We are delighted to introduce you to Sarah Walker-Smith, COO of national law firm Browne Jacobson. Sarah has recently won Nottinghamshire Business Woman of the year. We’ve asked her a few questions to provide an insight into her world and to provide us with some top tips and advice…enjoy!
Who are you and what do you?
I am Sarah Walker-Smith (or PG at home). I am married to Doug with two boys Josh and Harry. For 30 years I have been in and directed musicals across the East Midlands, last year I wrote and produced one (having taught myself to write music) but by day I am the COO of a national law firm Browne Jacobson. As COO I work closely with the Managing Partner to create the strategy for the business and run it; for me particularly focused on the non legal functions eg IT, HR, Marketing, finance etc. In 2017 I won Nottinghamshire Business Woman of the Year largely due to the brilliant growth of our business plus being able to juggle all of the above!
What is it that you love most about your work?
Variety and the constant challenge of driving change and operating in such a high growth environment. The people aspects though are the best bit. I work with just under 1000 people across 5 national offices; all different and all with something to add to the business. I love having the chance to create a level playing field for them to do it. And finally I love being able to measure the results of what we have done and track the development of the firm and its clients and people. In terms of theatre it’s very similar – I love being able to see the physical manifestation of something I have ‘seen’ in my head and ensuring all the actors and crew I work with get something positive out of the process and hopefully challenge themselves and learn.
What strengths or personal attributes do you think have really helped you to succeed?
Tenacity and drive. Positive attitude. Passion for learning and making things better and a sense of humour! I’ve also spent time working out what my ‘purpose’ is and how that looks to what I do both in and out of work and then the synergy between them and that for me has been the most liberating thing.
How have you managed set backs / challenges along the way?
Not sure I’ve had too many to be honest – but I think that’s possibly a mindset thing as I am sure I have had loads in reality! I suppose I try to redefine failure and make sure I have realistic goals otherwise you can easily start to beat yourself up about things which weren’t 100% perfect (which few things will be if any). And really importantly, I don’t dwell on ‘setbacks and challenges’. Top tip I learnt from an ex-colleague at Boots – I try to visualise what I have taken from difficult situations as a closed door with the things I have learnt written on post-it notes on it. It’s ok then to remember those learnings without opening the door and going back over the negative stuff. i.e. if you learn from something then its really not failure even if things didn’t go as you planned.
What is your formula / top tips for a successful work / life balance?
So this one won’t work for everyone but for me I have blurred the boundaries between the two which allows me to do more without feeling I have to be in the office long hours and can spend proper time with my family or do my hobbies without giving up the quality of my work outputs. I do stay online pretty much 365 days of the year to deal with urgent issues and clear emails which means when I am in the office I can focus on people. For me this works better than the ‘feast or famine’ approach of totally switching off when not in the office and then having to stay long hours (esp pre and post holidays) to cope. Of course for some they prefer the ability to have total downtime sometimes but for me it doesn’t bother me to stay in touch so its a win;win. In summary, stay output focused and never feel the wholly outdated pressure of ‘presenteism’.
What advice would you give to a woman looking to achieve a senior role?
Be yourself. Look for the synergies in your life and this will be easier. Find something you are passionate at and good at and an environment that allows you to deliver these things. It’s so much easer when these things come together. Remember as well to believe you can do it and don’t wait to be 100% perfect. Take control of your own career by delivering great results, making relationships and being brave enough to take the opportunities you see. Know your ‘purpose’ and this will help you make the right decisions along the way. And finally don’t be disappointed if your master-plan doesn’t work as things rarely go to plan. Learn and move on.