I regularly meet with people who struggle to identify meaningful positive qualities about their work. I got the idea of having conversations with people who actually love their work, and starting this series, to see if I could identify a common thread that contributed to what made them like what they do*. Interestingly, I was introduced to Susan Rochester, who has built a successful business by helping people to find joy in their work. During my conversation with Susan, I was impressed with her perceptiveness and ability to empathise as well as navigate conversation towards deeper observations.
What’s your job exactly?
I’m the owner and Managing Director of Balance at Work, which has been operating for nine years.
What’s your business, Balance at Work, about?
It’s a management consultancy that has evolved over the years. When I first started consulting I focused in the HR space and provided advice on policy and procedures (all the reactive stuff), along with coaching, which is one of the consistent activities we’ve done since the business started. We’ve evolved into a leadership and mentoring business that uses a range of very effective tools and techniques to help our clients be more effective and enjoy their work. The change came about because I got tired of doing what I felt was the ‘janitorial’ role of HR and I wanted to find a way to have a more positive effect on people’s working lives. I was fortunate to find Harrison Assessments, one simple online test with huge flexibility in its applications. I use it with our clients as well as train other consultants to use Harrison Assessments so they can better serve their clients and grow their own businesses. Other activity falls out of this, like training and workshops on topics as diverse as social media and time management.
Why do you love your job?
The thing I really enjoy about having my own business is the freedom to set the direction and make my own decisions.
If I take a step back, my purpose is to help people find their joy and every time it happens, when the penny drops and someone becomes aware of what they should be doing, it’s just great. Balance at Work exists to help people to find joy in their work. I don’t agree with the conventional concept of work/life balance. The way to get ‘balance’ is to love what you’re doing, whether you’re at work or not at work.
Where did you previously work?
I sub-contracted as an HR consultant. I’d go into a company as an HR manager and set up that function, ready for them to install a permanent HR manager, or run training on contract. Before that, I was a project coordinator in the consulting arm of Unisearch, at the University of NSW, prior to that I was in sales and before that I was a scientist.
What was your first ever job?
When I was at uni, I worked in a Chinese restaurant. The pay was very poor, but they cooked food for the staff using the same style they used to cook at home. It was delicious and very different from what was served in the restaurant in 1970’s Australia.
Can you remember what your child-self wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?
I’m pretty sure being a teacher was high on the list but when I was offered a teacher’s scholarship, I turned it down because I couldn’t see myself as a teacher. And now I can see it’s gone a full circle and I’ve become a teacher of a different sort. For example, I have a couple of coaching clients right now who are young professionals with fabulous technical skills. They’ve been promoted on the basis of their skills but they’re not ready to take the next step because they haven’t developed the EQ and soft-skills to be leaders. Their company has brought me in to work with them. I love this work because I know I have the knowledge and experience to help them, they’re receptive and comfortable talking about things they can’t share with their managers. On top of that, their managers are open to my advice and trust me to make a difference.
What have you studied?
I did a Bachelor of Science with a major in zoology. It turned out science and I were not a good fit – I am much more a ‘people person’. When I was at UNSW, and by virtue of being there so long, I became responsible for training the new staff in our section and really enjoyed it. So I decided to get some formal qualifications and enrolled in a Masters of HR Management. Interestingly, my science results were all passes and credits and when I did my Masters I got all distinctions and HD’s. Since then, I’ve done a number of courses related to my work and I’m a member of relevant professional associations.
What makes you choose specific courses or conferences or associations?
It’s very much about growing as a person first, and then growing the business. All formal learning opportunities are selected on this basis.
Have you got future career and business plans?
Yes and they’re based on building the financial security that will give me more of the variety and freedom of choice that I enjoy. Ongoing learning is a given for me and I’m always interested in learning that will broaden my thinking because it’s easy in your own business to get stuck in a rut. I’m pragmatic about what’s going to work (or not), although I have been known to make mistakes, which I readily admit in the hope others will learn from them.
What’s your work schedule?
Sometimes I’m doing work and it doesn’t feel like work. It varies from week to week. I work long hours, longer than if I was in corporate HR. However, I’m always very conscious of taking proper breaks and trying not to work on weekends. It’s something that I think I have control over. I can take a couple days off when I want to, and if I plan well. I have flexibility.
What do you wear to work?
Whatever I like.
Are clothes important in your workplace?
Not usually, but I know they are important to some clients. I try to dress to the environment – so what I might wear to a meeting with a bank might be different to what I wear to a meeting in a university. I don’t wear makeup and I don’t dye my hair. I try to communicate authentically – what you see is what you get. I like to think that also applies to how I present myself.
What is your standout proudest career moment?
Probably stepping up on the stage and graduating with Distinction for my Masters degree in 2004. My husband and two daughters were there and I was pleased to be able to demonstrate to the girls what it’s like to achieve a milestone in life.
If you had the possibility to go back and change anything in your career, would you?
I think it would be to trust my own opinions and intuition more. The biggest mistakes I’ve made have been when I’ve given more value to my analytical brain rather than my intuitive brain: when something has looked good on paper and I’ve ignored my gut feel that something’s not quite right. I’d also like to be better at expressing gratitude.
Is there anyone whose career you really admire?
Richard Branson, because he’s probably had more failures than successes and still he’s an extreme success. He’s overcome a disability, dyslexia. And although he may not have always understood business principles he has the sense to get the right people around him. He also seems to be quite comfortable in his skin and quite authentic and I admire the values he espouses in his businesses.
Do you have a mentor?
Not formally. But I think I’ve informally picked up mentors along the way – people I admire and learn by talking with and watching how they work.
How do you unwind?
Knitting – I’m making socks at the moment. I like to have small projects like that to take on the train. Also reading, I’m halfway through book-5 of ‘Game of Thrones’. I also enjoy movies and getting outdoors.
What do you want to do next in your career?
It continues to be about growing the business. In the next 5 years I may do some more study – there are so many things I’m curious about in the world.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing your current job?
Who knows, I might still be in a lab – but I really can’t see myself doing anything else. I love doing what I’m doing now. Any other interests I have can be fulfilled in my leisure time.
What do you want more of in your work right now?
What gives me a lot of pleasure is spending time with like-minded people and I get a lot of that through work. I’m choosy about who I want to work with. Work, joy, connection are not for everyone, but that’s where my interest lies. I’ve been told my approach won’t work for a lot of people in the corporate world, and I’m ok with that. I don’t chase the dollar, I trust the dollar will come when people understand and value what I do.
And less of?
I can’t think of anything. I’ve been quite good at either accepting or getting rid of the things I might have struggled with in the past.
What do you think the biggest fail an individual can have with their career?
A long list, but the biggest one being not doing what makes their heart sings. If you’re doing what you love you just naturally get better – you get the positive feedback and want to continue to work at getting better. I think people look externally for their career direction when they should spend more time looking internally, and who they’d like to be. But not everyone has that luxury, people need to make a living and sometimes you’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.
What is the one word someone might have used to describe you as a child?
Clever (not studious, just quick to pick things up, typical eldest child). Now I realise a label such as this was not entirely positive.
If you knew me really well, you’d know …
I enjoy a laugh! On the other hand, even people who don’t know me well probably know that.
What kind of impact do you think you have on the people you work with?
I would like to it is making them feel better about themselves and what they’re doing.
How do you behave when you’re stressed out?
I’m probably just quiet and withdrawn, with a bit of grumpiness thrown in.
How do you act when you’re relaxed?
I’m noisy! Or at least, more comfortable saying what’s on my mind.
Other than work, what do you love about your life right now?
A lot! Reading ‘Game of Thrones’ is a private pleasure right now. But of course the best thing in life is my family. I have two daughters and a husband who has survived being with me for 33 years. Time with them, and extended family and friends, is the best time of all.
If you enjoyed reading about Susan's career, here's a link to other interviews I've done with people who love their work
* I will share my findings about the common threads that people who love their work seem to share; but if you are following the series at least one quality looms large.