How to stay sane when you work solo

A conversation between Heidi Sundin and Emma Petroulas

Last year I started consulting independently, and yes I love it!  I am able to work with great clients on interesting projects, focus on delivering quality outcomes, and have the desired level of workspace flexibility. I get a kick out of helping people and seeing their businesses succeed – it’s what drives me – so it barely feels like work at all. But the independent path would not have lightness without a shadow to provide some contrast and a new set of ‘learning experiences’.

I love collaborating with people and most of the organisations that I’ve worked for in the past have had teams and specialists whose expertise I could draw on as needed. Working solo changes that readily available on-hand pool of knowledge and talent to be able to test ideas with. In addition, finding the right balance between building the business and delivering projects requires a different level of discipline, patience and calmness. The level of uncertainty is heightened when you have a small business – and further development of the agility skill set is required.

I know I’m not alone in these start-up and independent consulting experiences – so I thought I’d share a few things to think about in solving some of the challenges we tend to experience in setting things up and working largely solo. For instance, I have more or less established my own virtual team – trusted friends and colleagues who I team up with for advice, collaboration, and specialist skills to draw on and bring to my clients as required. They are fellow consultants and small business owners who share and solve similar issues.

One of those amazing people in my virtual team is Emma Petroulas, co-founder & coo at itchy baby co.

‘I have an online retail business, and spend half the week working in our warehouse with production and dispatch happening during these times, and the other half of the week working from home. When I’m in our warehouse with the team around me, there can be a buzz from orders going out and supplies coming in, however whilst I love my ‘home days’ with no distractions, it can end up being quite lonely’.

After building two successful online businesses, Emma has built up a wealth of experience in staying sane while working solo which she shared with me – and I’d like to share with you. Her candour is insightful and generous – making her advice even more helpful.

Here are Emma’s top tips:

#1: Spend $3 on that morning coffee

I know everyone always says to exercise in the morning because it clears the head, but it’s just not me. I keep active by walking just about everywhere, but you’ll never see me at a gym in the morning. I find it really hard to wake up in the morning and get straight into demanding physical exercise, but I also find I can’t wake up and start working straight away without leaving the house first. So, walking to the shops and picking up my morning coffee helps put me in the right frame of mind to start my day.

#2: Wear comfortable clothes but don’t stay in trackies all day

When I started my very first small business at the age of 26, I would spend the day in tracksuit pants and a hoodie. However I found that dressing in trackies made me develop a bit of a lazy attitude. It’s important to be comfortable but still be in a work frame of mind. Even though some days working from home I might not see anyone, I still put on a good pair of jeans and pop on some lip gloss.

#3: Try (as hard as you can) to not let your business become your life and your life become your business

I made this mistake with my very first business. I’m one of those people that can become so focused on work that I find it hard to separate work from anything else in my life. I can start working in the morning and stay completely focused until late into the night when I’m trying to get through a task list or solve a problem. I learnt the lesson the hard way with my first business, as it led to a lot of breakdown in friendships and relationships because I didn’t make time for them or prioritise them, and I often found that all my thoughts were consumed entirely by my business. I’ve now learnt how important it is to try and separate business from the rest of my life, and make sure that you still make time for friends and family because they’re actually a lot more important than your business and anything else in your life.

#4: Have a routine and schedule in social events

Start your day by writing a list of tasks which need to get done during the day and when you are going to do them. As part of this, make sure you make time for having fun. Working very independently can get quite lonely, so it is important to schedule in social events with friends and family so you can keep sane. Most of my weeknights are generally filled with catch-ups with friends. Dinners out each night can often be expensive (especially in Sydney), so it doesn’t always need to be a catch up which costs money. I live close to the beach so often my friends will come past after work and we’ll walk to the beach for a swim and chat before everyone parts ways for the night.

#5: Find other small business owners to engage with

Quite a lot of my friends run their own startups and small businesses and I find it really helps chatting to them about their business – it can often help you realise that you’re not navigating the business maze alone, and you can often help each other out with business problems and scenarios.

#6: Check in with your business partner/ co-founder daily (if you have one)

I check-in with my co-founder and CEO multiple times during the day, either by phone or mainly by chat apps like google hangouts. Just getting an update on what she’s working on and running through what I’ve been doing can really help keep us both focused and accountable.   

And mine…

Similar to Emma I have started to build my own weekly routine – which combines a fairly disciplined approach to delivering for my clients, managing my own business, and investing in professional development and personal wellbeing. I generally do start the day with a long walk (and a double shot of coffee) which I use for reflections or to get inspired by listening to podcasts,  audible books, and music, and sometimes I walk and try to be really observant of what’s going on in the city (this is something I never did when I was ‘busy’ running from one thing to another). This is valuable time for thinking, processing and mulling over a client’s challenge or how to approach a situation.

I commit to reading something new every day (an article, an insight, a book). One of the benefits of organised workplaces is often internal commitments to professional development and industry insights. Working solo can sometimes mean you’re out of that world of constant stimulation coming from the workplace. So create it for yourself – interesting newsletters, blogs, free sites, industry trends or check out different podcasts or Audible if reading is not your thing.

Know thyself is one of the biggest lessons – I know I need time alone when I’m writing, creating, and planning; and I know I need to be with people when I’m trying to solve problems or push an idea to the next level. So I strike the balance between working from home or private spaces and working at client sites or in co-working offices. Having a strong network of trusted colleagues (even if is not within the traditional organisational boundaries) is essential.

We figured out why entrepreneurs wear jeans and a t-shirt – you do your best work when you’re comfortable – just leave the trackies behind!

About the authors

Heidi Sundin is a management consultant working with businesses to drive growth. Her approach is to collaborate with leaders and teams to develop customer centric tailored solutions. Her experience spans creating transformational programs and change across corporate, professional services, academic, government and the non-for-profit sectors.

Emma Petroulas  has co-founded two online businesses, one which she successfully sold after two years in operation. Prior to that, she spent 8 years working in strategy, finance and also as a university lecturer.

5 things to look for when choosing an employer that supports gender equality

Many organisations have still simply not embraced gender equality or other forms of diversity and the advantages that it brings.

This week the Workplace Gender Equality Agency released Australia’s 2016 gender equality scorecard showing the state of play of gender equality in our workplaces. Some of the key insights indicate that women make up half of the nation’s workforce but earn only 77 per cent of men’s average full-time income, and women remain under-represented in leadership roles: holding just 16.3 per cent of CEO and 37.4 per cent of all manager roles.

Women may find themselves in the position of wanting to advance their career and seniority, but face challenges within the organisational structure. This may be due to a lack of flexibile work arrangements, discovering that pay inequities exists between men and women or they have been overlooked for a promotion because they have kids or are at childbearing age.

If you are in this position and are considering alternatives here are some things to look for when investigating prospective new employers:

1.Are they an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation holder?

The Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation is awarded to leading organisations in gender equality. To receive this citation employers must have a gender equality policy or strategy, conduct a payroll analysis and address gender equality in a number of other ways.  The full list of the EOCGE citation holders can be found here.

2. Check the narrative around women and diversity

It is also worthwhile to read through the organisations website, annual reports and other materials to see if there are specific mentions of gender equality programs or diversity initiatives. I have done this, comparing the narrative of companies within different industries and it can show a clear distinction between the companies that are trying to attract women and those that have overlooked this issue.

Of course what is written is not always reality so ask about these initiatives in more detail during your interview and ask people who work for the organisation what their experience is.

3. Does the employer offer different flexibility options?

Flexibility is a key enabler for the advancement of women into leadership roles so it is important to check if the organisation offers different forms of flexibility, that flexibility has formal arrangements around it (i.e. not just reliant on individual managers), and that flexibility is offered to everyone (both women and men).

4. Does the employer pay women and men equally?

Women and men should receive equal pay for equal work! Because we don’t have a system of pay transparency in Australia, it is often difficult to know if you will be paid on par to your male counterparts within organisations. By reviewing the organisation’s public WGEA report what you can check is whether the organisation undertakes a payroll analysis and that the employer takes action on pay equity.

5. Access the public report to the WGEA

Each year non-public sector organisations over 100 employees are required to submit a report to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency which covers gender equality performance on a range of reporting matters (covering gender composition, governance, pay equity, flexibility, consultation and sex based harassment and discrimination). Many organisations make this report available on their website or you can access reports here. These reports provide a good indication of what the employer is doing in terms of gender equality strategies and initiatives.

Change on these issues comes from many sources. As individuals we can vote with our feet and select employers that are proactive in creating employee experiences that are fair and equal regardless of gender. Share your experience of what else you look for when selecting prospective employers to ensure they support both women and men in the workplace.

For more information on the latest stats download Australia’s 2016 gender equality scorecard.

Career choices: a linear path or add a little colour?

Looking for a role is a challenging process. As I’ve looked for roles at different points in my career I’ve often had the feedback ‘you’re very colourful’, ‘I don’t know how to place you as you’ve done lots of different things’, ‘you need to pick one path to go down’.

A linear career path takes more of a straight line with fewer twists and turns into related or different fields. There are loads of benefits to taking a more linear approach such as incredible depth of knowledge in one subject matter area or skill set, networks specific to your subject matter, building a portfolio of demonstrated success in an area, developing heuristics to create short cut solutions when familiar problems arise, and clear next steps in your career.

It is always a delicate balance to strike between working on something that you love and are passionate about, making money, and making ‘sensible’ choices that enhance your CV. For many people the linear path will be aligned with their passions and that’s wonderful, but for many others the steps in their career can take a more meandering path.

The advice one receives in making these choices is often conflicting, with “helpful comments” such as:

  • ‘There’s no such thing as a linear career path – don’t let anyone tell you that’
  • ‘Follow your passions’
  • ‘Life’s too short – love what you do’
  • ‘You need depth – stick with it even if you hate it’
  • ‘Choose a career based on the characteristics that are important to you’
  • ‘Keep moving – if you stay still too long you get overtaken’

Mostly in my career have taken a path that is winding. There are common themes and principles in my choices – I find really interesting and complex problems to solve where I believe I’m best placed to make a real and tangible difference through a strategic, engaging and collaborative approach, with disciplined project management and execution.

The question of whether to take a more linear career path or to follow your passions that may take you in different directions is a personal one to answer and comes down to what’s right and authentic for you.

One of my favourite books is Sideways To The Top by Norah Breekeldt. The book follows the paths of 10 exceptional women who have become leaders in their field – either CEOs or owners of their own firms. Breekeldt explores the concept that the path to the top is not linear and rather may require sideways moves. The sideways moves that these women have taken shows how they built their breath of skills, experiences and networks necessary for the CEO role – and got to the top in non-linear and unpredictable ways.

What makes you exceptional through your non-linear path?

As a non-linear candidate you can provide great benefits to teams and organisations – that are not always obvious from reading your CV. So if you’re like me and you’ve chosen a path that’s the road less travelled here are some of the great things that give you an edge to add to your narrative.

High level of comfort with uncertainty and agility: In today’s world we are seeing uncertainty and unpredictable global events. Our organisations are experiencing so much change, transformation, disruption and convergence of industries – if you’ve worked in lots of different environments it can often mean you are more comfortable with change and can adjust to restructures more easily. The fact that you have moved outside comfort zones could mean that you are more comfortable taking risks and going hard after opportunities.

Depth in variety: A non-linear path may also mean that you have depth in variety – you know about a lot of things. You may not be the subject matter expert on every topic but you know about how to bring the right people to the table, how to read situations and how to get things done regardless of the circumstances that you are presented with. You can figure out how to solve most problems – because you’ve worked in lots of different areas and usually have a diverse network that you can draw on.

See the linkages and make connections: You can connect the dots which is important for general management and leadership, work across multiple disciplines and speak the language of the disciplines that your people and teams are specialists in. You may see convergence opportunities – because you can draw on different industries and identify how they could fit together. This has the benefit for bringing new ideas and ways of looking at things to an organisation that may be doing the same things in the same ways.

Empathy and consensus building: Getting things done requires seeing the world from another person’s perspective, getting behind the language that a certain discipline may use, and really listening to what someone is saying. Personally I have worked for government, non-profit, academia, professional services and corporate – so I have the ability to try to put myself in the shoes of the person I’m negotiating with to understand what they are really trying to say. The non-linear path can often give you a deeper empathetic understanding that the linear may not.

In my view good organisations will build teams with a combination of employees and leaders with linear and non-linear backgrounds – as this provides a wonderful opportunity to bring new ideas, approaches and viewpoints to deep knowledge and experience.

My tips for the colourful

A couple of hints to make sure that you are able to keep moving forward, sideways, upside-down or which ever direction you would like:

Listen to feedback: Feedback is a gift and while sometimes the feedback you may receive during the recruitment process can be uncomfortable – it is very useful to understand how best to pitch your skill set and experience. Thank you to those recruiters who have taken the time to provide such frank and constructive feedback to me and other candidates.

Listen to yourself: Ultimately you’re the person who has to wake up every day and find inspiration to work on something – so listen to others but most importantly listen to yourself – choose a path that is not just about success but also about fulfilment.

Know your narrative: Since you may not always be the obvious choice it is important that you are well equipped to speak to your strengths, passions and the value that you can bring to an organisation. Make it easy for people to see why you’re the right choice, not necessarily the obvious one.

And finally a tip from Dominic Moore, specialist in search and recruitment:

Keep your networks fresh: Those who know you best know how to use your varied and complex skills to their fullest. Applying for roles when you are colourful can be difficult so be prepared to dig a bit deeper into the ‘hidden’ market to find the opportunities that make the most of who you are and what you do best.

I’d love to hear your stories on how you’ve made choices in your career. What has been some of the feedback, advice, comments you’ve received?

Fair go, but she’ll be right – taking steps to address gender related pay gaps in your organisation

I’m often asked about the reality of the gender pay gap in organisations – people always seemed shocked that these gaps occur and question whether they are gender related.

So here’s the first thing I always say – it’s great to ask questions about gender pay gaps and be open to a discussion.

The kinds of questions usually asked are

  • Aren’t the pay gaps just related to women who work part-time?
  • How can it be commercial for small businesses to address gender pay gaps?
  • Aren’t pay gaps just about the national average, which is more about participation in the workforce?
  • How do I know if my business has gaps?
  • What can I do if I find any gaps?

These questions are totally understandable because what we often hear reported in the media is the national gender pay gap – which can be harder for individuals to then understand how gender gaps may relate to their own role and organisation. 

For you to take action, focus on organisational gender pay gaps

For individuals to feel they can take meaningful action on pay gaps within their organisation, it is more useful to focus on the three types of gaps that typically arise in organisations:

  • Organisation-wide gender pay gap
  • By-level gender pay gaps
  • Like-for-like gender pay gaps

The strategies to address each of these types of pay gaps are different and I’m going to focus on how best to address like-for-like gender pay gaps (same job, same performance rating, different pay) – as these are the gaps that  are primarily related to conscious and unconscious gender bias in recruitment, promotion, pay and performance decisions.

Identifying like-for-like gender pay gaps – they are real

Like-for-like gaps are pay gaps between women and men undertaking work of equal or comparable value (comparing jobs at the same performance standard), for example, comparing two senior management consultants in the same organisation who perform at the same level.

These like-for-like gender pay gaps are caused by*:

  • Inequality in commencement salaries 
  • Bias in performance ratings
  • Bias in performance management system
  • Inequality in access to discretionary pay
  • Negative impact when women negotiate (because either women negotiate less or because there is often a gender backlash when women do negotiate)
  • Cumulative effects of pay inequality 
  • Impact of long term leave

  • Impact of part-time employment 
  • Discrimination (conscious and unconscious)

And yes these are real, with evidence and anecdotes from both the employee and employer side. Many employers who I have worked with over the years initially could not believe they had like-for-like gender pay gaps and it was only  after conducting a payroll analysis they identified these gaps were occurring. 

I have been contacted by numerous women since working in the field of gender equality who have shared reasons given by employers for receiving lower pay than their male colleagues in the same role such as ‘well he has a family to look after’ and ‘he has financial commitments’. To be clear remuneration needs to be based on the role and responsibilities, performance and outcomes. Personal circumstances are irrelevant in determining how much an employee is paid.

And what can you do about it?

It is important is to recognise that like-for-like gender pays gaps are rarely intentional and may have been the result of a range of pay and performance decisions. Addressing these gaps is not about placing blame or pointing fingers – it is about looking objectively at the data to understand if there are issues and tailoring solutions to addressing them. Here’s some simple steps that both large and small organisations can do: 

  • Become aware of the issues, what causes gender pay gaps and the business case for addressing these issues
  • Ensure commitment from the top level of leadership to address pay equity 
  • Conduct a payroll analysis (there’s great resources you can download for free to do this)
  • Develop a strategy and action plan specific to the issues you find
  • Continue to review and monitor gaps

Detailed resources on specific pay equity strategies and actions can be found on the WGEA website here

It is a core value of Australians that everyone deserves a fair go, but we also have the approach that ‘she’ll be right’ – we want fairness, but we often assume it or passively support it, often ignoring the issues when they arise rather than being proactive. 

Sometimes we have to stare at the cold hard reality of data, if you conduct a gender payroll analysis and find no like-for-like gaps, that’s awesome, keep it up, but if you do – then it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate that you are serious about addressing the issue and promoting a truly fair, merit and performance based workplace by taking real action.

I’d love to hear your questions and experiences related to addressing gender pay gaps within organisations.

*Workplace Gender Equality Agency, Guide to gender pay equity, Practical steps to improve pay equity between women and men in your organisation (available at