Sarah Whitewayis one of Cuscal’s most treasured leaders. Someone who is naturally understated, hardworking and delivers consistent results - Sarah is someone to watch for future executive/board roles. With a background spanning over 9 functional areas, Sarah is diverse in how she tackles problems and enjoys everything to do with customers, product, people and strategy.
After 18 months in the planning, I sat down with Sarah to interview her for our Parity Picks initiative, where we showcase exceptional leaders and their careers differently. We want to inspire emerging talent to see different career paths and points of view.
Sarah grew up in Sydney as the eldest of 3 children in a community-focused and supportive family. Her father and mother instilled a strong work ethic into Sarah and her siblings and nurtured any entrepreneurial ideas they came up with – including helping them wash the roofs of cars when they wanted to start a car washing venture in the family driveway.
Family always came first and Sarah’s parents never missed an event that they were in despite her father running a successful accountancy firm and her mother being very active in the community. Now Sarah has 3 children of her own, she can see just how many sacrifices her parents made for her and her siblings.
Sarah often covered the phones at her dad’s Accountancy firm when they were on their Christmas party – getting her first taste of working in an office. She loved being in the professional environment and hearing stories about businesses and what it was like to run a business. Her focus and passion for business started there and has not left. After a short stint in London as a recruiter and an awesome ski season in Canada, Sarah landed back in Australia. She was ambitious, focused and driven to make her mark.
How her career started
Not discounting her recruitment career in London, Sarah has worked across 9 different functions. With a degree in Economics, Marketing and HR from the University of Sydney, Sarah was passionate about anything HR and Marketing-related.
In 2005, recently back from the Canadian slopes, Sarah landed her first role in Marketing at Citi and for the next 10 years worked across Marketing, Sales, Projects, Distribution and Strategy. Other than her first role at Citi, Sarah moved roles on average every 12-18 months. During this super charged career progression, Sarah studied for her MBA at the AGSM and also started a family.
When I asked Sarah why she moved roles so frequently, she explained how she was for the most part approached by internal stakeholders to take on other roles . Sarah shares she has never sought out sponsors per se, more so invested in relationships that formed over time, often through working on activities together. Where genuine connections were formed, these senior individuals became her sponsors over time. Sarah believes that the foundation of relationships is a mutual respect and trust, coupled with a 2-way beneficial relationship. She consciously supports talent now and invests in her wider community of colleagues.
Views on career progression
When quizzed about why she has worked in so many functions across 2 businesses, Sarah responded that once she feels she has solved a problem or need, she is ready for the next adventure. In saying that, Sarah has never gone to her leaders and asked for something new out of boredom, more so, once she has achieved what she has set out to achieve, Sarah finds that roles come to a natural end point and her organisation positions the next role to her!
Sarah is super passionate about the people she works for and with. It’s clear to see she cares about relationships and invests in her team and leaders. When asked about what good leadership looks like to her, she shared that a really good boss has always identified her strengths readily - the strengths she knew she had and possible strengths she didn’t possess; it’s the great leaders that continue to leverage those strengths. Sarah works best with leaders who stretch her and provide support in the process.
When asked about environments where leadership was not good, Sarah identified poor leadership when she felt she could not freely express opinions which were different or contrary to the leader. If Sarah has not felt her contribution was valued, then it has had a pretty swift and direct impact on her motivation as an individual, and a slower but equally detrimental impact on the diversity of thought in the broader organisation.
When discussing Sarah’s own management style, she reflects that she feels she is good at building a strategy and vision for the future, developing a plan to get there, and taking people with her on the journey. Sarah is also passionate and excited about driving continuous improvement in all her roles. However, the constant desire to improve can be tiring and she appreciates this needs to be measured with celebration of the achievements and some victory laps along the journey to keep her and the team motivated for the next challenge.
What’s important to Sarah in business?
Sarah has been enthusiastic about business since she was 10 years old and feels strongly that the top 3 functions of any business are the people, strategy and product. Sarah is people first, ensuring people are engaged, valued and in the right seats comes before anything. Then comes strategy and understanding where a business is headed. Finally, the product and ensuring the product is fit for purpose and delights customers. Financial returns will follow these 3 areas.
What’s important to Sarah personally?
Family is everything to Sarah and she subscribes to the ‘it takes a village’ mentality to raise her family where her friends and community play a critical role. While Sarah does not necessarily believe in 100% work/life balance all of the time, she does place emphasis on regular communication between her and her husband regarding family commitments.
Prioritising time with family and being there for key milestones is something Sarah tries to consciously balance. Having come from a family that never missed a sports game, carnival, or performance, this is something Sarah works hard to replicate and prioritise with her own children. During the week, amidst the dinner, bath rush hour she does try to carve out time to connect with each child and hear about their day. When all is calm (!) she can often be found organising the next family holiday.
Sarah is a relationship-driven problem solver. It’s amazing watching her work and seeing how she thinks through things. This interview was a real pleasure as she has reminded me that working hard, being kind, transparent and confident in your abilities is really all that matters. You don’t necessarily need to strive for a perfect work/life balance, just prioritise the important things.
What I learnt from Sarah:
- There is no linear path to career progression. Breadth is as good as depth.
- Know yourself and what your motivators are
- Be open to trusted sponsors suggesting new paths
- Invest in relationships at all levels
Victoriais an Executive Search Specialist, entrepreneur, Founder and Managing Director of Parity Consulting; a thought leader, wife and mother, blogger, and a wine snob! She believes in life by design and is blessed to have found her career home in the training & recruitment industry, founding Parity Consulting on the belief that the candidate and client must be equal within the hiring process.
Parity Consulting works with clients who embrace diverse and inclusive environments and empower their teams to bring their authentic whole self to work. We encourage people with different beliefs, abilities, backgrounds and life experiences to contact us.