30am. Tim Sands, Splendid’s Managing Director, and I then usually have some friendly banter via chat or video call on Microsoft Teams where we share what’s happening for the day and outline any key priorities for the next few days and how we will share the load.

My day is likely to be peppered with any mix of internal and client facing meetings such as strategy briefings, discussions, workshops, presentations, new business meetings or general check-ins and updates on live projects. We’re also highly collaborative, both internally and externally, with clients like Microsoft, and we chat and work together on documents via Teams.

I try not to work really long hours – instead, I put myself in a really efficient headspace so I can achieve what needs to be done every day. That means just a quick lunch break (around 5-10 mins tops), give or take a few minutes while my Greyhound, Odin, sniffs his few favourite trees and leaves a message for his neighbours.

Then I’m back to it, so I can wrap things up by 4.30-ish to do the school pick-up and evening shift at home.

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

Yes, absolutely. The majority of the work I do is remote and flexible, and members of the Splendid Team have all kinds of circumstances going on. Some work part-time, and some have impressive side-hustles – so it’s really just part of our DNA.

Most of us have young kids, as do many of our clients, so we just work around each other’s schedules, support each other where we can, and trust and respect that we’ll all find the time to deliver amazing results on our own terms.

I love being able to get the most out of my day without having to tackle traffic delays and commute frustrations. When things get really busy – which they often do – I put in the late nights and weekends, which is always recognised and appreciated, and it’s encouraged that I take a day or even an hour off here and there, so I can recharge.

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

I used to feel like I had to do everything myself and do it perfectly – and as most working parents know, that’s where you’re doomed to fail. I have discovered some efficiencies in how to reduce the stuff I need to do at home.

For instance, I’ve recently worked out a set weekly meal schedule which saves planning time, and I can now do online shopping for the week in around 10 mins! It’s not very inspiring but it works wonders for us, and luckily the kids like knowing that Tuesday is ‘pizza night’.

I also quite often prepare what I can in the morning to take the pressure off in the evening – so I make the pizza dough, and prepare the pizza ingredients and a chicken roast for us big people that I can just shove in the oven as I’m flying out the door for school pick-up.

This year, I also have a nanny on Mondays who takes charge of school pick-ups, after-school jobs and dinner for the kids, while I work a bit later. This gives me a head-start on my week and takes the pressure off my weekend.

My husband takes care of the morning shift, so I squeeze in a dog walk and exercise class at 5.15am and I’m home by 7.15am. He also works a day a week from home, so that gives me a bit more time, and it’s nice to share the load where we can.

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

For me, work-life balance is just a sense of enjoyment in doing work I’m proud of and which is adding value to our business and to our clients. It’s also about being able to easily handle the ebbs and flows of my workload and have more control over what I can achieve and when. And, of course, it’s the ability to feel healthy and be present and focused on the kids when I’m with them.

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?

Key habits are making the time for exercise and prioritising healthy eating, as well as spending 10 minutes meditating with my Headspace app at the end of each day. I also try and recognise those little moments in the day when I’m really content.

I often play one of my favourite Avicii songs at lunchtime and dance around the kitchen while I make my lunch and sing at the top of my lungs – badly! But it makes me happy and relaxed. I’m sure the neighbours think I don’t do anything at all!

Also, taking the time I need to recharge is really important. Recently I worked 14 days straight in the lead-up to a skiing holiday, and felt really burnt out. I read an article on LinkedIn about the importance of using holidays to fully recharge so you can keep doing your best work. I decided to leave my computer at home, and I came back feeling refreshed and excited to get back into work.

When I have large and/or a lot of strategic projects going on, I know I need space to really get into them and do a great job. So another habit is blocking my calendar for a day or two, so I can make a dent on the thinking and framework and have a real sense of clarity on the why and the how.

I also really value continuous learning which is one of the big attractions of my role at Splendid, so finding the time to get critical feedback, attend relevant events, and get access to mentors are further habits that definitely work for me.

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

I love reading, but it’s one of those things that’s become harder to fit in with everything else. In saying that, I do love reading personal stories of success. I try and read a book every holiday, with my last three being:

  • Michelle Obama’s Becoming
  • Jane Caro’s Plain Speaking Jane (a story of her personal journey from high anxiety to not giving a toss!)
  • A strategic business book called The Challenger Customer, which has added layers of value to our strategic approach and the commercial value we are delivering for our technology clients.

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

I get myself organised the evening before, write my to-do list, and make sure that when I sit down at my desk, I have a plan for the immediate priorities that I need to get through. Having solid blocks of time to get work done is really important to me.

Like everyone, I have days and weeks here and there where I’m out at client’s offices and/or in back-to-back meetings – but I use these days to connect with everyone I need to, and gather all the information, feedback and support to help to move things forward as efficiently as possible.

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

There’s never a day that I don’t appreciate the strategic projects, great clients, Splendid team and autonomy I have to do my best work and enjoy the process as much as the outcome.

Juggling work and family – or any of life’s other commitments – can be a real struggle, and it’s very easy to become overwhelmed and exhausted. I have a number of friends who fill their weekends with cooking and life admin so they can get through Monday to Friday.

I’m so pleased that enabling remote / modern / flexible working is becoming the ‘done’ thing in so many businesses, and there’s growing awareness of both the commercial and employee benefits.

I think the businesses that haven’t yet made the shift will need to play catch-up in the years ahead, if they are going to effectively motivate and retain great people.

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