Balancing the Grind with Sally Branson, Crisis & Reputation Expert

In this interview, we are excited to speak with Sally Branson, the founder and CEO of the Sally Branson Consulting Group. 

With over twenty-five years of experience spanning diplomacy, military, government, not-for-profit, and corporate sectors, Sally is a true powerhouse in public affairs strategy. Her impressive career includes advising top Australian politicians, American military officials, and even an Australian Prime Minister. 

Today, Sally specialises in reputation management, helping high-profile individuals repair and protect their public images. Balancing a demanding career with family life, Sally shares her journey, insights on maintaining work-life balance, and the importance of finding joy amidst the chaos. 

Let’s start with your background! Can you share with us your career journey and what you’re currently up to?

I’ve worked across politics and diplomacy, then had little kids – so I am not sure which of those experiences attributed to my love of strong coffee, early mornings and competing priorities.

I started in politics, went into community development, followed by media affairs and defence public affairs for the US State Department, dabbled in commercial PR, was a senior press secretary for a Prime Minister and ran a political party.

I have always worked in fast-paced and high stress environments – I’ve had the amazing experiences of being part of Bush, Obama, Clinton visits and catapulting off aircraft carriers. I had a fortnight where my office was a laptop in a helicopter.

Although I don’t get to do fancy diplomacy things any more, my professional life is even richer with extraordinary clients for my own firm of Crisis PR and my work as an authority on reputation.

We’ve got a group of extraordinary professionals who make up our amazing group – committed to doing good work for great people to resolve their issues or elevate their reputations. We work with people in their darkest moments, and it is such a privilege to do so.

I’m doing this whilst parenting two young children, running an admin business with a great business partner, sitting on two national Boards, being with my mum and trying to be a great wife! When I write it down, it’s a lot, but our family motto is doing it with ease. It’s great to have a family motto like that but it’s important to have the right conditions in place for ease. 

2. We’d love to know what a typical day is like for you. Could you describe a recent workday? 

In our business, there is no one typical workday, issues and crises come and go, ebb and flow and time pressures wane and power up depending on my client’s needs. I have some clients who have ongoing public affairs and reputational projects we are working together on and that work ticks away to a schedule.

Last week I had a day off to be a school mum with a group of 80 six-year-olds at a science museum, and I think I’m probably better at dealing with a geopolitical crisis than that bus trip – but it was such an important thing for me to be able to.

A typical day starts early for me, I love to get up early – 4-5 and spend a few very quiet hours of work to power away. I love this time. I then go into parenting, lunch box making and school drop-off. On an office day, I then come back and do three hours of meetings, and then follow up before back-to-school pick-up.

One thing that I’m committed to is parenting when the boys are home. I need to try and fit a busy day until before wake-up time, and during school hours. The early morning work means that if a crisis comes along, I can be ready to act. Next week though, I will; be travelling for a day to get to a meeting and back.

Because I am based on the Gold Coast for the amazing lifestyle, I’m increasingly travelling to be with clients and hold face-to-face meetings – which is a joy! No one day is typical, but I do need some grounding in my day and some same to keep connected.

After school, I then try really hard to make sure I am a present parent and spend time with my mum, and my little family. We deliberately are a no after school activities family whilst they’re still little – our focus is family.

We do beach play, shower, dinner, reading and bed. Since covid times, when we made big life changes, our boys have not been great sleepers and bedtime is a long process, but I know in years to come I’ll look back and love those bagzillion hours spent putting them to sleep

Can you define work-life balance for yourself and share with us your approach in maintaining it?

 I think that defining what work life balance means to each of us is the healthiest thing we can do to achieve work balance. We are all in such different stages of life, a one size fits all approach to talking about balance can’t work.

We all have varied needs at different stages of our lives, and I know I have read articles like this and thought “I’d love to do yoga, followed by a beach walk and then two hours of meditation before having my green smoothie”.

That sort of morning routine is so good, but doesn’t work for me with two small kids and a household of my own business. My life runs at a million miles an hour or slow farm life. So for me, it’s about acknowledging that sometimes there will be little balance, but as long as there is joy, satisfaction, an absence of anxiety – that’s like a balance for me.

If you don’t know what it means for you, you can get caught up in comparison about if you’re doing it right. I’m the first to admit that I fall into the comparison trap, and some weeks I get the balance better than others, e.g. my gym membership was so neglected last month, so neglected that the owner added a month on to my membership.

I don’t think we can ever have the formulation right where there are so many competing pressures. I can do some significant periods of work, but then we make sure as a family every six weeks we have a mini break together. We like to change the environment and spend time together experiencing and doing new things to keep our minds in creative spaces that come from change. 

I’ve always, always been big into self-help and working to be aware of what works and what doesn’t, I know exactly what works to keep me balanced. Outdoor time, walks, daily meditation, loads of veggies, pilates classes and – equally though, for next week, I know I am travelling back and forth interstate for client work, as well as juggling kids.

So I know I won’t get to the gym, I know I won’t eat as well as I could, I know that when I stay in a hotel, I will do a meditation before sleep and when I wake up. I know too that I will walk to the nicest place I can find for a coffee, and I will try to catch up with someone I love whilst I am away and for some cup-filling catch-ups. When I can do all the good things, I make sure I don’t focus on the bad, and instead find some good in there.

I also regularly make appointments with my psychologist – I think looking after our mental health is an important part of finding a calm mind. In my industry too it’s important to focus on mental health.

Because I’ve been doing it for so long, the very best thing I can do is to operate with a grateful and positive mindset. It’s sometimes as simple as thinking of three things. It’s sometimes as lengthy as doing a long journal entry. 

I do carefully monitor what I take in, I get my news from credible and robust sources. I only use social media to check in on people I know and am connected with. I don’t dood scroll and I don’t compare on social media. 

I find it hard to say no to helping or doing favours – it’s who I am, so I know that I need to create space in my world to get that done. I am the class parent rep for each of my kid’s classes, because that’s important. I may need to get up at 4am to fit all the things in, but 

I’m in bed every night by 9pm at the latest. 

Change is constant, and it’s essential for growth. Have you made any lifestyle changes in the past year to improve your work-life balance? 

This year we’ve had a big change with our youngest starting school. It meant that we’ve got new and different considerations for being organised, and meant that I could really ramp up my work capacity. Which is exciting but also means I had to get super clear on my priorities. 

What matters most in this season of my life is my family and my work. Working out what supports these pillars has made it much easier to improve my sense of balance and control. If it negatively or positively affects my time with my family or my work, I make the decision based on my pillars. Being really clear on my pillars makes it easier to ensure we can do all the things we want. 

Before I had kids, I ran a tight diary, but when I had kids, I wanted to flow with the day—never overschedule, never be busy. And now, eight years on, I am loving getting back into having a schedule. I colour-coordinate and time-block to try and manage the priorities, this year I’ve finally adopted a digital calendar, but still have a carry diary., page to a day and a family calendar.

We thought we would start having weekly family meetings, but they turned into 30 minutes of the boys asking for a puppy, so instead on a Sunday, my husband and I get clear on what we’ve both got on for the week – and who does what during the week. 

We also made the decision to have a regular babysitter to do one day of pick up, homework help, meal prep, and three hours of cleaning a week. I find, as a mum, that cleaning and laundry are so triggering and loaded with emotion. I mean, I can fix a CEO’s failing reputation and institute organisation change, but I can not get on top of my laundry.

The other thing we do now, is at least every 6 weeks, do a mini break. Even if it’s down the road to northern rivers, or tied into a sydney work trip. We book into a motel -full family style where we are all in the same room – and have some time away together. It’s all about making sure we’ve got mini adventures. 

We’re always on the lookout for new resources! Can you recommend any books, podcasts, or newsletters that have helped you in your journey towards balance? 

I loved Susan Pearse’s book Spiritually Loose, which explores one woman’s quest for balance and enlightenment, but really just gives permission to just go with what works for you. That you don’t have to follow one doctrine or one way of connecting with a higher power or I am a big fan of insight timer. I think for so long and still, people think that meditation should be arduous or hard -which is bad PR, but in reality something as little as five minutes a day can make a big change.

Before we wrap up, do you have any final words of wisdom or insights on work, life, or balance that you’d like to share with our readers? 

We can’t be all things to all people all of the time, and some days, we may not be meeting the balance or the self-care goals—and that shouldn’t be another thing to beat ourselves up about. We’re only human; we can be kind to ourselves as we do others. At this stage I am less about balance and more about glimmers of joy – there is a poem that says ‘joy is not made to be a crumb” and I think we get so caught up in the ideal, that we forget the joy. 

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