I was so delighted to reconnect with Loren Downing as I worked with her a hundred years ago and she left a lasting impression. Loren's one of those rare, analytical types with the talent and patience to make complicated concepts (and processes) genuinely accessible. But what I most admired about her was that while she never got caught up in silly office politics, she was fearless in speaking truth to power. I couldn't be more proud to see how she's used all of her professional skills and experience to build a successful consultancy that makes life easier for others. As you'll read, her desire to make other lives better extends well beyond the office space. Here's what she had to say when I spoke to her recently ...
Tell us about what you do?
I run Sync or Swim, a small business consultancy that I set up in 2010. We provide business solutions to client problems. Fundamentally, our philosophy is that our clients are good at their trade; we’re good at business. So we work with them on everything from using text message photos and fixing keyboards to developing business strategies. I’m an ideas person, connecting solutions to problems, as well as connecting people. One of my clients calls me Nanny McPhee. While I keep my hands dirty, I’ve a team now who are kept busy.
Why do you love your work?
I love to take the stress out of someone else’s business life, and I love simplifying things. There have been occasions after helping clients realise things aren't so hard, that they've hugged me. Also, there's something I’ve done, which makes me proud. Are you aware that small business owners have one of the highest suicide rates as a group? I partnered with a team and Beyond Blue to help develop a first-ever program that helps support people deal with mental health issues that result from the stress of running a business.
What lead to you setting up Sync or Swim
Due to some health issues, I took a career break and lived with my parents for 3-months on the Victorian border. I then went over to Vietnam to teach English; and then returned briefly to Sydney to attend a wedding, with the intention of moving to Italy, for potentially the rest of my life. Instead, ill health sent me back to my parents for another 3-month stint. After I had got stronger during those stints in the country, the local businesses began to seek my professional help. Then, following a trip to Europe, encouragement from some business people ringing in my ears and six months back in corporate; I decided life really was just too short, and I set up Sync or Swim.
Can you remember what you wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?
There was a phase in my life when I thought about graphic design, but wasn’t really supported by my family (it was a very unproven industry back then!). After I gave that idea away, I never knew what I wanted to do 'when I grew up', not even when I was working. It wasn’t until I took a career break, and got advice from friends to be a ‘helper’, that I figured things out. Having said that though, when I was 14 or 15, I watched my father start a business and in hindsight, that’s where my drive for starting up a small business came from.
babysitter | supermarket face-to-front | Burger King | database entry | database design | PA to CEO | microfiche filmer. I did all seven jobs before I finished Uni - they were great preparation for consulting work.
Has study been important?
The best study I ever did was my TEFL/ESL for teaching English in Vietnam. Teaching was so fantastic; it taught me how to plan rapidly and how to improvise and how to think more creatively. I’ve brought all those techniques to my business – I’m quick at planning and execution and adaptive to business cultures and personality types.
I also did an Applied Finance degree and postgraduate Diploma of business, but the TEFL was best.
How do you stay on top of your professional development?
A client once told me that Sync or Swim brought a corporate edge to small business. As a result of him saying that I try and take on one corporate contract each year because it's good training for me. As I work with my clients, I'm constantly learning new systems and ideas, which is information I can take to future customers. I read every morning - everything from mental health to how to fix a keyboard. I sign up for webinars, especially technical skill training. I surround myself with specialists from a range of areas, which I'm always learning from, but it also means I don't have to be an expert on everything.
If it was possible, is there anything you’d go back and change in your career?
I can be impetuous, so if I had my time again I might have stuck out another 6-months in the Corporate world – but ultimately I think everything happens for a reason so there’s nothing I’d change.
Whose career do you admire? Why?
Richard Branson because while he wasn’t particularly talented at school, at 16 he created a successful business. He's good at dreaming, solving problems, making things happen and disrupting markets. And he ignores the naysayers.
Do you have a mentor?
No, not one person specifically, I’m surrounded by a group of individuals who I can call on.
Do you have a career defining moment?
Teaching English in Cambodia had a massive impact on me, literally changing my perspective on life. In a nutshell, where I worked, the kids come from the Phnom Penh rubbish dump. Entire families work in the dumps, earning money from plastic collection to send the kids to the orphanage in the hopes they can build a better life. But there's a terrible Catch-22 for the parents. Once the kids have left for an education at the orphanage, and not working the dump, the income falls away, and relatives can't afford to keep the children at the school! I got incredible learnings on perspective, resilience, coping mechanisms, and appreciation for all that I have and then, of course, the need to get out of the corporate merry go round and do something more meaningful.
How do you unwind?
I operate at either 150% or 0% - there’s no in between for me. In the past, unwinding was forced upon me, but now that I’m more conscious of my health, I’ve learned to unwind proactively – sleep in, have a long breakfast, read the news and have a few beers with friends in the sun. And I love long drives – they really clear my head.
What’s the biggest fail a person can have in their career?
When they follow or force a career, doing what they think they should do rather than what they’re naturally good at.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you do now?
I’d be back teaching English to orphans in Cambodia.
What would you like more of in your career?
Money – I guess I could charge two or three times what I do, but then I don’t think the businesses that need my services would be able to access me.
And less of?
Nothing – I’m happy the way things are.
Can you finish this sentence: ‘If you knew me really well, you’d know …’
... to get me to a 7:30 am meeting, you’ll have to buy me breakfast.
What kind of impact do you think you have on the people you work with?
By nature, I look for the positive in everyone and every situation; I think, the people I work with come round to see the positive as well.
Career or business wise, what do you want to do next?
I want to build my business to have specialists employed in each department (IT, HR, OH&S etc), bring all the functions in-house.
What’s important to you?
Me being transparent, respectful, honest, empathetic. If I don’t feel these things, or if there’s a breach, I know that something’s not working.
Outside of work, what do you love about life right now?
I’m getting better at balance. This weekend, for example, I’m having the whole time off! Recently I’ve been a ‘subbie’ parent for friends, and looking after their children. Those kids have been giving me a different perspective on life – simplify.
And finally, a quick Pop Quiz
Favourite song or piece of music? Ooh Child by The Five Stair Steps
Favourite book? Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson
Favourite movie? Primal Fear
Favourite piece of art? A handprint done by my niece when she was 18 months.
Favourite place? Northern end of Positano, Italy
Loren's story, drivers and commitment to clients is told really well in this short, inspiring video.
If you enjoyed reading about Loren's career, here's the link to other interviews I've done with people who love their work