Communicate effectively. I find that the more honest and clear I am setting expectations, the easier it is to achieve more. This goes for family, friends, and works relationships. There was a time at the start of my career when I felt I had to be unflappable at work. I now feel the exact opposite, I don’t want to fall apart on a daily basis, but I do believe in honesty and authenticity. Last summer I was asked to pitch for a project, the date and time of the pitch were after school on my daughter’s birthday. There was no way I could sacrifice picking her up from school so I had to be very honest and explain that to the client. People are human, after all! They were incredibly understanding and allowed me to move my meeting to the morning.
As a part of my series about the strategies that extremely busy and successful leaders use to juggle, balance and integrate their personal lives and business lives, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Woolf, Managing Partner of The Woolf Partnership in London.
A seasoned Executive Search consultant, Woolf has a keen understanding of the future of the workforce and how that shift impacts the talent her clients will need. Prior to launching The Woolf Partnership, she worked at KPMG where she created a direct search service for the Partner group and was responsible for the design and content of the highly successful C-Suite Leadership Programme. A staunch advocate for gender diversity and an active volunteer with a social care charity, Woolf spends the hours when she is not working with her husband, two young children, and their new puppy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share with us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career?
I grew up in Executive Search, probably by accident. I met with an Executive Search consultant after leaving university, by pure coincidence and realised what a fantastic career path it would be for me, allowing me the opportunity to work with a wide variety of people. As a naturally curious person, I delighted in the chance to understand what motivates and drives people to make the decisions they do, as well as working to understand the organisational heartbeat of my clients in order to source the best talent for them.
In 2011 I joined KPMG to set up an in-house direct search function, a fantastic opportunity that threw me out of my comfort zone. During my tenure with the business, I relished in the chance to work in a Big 4 consulting practice and gain an insight into Professional Services, from the inside. After joining for what I thought would be a nine-month contract, I spent almost a decade working across a range of business areas from Talent Acquisition to Diversity & Inclusion, Internal Communications, Consumer Markets and finally designing a leadership programme for clients who were soon to be on the executive boards of their organisations.
I always intended on returning to my roots in Executive Search and had always wanted to start my own business. Transformation & Change felt like a natural sector for my new business; I wanted to dedicate my time to finding forward-thinking, positively disruptive leaders that would enable my clients to thrive in this period of exponential growth. I was acutely aware of not only the opportunity but also the responsibility that I was afforded. Sourcing exceptional talent is a privilege, but it has always been paramount to me that a diverse talent pool is able to access exciting and challenging roles.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?
As a recruiter, I always pay close attention to people’s social media profiles and I suppose I have come to expect people to review mine too. Earlier this year I was approached by a business that claimed they were hiring new talent, I assumed they wanted to talk to me about their recruitment needs. It made me laugh quite a bit when I realised five minutes into the call they were trying to recruit me, for a role I had done almost 10 years earlier! I was flattered they had been in touch, but it struck me how little due diligence people do before picking up the phone.
Unfortunately, that same business reached out again some months later and I had to once again reiterate the same points. I really recommend conducting thorough due diligence before reaching out to someone, and in return having empathy for people who may not have run thorough background checks!
What does leadership mean to you? As a leader, how do you best inspire others?
Leadership is such a powerful and yet overused word. I believe leadership is less about the leader and more about the people they lead. Once you are in a position of leading anyone it is imperative to allow those people the opportunity to thrive. For me, that means giving the support and guidance they may need and also encouraging them to take measured risks to try new ways of working. Leadership comes in many forms, but the leadership that I think will have the biggest impact is what we call Transformational Leadership: be authentic by showcasing how important it is to bring your whole self to work; be transparent by allowing people to understand your motivations; and finally, be positively disruptive. This isn’t about being disruptive for the sake of it, but rather recognising that in order to achieve results we need to constantly try to do things differently. Pushing the boundaries by taking measured risks facilitates change.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I don’t think we can attribute success to just one person — or at least I certainly can’t!! There are a few people who have acted as exceptional mentors, guides and sponsors along the way. People often ask me why I started my own business, and the honest answer is that I am not sure I ever had a choice. Growing up watching my father work tirelessly to build his businesses instilled the hunger and drive in me to do something similar. His dedication, work ethic and ambition were ingrained in my sisters and I from a young age, and it was never lost on us that without his commitment, our paths would not have been as straightforward. Watching my parents build a life in this country as immigrants, was nothing short of inspiring.
Throughout my career I have been extremely lucky to have some wonderful mentors and sponsors, I look back to early managers who recognised my love for working with people and afforded me the independence to take on client work when many would have assumed that I was too young and naïve. Similarly, I had the good fortune of working for a wonderfully authentic woman when I first returned to work after maternity leave. The empathy she showed me and the honesty she communicated, allowed me to feel at ease not having it all together!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main core of our discussion. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your life into your business and career? Can you articulate what the struggle was?
It was and it still is! Early on in my career I never gave much thought to what it meant to have a good work-life balance. Around 10 years ago that changed drastically for me when my mother became terminally ill. Suddenly I had gone from being a carefree newlywed to struggling with managing my workload along with the weight of losing a parent. Coming from an incredibly tight knit Jewish South African community I have always been close to my family. When my mother became ill that bond tightened even further. My life moved from being structured around work — family — friends — personal space to suddenly being family — work — family. That juggling act of taking care of my family and attempting to focus on my career evolved further after my mother passed and I became a parent myself.
There is no greater gift in my life than my family, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have two exceptional children, a husband that I truly see as my partner, two sisters that are my closest friends, and a hugely supportive and recently fiercely feminist father. But I also love working. I love what I do and I believe in the business that I am building. I recently heard the author Nora Roberts explain that we are all juggling balls all the time, some are plastic and others glass. Sure, some will drop, so you need to be cautious not to drop the glass ones. This was a perfect articulation of the constant healthy tension between work and family. My family are my glass balls, they always will be. Naturally, I don’t want to make huge mistakes professionally, but it is always family first for me.
The real challenge, and I believe this is the same for most working parents — particularly working mothers — is after we have given all of ourselves to our families, and all of ourselves to our careers… what is left for us?
In order to give greater context to this discussion, can you share with our readers what your daily schedule looks like?
Pre-pandemic life was quite different to post-pandemic life! Once upon a time ago I would wake up at 6am and go swimming, returning by 7:15am to make sure the kids were up and ready while my husband went for a run. We were lucky enough to have an au pair at the time who took the kids to school at 7:45am, so we would eat breakfast together and then I would head to the office. My commute, which retrospectively was heavenly, was a time for me to catch up on industry publications and any urgent emails. The day was packed full of face-to-face meetings, calls and before I knew it, I was flying out the office to get home in time to see the kids before bed. We would spend time reading together before they went to sleep, I would then make dinner with my husband and finish off any work that needed to be done. Some evenings were spent out for dinner with family or friends socialising.
Life these days is somewhat different. My alarm still goes off at 6 am but now I exercise at home, and I am up, ready for the day by 7 am when I wake the kids up. We still have breakfast together and then my husband takes them to school while I take the dog for a walk. During this time, I try to catch up on news and information through podcasts, but I do very much miss that commute time. We are back by 8:30 am when I start work, which is a mixture of virtual meetings with clients and candidates, typically I am on the phone most of the day. I make sure to leave myself another 30-minute slot to take the dog for another walk and I try my best to walk with either family or a friend. I am militant about sticking to a 6:30 pm end-of-work so that I get to spend time with my kids before they go to bed. We take turns putting them to bed and I love that time of the day, hearing what they have been up to and listening to them read, reading to them, and unwinding.
I am fortunate enough to volunteer with a wonderful social care charity, and every so often we meet for our committee meetings in the evenings.
When the kids are in bed my husband and I try to eat dinner together and catch up on the day. In reality one or both of us has to do a little work after dinner but we try to make sure that we have some time to watch a tv programme or have a chat before bed!
Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life? Can you explain?
I have never been wedded to a 9–5 job, but earlier in my career, it was easier to leave work at the office.
It is challenging to leave work behind now that the business is my own. There have been times in the past few years when I have regretted not spending more time with my family, missing out on day trips during school holidays or feeling distracted when picking the kids up from school. I try to compensate for that by being ever more present when I can. We have dinner together as a family every Friday night, spend our weekends together and try to find as many activities that we can do together as possible.
One of the reasons I love volunteering with the social care charity (Jewish Care) is that it enables me to include my family. I wear several hats for Jewish Care, one of those is Chair of the Families programme, an initiative I developed to encourage families to volunteer together. During this year we have taken part in such brilliant fundraising campaigns, written letters and cards to isolated care home residents and sent gifts for the holidays. Before the pandemic we would volunteer in care homes together and take part in social activities with residents.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal/family life.
I was very fortunate that KPMG gave me a coach to assist me in my return to work following my first maternity leave. At the time I struggled to meet with her, feeling guilty that I wasn’t at work or with my daughter. Once I took the time to focus on myself and work with the coach, I realised just how much work there was to be done. I believe everyone should work with a coach, whatever your situation.
When my second child was born prematurely my priorities shifted once more. Ill-prepared for his birth and for my maternity leave, I was in complete shock and suffered from Post Natal Depression. Instead of taking my intended nine-month maternity leave I decided to take a full year and truly be around for my children and my family unit. When I came back to work it didn’t take long to realise that whilst I loved KPMG and the work I was doing, it was time to set up my own business. I needed to build something for my family, with my family.
Ok, so here is the main question of our interview. Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal/family life? Please share a story or example for each.
I am not sure I have the best balance just yet, it is a work in progress! Here are a few things that I have found to help me:
1) Take the time to prioritise. It seems simple, but it is the foundation for a strong work/life balance. As I said earlier, the family will always come first for me. Yes, at times my children will hear me on phone calls, they have appeared on several video calls this year, I am sometimes working on the weekends and I have missed out on day trips before. I have missed out on far more work meetings, calls or presentations because of sports days, nativity plays or unwell children and have no qualms cancelling those things for my family. Back in March I was so looking forward to a day beginning with an International Women’s Day breakfast, a presentation to a potential new client, lunch with another, and an evening watching Michael McIntyre film his Netflix special. My little boy, however, had other ideas. So instead, my day was spent cuddling my unwell son and sitting with him whilst he slept.
2) Communicate effectively. I find that the more honest and clear I am setting expectations, the easier it is to achieve more. This goes for family, friends, and works relationships. There was a time at the start of my career when I felt I had to be unflappable at work. I now feel the exact opposite, I don’t want to fall apart on a daily basis, but I do believe in honesty and authenticity. Last summer I was asked to pitch for a project, the date and time of the pitch were after school on my daughter’s birthday. There was no way I could sacrifice picking her up from school so I had to be very honest and explain that to the client. People are human, after all! They were incredibly understanding and allowed me to move my meeting to the morning.
3) Set yourself attainable goals. Some things really aren’t achievable, and others are. Make sure you know what you can realistically do. Someone once told me to only write actions on my to-do list that I could actually achieve that day. This revoluntionised my to-do list and made me feel far less guilty about not completing that task that had been on the list all week.
4) Carve out time for yourself. There are only so many hours in the day, but some of them have to be for you. Whatever it is that gives you space and energy is incredibly important. For me, swimming is my time. I have an underwater music player which allows me to listen to podcasts whilst I am in the water, and I know that during that time the only person I need to look after is myself.
5) Don’t be too hard on yourself. I read an article earlier this year published in the Harvard Business Review called “Ideal Worker or Perfect Mom?” which resonated so much with me. The piece suggested a few books which I think are so important to us, books such as Making Motherhood Work by Caitlyn Collins and Forget “Having It All” by Amy Westervelt. We simply cannot be everything to everyone, and that is ok. Our vulnerability is not a weakness, it makes us human!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Very early in my career, I met an exceptional and seasoned Headhunter, by chance on a beach in Florida. He has become a mentor and inspiration to me over the years. When we first met, I was trying so hard to impress everyone, to be all things to all people, and to turn myself into whatever I thought they needed from me. I was lucky enough that this person said, in a rather casual way, “don’t be afraid to be yourself. You will be fantastic.”
That incredibly powerful piece of advice has stayed with me throughout my career. I am committed to authenticity, and perhaps at times I should keep more of a guard up, but I am a firm believer that being yourself is of more importance than presenting a version of yourself you think people want to see.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe we can achieve a huge amount if we dedicate a portion of time to ourselves, as such I would love to see businesses move to a four-and-a-half-day work week for all. I am not advocating less work, but more productive and effective work which I believe we will achieve if people have time to take a yoga class, go to the gym, learn another language or simply read a book. I truly believe that both employers and employees would benefit hugely from people focusing on their own well-being.
What is the best way for people to follow you online?
I use LinkedIn and Twitter regularly:
Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!