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Balancing the Grind with Brendan Marsh, Agile & Org Coach at Product Space

Brendan Marsh is an Agile & Org Coach at Product Space, helping Australian and New Zealand businesses simplify and improve their end-to-end digital product development environments.

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

There are 3 interests that have driven my career path in tech-based product development – people (human behaviour, sense making, psychology and neuroscience), technology and my own personal growth.

I’ve recently returned to Australia from spending 6 years in Stockholm, Sweden, where most of that time was spent working at Spotify as an Agile Coach and as a Product Manager. If you’ve ever used Spotify on your Mac or Windows PC/Laptop, that was my baby for a few years!

Most recently, I was Chief Product Officer for a mental health non-profit startup called 29k.org – check them out! I have now moved back to Australia, where I’m on a mission to take what I’ve learned from these amazing experiences and attempt to help companies improve how they deliver value to their business and their customers, whilst fostering a culture of innovation and employee happiness (“retention” for you business folk!).

I’m based in Melbourne and I’m currently working as an Agile / Product coach for Product Space, a collective of like-minded consultants that operate under a non-profit entity, designed to foster our own professional and personal growth.

I’m currently working with a client based in Perth, before COVID-19 I was flying back and forth every week, now I’m working from home which is certainly a nice break from all the travel, although I’m going a little crazy with all the social isolation.

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

Today is a pretty decent example. First thing in the morning, myself and my colleagues in Sydney had a weekly ‘check-in’ where we have a minute of meditation, followed by an emotion based check-in – e.g. “This past week, I’ve been feeling restless”, followed by each of us sharing a photo from our weekend.

The purpose of this meeting is to connect on a human level and open the doors of support to one another, especially given the current Coronavirus restrictions.

Then the rest of the day is a mixture of 1:1 coaching sessions with Product Owners that are new to their role, some stakeholder conversations and finally working on preparing learning experiences for a broader audience inside the company that I am supporting.

My main objective is to help them shift from being project minded, to being product led – that is, seeing the potential of a cross functional team and their product, over simply delivering on what we know about now and then moving on to the next ‘project’.

Today for my lunch break, I took a longer walk to the shops, bought some veggies and came home to steam them and enjoy the slow cooked chili I made over the weekend.

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

Absolutely, it’s the reason I chose to take the huge risk of starting my own consulting company over taking another full-time role. I enjoy variety and flexibility, not just in the work, but in how I go about that work.

I typically like to go away for at least a week (or more) to get outside of my comfort zone and learn something new about myself and add some new meaning to my existence. If I had a full time job with 4 weeks of annual leave a year, I don’t think I’d be able to meet my own expectations for personal growth/fulfillment, as I find it hard to balance personal and professional growth at the same time.

Therefore, this new consulting arrangement enables me to take time off in between clients, or at least not feel as guilty about saying “I need a week and half off in the middle of this engagement”, as I’m typically value-adding, rather than a mission-critical cog in the machine.

I like to think that these experiences add a certain x-factor into my style of coaching. It helps me keep my ego in check, empathise with people and bring a certain degree of ‘humanness’ into a world that often refers to people as “resources”.

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

My time in Sweden has seriously shaped my perspective in this area, as the Swedes have an amazing culture when it comes to work-life balance, not to mention legal safe-guards whilst still being an economic and innovation powerhouse.

I’m a strong advocate for taking time off. If a company like Spotify can be a market leader, with 6 weeks of annual leave a year for employees, not to mention the government-mandated 16 months of parental leave (shared by 2 parents), then there is clearly another approach to building a successful business outside the “just work a lot” mantra.

Speaking of mantras, one of my favourite that I learned during my time at Spotify is “busy is a bug, not a feature”. The kind of question that keeps me pondering at night – “If you built a hyper successful career or company, but have no time to enjoy the simple things in life, and, if you’re honest with yourself, aren’t happy and enjoying life, was it really worth it?”

I’ve come to see work as part of life, they are the same thing. I used to get frustrated at leaders that work long hours and send emails at night, but now I try to have a more balanced perspective. I think it’s more important to ask yourself “Are you living?” rather than “Are you working too much”. Do you work because you have to? Or because you want to? What are your intrinsic motivators for what you do?

My happiest moment of my career was having a role and manager that actively pushed me to grow, not just as a coach, but as a person. I worked quite a lot during this time, but I had autonomy, a strong sense of purpose and I was growing every day.

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5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

Visualisation. I’m quite a visual person, so often I will book out a small room with a whiteboard for a day with no particular agenda, other than to put all the pieces in my head together to form a meaningful narrative. As a Product Manager, this is useful to clarify your product strategy to yourself, so that you are better able to articulate it to others.

Meditation. Ever wonder why your best ideas come whilst in the shower? It’s because you’re not really doing anything and only then can your mind be truly creative and show you what it’s been working on in the background. I’m a big fan of the Waking Up app by Sam Harris, not only is it great for meditation, but he’s wonderful at explaining the science and theory behind these practices, whilst you meditate!

Willingness to fail. My main reason for applying to Spotify in the first place, was a desire to see if my skills and experiences would be enough to get my dream job. So I treated every interview like it was going to be my last. At the end of each interview, I’d ask – “can you please give me some feedback on how this interview went? What do you think was positive and what is a concern or area of further exploration you’d need to do in order to feel confident in hiring me?”

I truly wanted to grow and so if nothing else, I wanted to walk away from the application process with an idea of what I’d have to learn / do in order to get such a job. Turns it, this attitude worked in my favour 🙂

Hacking / managing distractions. Email folders / filtering is your friend. So are the notification settings on your phone / computer, especially around messaging apps. I also like to block out time in my calendar for the meta-problem of managing my time / priorities. If you don’t have time to self-assess how you spend your time, then you really have a problem!

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

As mentioned before, I’m a big fan of the Waking Up app by Sam Harris, I also enjoy his podcast Making Sense with Sam Harris.

A few years back, I experienced a form of burn out. Basically everything in my life wasn’t going well and I experienced a lot of stress and existential crisis, but it was reading The Power of Now by Ekhart Tolle that really put everything into perspective for me.

Now I have a great plethora of tools to recognise and combat stress, with simple mindfulness exercises and a foundation of understanding of my own mind that helps me navigate life in a much better way. I highly recommend this book.

Finally, I know it’s not a book, podcast or newsletter, but the personal growth retreat called Path of Love has also been instrumental in not only helping me navigate life’s challenges, but also find my own inner compass when making such big life decisions. The decision to come back to Australia was heavily inspired by my time volunteering at one of these retreats.

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

I suck at it, but exercising in the morning is probably the most effective thing I can do to be in top form for the day. That and meditation, especially before a stressful / challenging meeting.

Speaking of meditation, I also highly recommend trying out a float tank. It’s like meditation, but on steroids.

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

Hmm that’s a tricky one. I’d love to hear Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek talk about it. He seems to be a really hard working, determined guy that also seems to manage to spend time with his family and go on vacation, whilst running a multi-billion dollar tech unicorn.

He’s always been such an inspiration for me during my time working at Spotify, mainly due to how he seems to embody what he believes in. If he wants the company to make lots of mistakes to learn from, he’ll get up at a company town hall and talk about his own mistakes. I love that kind of humility and embodiment of values.

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

I love to encourage inner enquiry. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from spending a year and half learning about adult developmental psychology (big thanks to Robert Kegan!), it’s that we think we know ourselves, but in reality there is a fine line between what we think we know about ourselves and what has been implanted in us by our upbringing, the media, our friends, our family and so on.

If we’re capable of asking ourselves really difficult questions and answering them honestly, then only then can we really understand if we’re living in line with our true values / beliefs. In my view, it’s not the hours you work that causes stress, it’s your relationship to that work (your beliefs and values) that ultimately is the greatest determining factor to stress. How autonomous are you in that work? Did you choose it? (truly?) What would you be doing instead if you could do anything at all? These are all questions we seldom ask ourselves.

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.