Reconnecting with the Self

How a veteran sports lawyer's career change led to personal growth and new opportunities

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If one were to ask Cassandra Heilbronn a few years ago where she would be in her career, working as Chief of Staff for a private family office in Saudi Arabia would not have been her response.

Heilbronn, a native Australian with over fourteen years of experience in sports law and corporate risk advisory law, has had a strong pulse on her desired career path as a lawyer since she was eight years old. For a while, it seemed to be heading in that direction, and she dedicated part of her efforts to women’s empowerment. As President of the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland, Heilbronn instituted changes that worked to elevate the lives of women in the corporate world.

Then, she received an unexpected phone call in 2018, leading her to Saudi Arabia.

Transitioning from a clear career path to a job on another continent, Heilbronn has experienced both personal and professional growth. I was drawn to her ability to embrace the uncomfortable, her dedication to female progression in the corporate world, and her ability to reflect on her personal values and identity. I spoke with her about her journey navigating international sports law, her relationship to wellness and her advice on how to have a thriving career. 

Photo Credit: Andre Cois

Beth Doane: You have achieved so much and have so many women that look up to you. Explain how your journey unfolded. 

Cassandra Heilbronn: When I started my career, I never set out to have successes that others would look up to, and it just gives me so much joy that I could positively influence others. From an early age I wanted to achieve.  It was not a matter of being the best, it was a matter of making a difference or influencing change.

At age eight, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. From there, I did what I could to ensure I was able to realise that goal. What I did not know is that these skills would ultimately help me in my career, particularly in terms of discipline, time management and networking. I left home at age 17 and moved to Brisbane for university, and it all just played out from there.    

My first job was at a firm on the Sunshine Coast. One of the partners was a brilliant mentor and really shaped who I would become as a lawyer. 

An unexpected phone call led to a move to Saudi Arabia in mid-2019 for a new role. It was the adventure I was after.

I am now Chief of Staff for a private family office in Saudi.  Starting this role renewed my energy and love of sharing knowledge. I hope my next chapter will continue to inspire others as they turn the pages on their life story.

Doane: You have been an active contributor to supporting and empowering women in law. Why has this been an important mission for you? 

Heilbronn: I worked with female lawyers to make a difference. I have been given the skills and tools, and the progression of women in the corporate field is something that I had direct experience with. When I first joined the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland, it was as Secretary and I soon became President. I am proud of the initiatives introduced and the conversations that followed. I want to make a difference for the next generation of women, like those above me have.  

I am still working with women worldwide in terms of formal mentoring and looking to keep up my speaking engagements once travel restrictions ease.  

Doane: While adjusting to life in a new country and succeeding in a busy career, how do you maintain your wellness and a healthy work-life balance?

Heilbronn: If we neglect our personal life, it will impact our professional life. I have what I call “Cassandra time”, where I schedule time in my calendar for me. I might go out for breakfast, have a spa day or simply sit at home doing nothing. I also had to learn how to ‘not be busy.’ 

I love working out and keeping fit.  If I miss too many sessions, I can feel it mentally. My clients, my fellow Board or Committee members, my colleagues and my friends deserve to have me feeling great. Personal wellness should be a priority for all.  

I am also a big fan of therapy. We see a doctor when we are sick, we call a plumber when we have a leaky tap and go to the hairdresser for our hair, so why not see a therapist to talk about what is in our thoughts. I also use an Executive Coach, and while that may not be a form of traditional wellness, it did help me recognize my workplace behaviours as I moved into senior leadership roles.  

Doane: What has been the biggest challenge or adversity you’ve faced? How did you overcome it? 

Heilbronn: A more recent challenge is the internal battle I faced with no longer being a lawyer. I spoke to a friend of mine who helped me recenter and focus on the fact that I will always be a lawyer and that the skills I have will translate into many roles.  

What followed was a realization that I had long defined myself by my career. When looking back at my goals (I set out 6 monthly, yearly, 3, 5 and 10 year goals), they were always career related. I have revisited my values and purpose, spoken to my Executive Coach and have consciously looked to set goals that have a more personal focus.  

I think it will take some time before I completely move away from defining myself by my career. I think the best I can do, and anyone else in a similar position, is recognize that my identity and career are closely linked, and what matters most is staying true to my core values as a person.

Doane: What was one of the most beneficial lessons you’ve learned throughout your career that you believe can help guide everyone?  

Heilbronn: That not everything requires a response. 

Doane: What key wellness tips would you give to people at all stages of their career?

Heilbronn: First, take time for yourself – it is okay not to be busy. 

Second, pray daily or practice some sort of meditation.  For me, praying helps me refocus on my core values and purpose.

Finally, work out the routine that’s right for you.  This could be getting up at 5am to start the day, or you could be more of a night owl – or both. There is no right way for everyone; it’s what works best for you.

Doane: What quote inspires you the most? 

Heilbronn: “Success comes not from acting more like a man, but by acting more like a woman than a girl” — Dr Lois Frankel.

*Feature image photo credit: Mark Cranitch

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