How do you thrive when you’re juggling work, kids and everything else life throws your way? This series supported by Guardian Early Learning Group takes a look at the daily lives of women tackling it all.
This month, we explore Catherine Brooks’ story. A partner in a law firm, the co-founder of an online beauty business and mum to a toddler, she’s developed some great strategies for saying ‘no’.
If you’ve got an entrepreneurial itch to scratch, it can be tempting to think that quitting your current career or your day job is a great way to start ‘following your dreams’.
But as Catherine Brooks’ found, that’s no way to guarantee flexibility nor a steady income.
When she co-founded the Natural Supply Co almost three years ago, she made a deliberate decision to stay out of the day-to-day running of the online beauty store. She happily contributes to the business out of regular office hours but she ultimately recognised that a fulfilled life would only stem from her pursuing a range of opportunities and passions simultaneously.
And that’s exactly what she’s done. Since making this call, Catherine’s had her first child and been appointed a Principal at law firm Moores, where she specialises in workplace relations.
It’s been a difficult, and very busy few years, but Catherine’s glad she’s kept her initial career while launching a business, and through the ups and downs of early motherhood.
“I find it concerning to sometimes hear career counsellors telling people to quit their jobs and follow their dreams. For women, it can be dangerous because we have to make sure the job we have will support ourselves in what we are doing now,” she tells Women’s Agenda.
“If it’s flexibility you want or need, you’re probably not going to find that running a small business. You don’t get parental leave. It’s a lot of hours and hard work to get up and running.”
Her working week now reflects her career as the ultimate slashie: She’s a law firm partner ‘slash’ entrepreneur ‘slash’ mother ‘slash’ writer and advocate. She spends four days working for her firm, including three from the office and one from home, and participates in strategy sessions and catch-ups with her two fellow directors regarding the Geelong-based Natural Supply Co on the weekends.
In between it all, Catherine’s also managed to find enough time to write extensively, sharing her legal knowledge and experience to launch a comprehensive guide book for women returning to work after having a baby. She also speaks regularly on child safety and on preventing abuse in the disability sector.
And there’s another piece in Catherine’s career story: She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 23, something I learnt in her disability ‘coming out’ piece that she shared with the legal community a couple of years ago. At the time she shared why she kept her disability private, because she feared workplace discrimination. She thought she could miss out on opportunities and career advancement.
Instead, she found some incredible support, especially from her own employer and those in the legal industry.
She later wrote on Women’s Agenda that ‘coming out with it’ made her realise that everyone is battling with something. Sharing your story sees people relating to you, showing you empathy, giving you compassion and strength, as well as the occasional shoulder to cry on.
On combining entrepreneurship with professional services, Catherine says it’s been useful to sit on both sides of the fence, especially to see what it’s really like as a small business owner. She regularly shares her learnings on social media and marketing.
It’s also been an excellent lesson in productivity and efficiency. When she came up with the idea for Natural Supply Co, she called a friend already working in the beauty industry to see if she wanted to further develop the idea. Catherine said she’d mostly be unavailable Monday to Friday, but would be able to assist out of hours, on weekends and in different ways.
“We have a great system where I’m not overly hands on, but I’m also not a silent partner. We can sit together on the weekends, when we are kid free, sit down with a glass of champagne and strategise. It’s something different to the law.
It’s also enabled her to dip her toe in the water of small business, and to learn what she ultimately wants from her career: she doesn’t want to work in the beauty industry full-time and values her career in professional services.
With her son now about to turn two, Catherine says she feels her head and heart are both back into work and that she’s thoroughly enjoying what she’s doing. “That took some time. I felt for a while I had to push myself to lean in to it, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do it. I was finding it hard.’
She adds that she pushed herself to get her head back into the game because she knew that long-term, it’d be in her best interests to do so. “I’m so glad I did. I’m appreciative that I have childcare and balance, and that I didn’t leave when it was really tough. It’s no easy feat having a baby and a great career.”
But Catherine’s had to get strict on what she will and won’t say yes to, and how she spends her time.
“The biggest thing I’ve learnt since having a child is that your time is precious and valuable. You can’t just do it all.”
She’s cut the evening events and extra curricular activities, and assesses opportunities that come her way according to whether they fit the three key areas of focus she’s currently decided to invest her time in.
“If opportunities come my way and they don’t fit into that strategy that I’ve decided I’m going to focus on in the next six months or so, then I either need to say no, not now, or I need to rejig my overall plans.”
She believes that great time management depends on deciding, and committing, to a maximum of three key focus areas. That gives you the criteria you need to decide if you’ll say yes or no to opportunities, and offer some parameters for determining what success looks like.
She also recommends being vigilant in guarding your time, and using a personal ‘hourly rate’ in order to better say no – to meetings, random coffee catch-ups etc. “If someone wants to catch up, ask yourself, do I want to give that person my hourly rate? It might be a young woman you do really want to help, or an incredible leader you know you’ll learn from. But then there are also many people who won’t sit within your strategic plan, who are merely going to take your time.”
For Catherine, her areas of focus are a blend of both personal and professional – as she finds little difference between the two. “The time I spend in my profession impacts me personally, it impacts my family, it impacts our financial future,” she says.
“So if an opportunity doesn’t help me financially, or it doesn’t have a positive social impact, or it’s not going to further my family life, then I’m just not going to do it. Those are my three categories.”
Guardian Early Learning Group operates over 100 high quality early learning centres across Australia. Guardian’s Reggio Emilia-inspired Curriculum places importance on the unique interests and developmental stages of each child and focusses on literacy, numeracy, creative and social skills to create lifelong learners. With custom-designed environments, nature inspired resources and passionate educators, we invite you to discover your closest Guardian centre today.
Read more in the ‘Juggle Thrive’ series: