When people ask you who you are and what you do, what do you tell them?
I run a company called Inventium, it’s an innovation consultancy and we essentially exist to help people become better innovators. Our clients include companies like CommBank, Google and Disney, Nestle and the ABC.
We are very passionate about purpose driven businesses. We got our B-Corp Accreditation about six months ago and we’re very passionate about putting purpose over profit, and we’re also very passionate about helping others. We love working with not-for-profits and worked with quite a number from the Cancer Council to the Big Issue to Red Cross. We also want to extend our reach to helping solo entrepreneurs who are doing purpose-driven social enterprise pursuits because we think there’s so much value that they could unlock just through learning better tools and skills to innovate.
How do you get to the point where you say ‘I’m going to start an innovation consultancy?’
It was a Plan-B for me. I’m not one of those entrepreneurs, and I didn’t have a lemonade stand when I was two years old. I feel like I don’t fit that stereotype; neither of my parents are entrepreneurs, so it really wasn’t in the blood or in the family.
In my early 20s I finished my Ph.D. in psychology. I was always really interested in consumer behaviour and when I was doing myPh.D. I was always quite drawn to the consumer psychology articles and why people buy what they buy. When I was writing up my thesis, a job ad popped up on Seek and it was for a ‘Consumer Researcher’ or something in an agency in Melbourne. I thought, ‘oh my God, people pay you to understand consumers?’ That was revolutionary to my little university brain. I applied and was really lucky to get the job and that started a five-year stint in advertising where essentially I was a consumer psychologist and strategist for a couple of ad agencies, one in Melbourne and we also opened one up in Sydney.
“It was a Plan-B for me. I’m not one of those entrepreneurs, and I didn’t have a lemonade stand when I was two years old.”
I loved my time in advertising. Intellectually I found it really interesting but ethically I found it challenging as I always very torn between having a job where I was really fascinated by what I was doing on a day-to-day basis and working with some really interesting brands. But I would go home at the end of the day and say ‘wow, I have studied psychology for seven years and I’m using that knowledge to help people buy more chocolate bars. That feels shit’.
I felt like I had reached my use by date and this was when I was in my late 20s. I gave my boss three months notice so he could have time to plan around me. I wanted to find a job where I could use my psychology skills and help people in more of a meaningful way. I thought that I wanted to maybe become a trainer of working in learning development. I interviewed with probably 10 different companies and I couldn’t find a fit between the workplace culture and what would bring out the best in me and also the intellectual property that I would be working with. I wanted it to be really top notch.
I couldn’t find anything, my girlfriends told me to start my own business and do it my way. I thought I was too young. I thought ‘I’m in my 20’s, what do I know?’ which is stupid because most successful companies are started by people in their 20s. But at the time I felt blocked.
Ten years ago, words like ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ were not buzz words like they are now. There were like a handful of a consultants that were calling themselves ‘innovation, creativity consultants’. I was looking at the space and who was operating in it and it was ex-creative directors, people that had come from marketing. They were professing to having the answers to how to become more creative.
I always remained a massive science geek after leaving uni; I kept reading all of those academic journals. And there was so much great knowledge there that no one was using. It just blew my mind, so I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to combine all of this great science that exists to what actually drives innovation and create something really different and valuable.’ I wanted to and help organisations innovate better using strategies that are scientifically proven to work.
That was the idea and at the time I didn’t have a mortgage or kids. I had a partner and he said, ‘yeah go for it’. I thought that if it all goes belly up, I had savings to live for six months and then I knew that at a drop of a hat I could easily get contract work back in advertising if I wanted to do that again. So I did it! And it all kind of worked really well. In May, I’ll have been going 10 years.
How has the business changed since you started it to where you are now?
It’s very different. The one things that the same though is that still about science-based innovation. What has changed is that for the first few years I was really nervous to recruit permanent staff because that felt like such a responsibility. It’s fine supporting myself and I wasn’t too stressed about that because if I got no money in then I only had to myself to worry about, but if I’m funding someone else’s life and their mortgage and their family bills and everything like that, it felt like such a huge stressful responsibility.
So I deliberately chose to operate a contract model where I had two or three contractors who would go out and deliver the programs that I developed. I remember one year I was looking at how much I have spent over the year on contractors and I thought, that’s like a full-time salary, and that made it feel really safe to hire our first full-time consultant. I did that six years ago and now that we have 17 full-timers. It’s such a different position when you have got 17 people whose financial lives you are responsible for so I take that really seriously.
Mid-way through last year we introduced an initiative of unlimited paid leave. A lot of news outlets picked it up, which I thought was a bit crazy because it’s not a new concept, but apparently it’s new in Australia. Having the freedom to do stuff like that can really make a big difference to people’s work lives has been very rewarding and kind of like an unexpected bonus.
Unlimited paid leave! Wow. What made you adapt that policy and how do you make it work?
For me it was the inequity around employment contracts. You get four weeks paid annual leave but then you are expected to work a 38 – 40 hour week. Some of the consultants would regularly work nights and weekends and there is quite a lot of travel for them. In any management consultancy, we don’t track hours and therefore, we don’t pay overtime and that just seemed really unfair. We cap leave but we are not capping the hours worked.
I then did a lot of research into companies that have introduced unlimited leave. I think the biggest thing I was scared of was of people actually taking less leave, so that was a consideration. I was very thoughtful on what unlimited leave was and here we call it ‘rebalanced leave’. Essentially how it works is that people still get their four weeks of annual leave. We also said that rebalanced leave isn’t sick leave, it’s not carer leave, it’s not mat leave. The purpose of ‘rebalanced leave’ is to take extra time off that you will be paid for, kind of like more annual leave to help balance things if you have come off a really tough month or a tough fortnight where you have been travelling long hours.
We did some tracking a couple of months ago where we looked at five months post rebalanced leave and five months prior, leaving out the holiday Christmas period, and we found out that people were taking significantly more leave. So on a per person basis, there was an increase of leave taken by about 30 per cent, so pretty significant. We will track that again at the 12-month mark. For me, I would have been quite upset if it was the same or less, but it’s been good and that’s exactly what I wanted.
As a leader and a business owner, what is a normal day like for you?
There probably isn’t a normal day for me! There are days where we are on our feet doing something, whether it’s a workshop or a keynote. I do a lot of keynote speaking and on those days I might be on a plane to somewhere generally in Australia or possibly the world and I’m delivering a one-hour keynote about innovation to a few hundred people in a room and that might take half of the day and the rest of the day would be work or meetings.
On an office day something that I have started to do is I don’t check emails until lunchtime, I have an auto responder just in case someone needs me urgently. The other thing that I have worked out is this concept called ‘Maker vs Manager time’. A man called Paul Graham first wrote about it a few years ago and essentially what it is that ‘manager time’ works in half-hour, one hour increments. Whereas ‘maker time’ is for the people that are actually making things and they need blocks of two or three or four hours to actually something done because it takes half n hour to get into the zone of a project. And once you’re in it you kind of just want to stay in the zone for a few hours and not be interrupted.
But there is this real clash, because workplaces work on manager time where diaries are booked in one hour or 30 minute increments and it doesn’t really work for people who are makers and are actually making things. A large amount of my job is making stuff, so now we’ve changed how we run my diary and I just won’t do meetings before lunch time. So essentially my morning is ‘maker time’ and I will spend the morning making something, whether that will be making an actual tangible product like on online learning platform or conceptually making something: thinking about my next book project or thinking about what are some articles that I want to write this quarter and actually writing. Generally my afternoon will be packed with meetings whether its internal meetings or with clients.
And you don’t miss anything when you don’t check your email?
No, not at all, nothing, and if something is urgent, someone will text me or call me. I’m not a surgeon, no one is going to die.
How would you describe yourself as a leader? And what do you admire in a leader?
Thinking about feedback that I have received from the team, I think I’m very caring as a leader. And I feel like the workplace as a whole is very caring. It’s very female dominated, which a lot of people comment on, but that was not my design at all. It’s just that when we have been looking to fill roles, the female candidate has been the best one. I take business very personally and I think that’s the shadow side of being very caring. I feel like that’s a weakness of mine, that some people will say it’s a strength.
I think I tend to be very opportunistic and optimistic as well as a leader, and I think that’s a strength. But I think the shadow side to that is that it can kind of come off as this very scattergun approach strategically. Some things that have become really big for the business have been opportunities that we have kind of grabbed and ran with, with no pre-thought or plan.
The kind of flip-side is, something we are working on now is about having a strategy that will essentially help us with what to say yes to and what to say no to. Because we are not very good at saying no but we need to get better at it so we can focus on the things that really mater to us and are going to have a big impact.
Do you believe in the idea of balance?
I feel balance. I feel like I have good balance and I feel pretty minimal mother guilt.
What does that balance look like to you?
On a practical kind of level, I am in the office or working or flying somewhere around four days a week and on Wednesdays is my day at home with (daughter) Frankie. I’m lucky that I have got a very supportive husband, but also his works very flexible so he does a day at home as well and on those other three days we have got nannies, which is awesome.
Frankie is a good sleeper so on my day at home, she will sleep for two hours and I will work. And if I have work that I want to keep doing when she goes to bed at 7pm, I will hop on my computer but I’m always off by 8:30. I have hard and fast rules about sleep. I’ve had various sleep issues in the past and I am seeing a sleep doctor so I take sleep so seriously.
My routine is that technology is off by 8:30pm, TV is fine because that is passive, but no active working. I defiantly have become better at not multi-tasking, which is my natural way of doing things. So everything’s off by 8:30pm and bed is by 10pm and then up at 5:30pm. So 7.5 hours of sleep every night. Generally Frankie will wake at 7am, so Monday to Friday at the moment I am doing some kind of scheduled exercise at 6am, whether it will be a class or seeing a personal trainer, but it has to be scheduled otherwise the motivation is trickier.
Are you naturally a routine person or have you had to make yourself?
I do like routine actually, which is surprising even though I work in innovation and creativity. Luckily Shannon is not a morning person, so even having that hour and a half from 5:30am to 7am in the morning is so precious because it’s mine. I can leave the house and Shannon will be at home sleeping so if Frankie cries it’s managed.
Who inspires you personally?
My most favourite mentor, and she is a friend too, is Cationa Wallace, who I’m thinking is apart of the Business Chicks community. I just love her, she is so amazingly generous. We met maybe seven or eight years ago where we were both bizarrely speaking at this same conference in Portugal of all places and we just bonded. She is the most amazing mentor, not that it’s a formal mentor relationship, but I know I can call her with anything, like if the shit hits the fan or if I have an idea. She’s just amazing, she’s a really good friend.
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