Did you know that there’s an insidious epidemic in the UK? It’s called job burn-out. Apparently over half a million people suffer with work-related stress. Thankfully they don’t all collapse at work or breakdown psychologically and take years to recover. Such was the experience of my Page 1 Woman.
Reaching executive director at Goldman Sachs, aged 32, with an incredibly high salary and matching lifestyle, she rode the crest of a wave, feeling invincible. “I was uber productive. I worked all hours. And the waves parted for me to walk through. It was intoxicating”.
But interestingly, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, “I just wanted to please others, doing whatever they wanted me to do, accepting impossible challenges and blowing their minds – my speciality”.
Meet Sarah Sparks, highly sort after Executive Coach, mental health campaigner and multi-award winning public speaker. As painful as it was, breaking down enabled her to discover her calling and it wasn’t to blow people’s minds by fulfilling their challenges but to blow their minds as to what’s possible in their lives. She discovered that she was driving her parents’ ‘work hard, prove yourself’ bus, to wherever it would take her. She’s now driving her own bus as a “Thought Provocateur”, founder of the Thrive Tribe, encouraging others to ‘Choose to Thrive’.
Read on and learn more about the dynamic Sarah Sparks.
What do you a do for a living?
Sarah: I’m a thought provocateur. I challenge people’s thinking. We’re all conditioned to believe certain things, and behave in certain ways. Some succeed because of that. But many get stuck at some point, believing they don't have choices. I help them change their ideas about what's possible. I’m their thought provocateur as a one to one coach, a key note speaker, a facilitator of personal development seminars and mastermind groups, and a promoter of mental well-being in organisations.
I point out the blatantly obvious. For example, I was speaking to somebody in Singapore who said, “This is just the way it is”. But that’s not true. It’s just the way we ‘think’ it is. Like it or not, whatever we're doing is a choice, consciously or unconsciously. I once believed that I had to work many hours every day, get everything done and respond to people quickly. Through saying ‘yes’ to all of that I was saying ‘no’ to my health, well-being, and my family. My job is to provoke people so that they’re conscious of their choices.
Many women I work with are uber busy, often very successful, with little time for themselves. They often feel overwhelmed and worried about dropping a ball or being found out. They've got impostor syndrome, feel the need to be Miss Perfect, or people please. I get inside their world and show them the risks and potential consequences of all of that, and strategies and solutions for doing things differently so they get better results and have more fulfilment and success.
I've been doing this work since 1999. Historically I hid, working one to one very effectively, helping people re-evaluate their lives and change track. Now I'm out there in the world doing it on a much bigger scale. I’ve many tools that shift people’s ways of thinking and behaving.When you change your thinking, you change your behavior and get different results. Simple. But simple isn’t always easy.
I get clients by doing awesome work and people refer me, so I’ve a waiting list. But also, I trust the universe. I say what I want aloud, write it down, put it on the wall and then let it go. And the universe always provides. I also take action. I campaign, network, have many conversations and share my story.
I was brought up to believe that if you work hard you get results. So I thought if I worked even harder I’d get greater results. Wrong! I was head of financial regulation in my early 30s at Goldman Sachs using this conditioning. But it’s faulty thinking. Work hard continuously in a stressful job and you’ll suffer from chronic stress. Eventually your body rebels. I ended up in hospital having collapsed at work. The recovery was tough because I never felt that I'd be well again. Now, I know if you work smart rather than hard, you’ll get sustainable results
I remember my fortieth birthday, (five years in), the first time I wasn't depressed. But whenever I exerted myself, I went into a massive depression. My brain needed to rewire itself and it took time. I had to be kind to myself and I wasn’t very good at loving myself.
What essential steps did you take to get to where you are today?
Sarah: I didn’t consciously take essential steps and yet it's been absolutely perfect. My many setbacks have allowed me to grow as a person and a change agent. I'm now consciously taking essential steps working smart, picking myself up, keeping going because I'm now the driver of my bus.
Working smart for me is being strategic and savvy and putting in the effort, which can mean long hours sometimes. But I know if I work too hard, I'll become unproductive. So, it's about rest and recovery as much as hours worked.
Being strategic means accomplishing something in the most effective way i.e. keeping it simple, focusing on what you can influence, and being clear on the necessary steps and desired outcome. If you're strategic and plan to have a good day every day, you'll have a good week and then a good month and year. But if you allow your day to be in charge of you continuously you’ll burn out. So after my early morning routine I plan my day which includes what I want to do and how I want to be. Do I want to be curious, or assertive, or show my leadership? I can choose.
What was your greatest challenge?
Sarah: The greatest challenge was surviving my recovery. Burning out and being in a mental hospital for a long time was devastating, particularly for family and friends. As a people pleaser, I was good at masking what was really going on. I’ve forgotten the first few years of recovery but when I first left hospital I couldn't cross a road, or shop - too much stimulation. I was a wreck.
Therapy didn’t tell me what to do differently. So I felt helpless and hopeless. Things changed when I discovered Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). On doing my NLP practitioner training I improved in six months. Knowing I could recover was a turning point. My thinking and experience changed and therefore the results. Observe your thoughts and you’ll learn that you can choose to have a thought or replace it with a more empowering one. You’ll experience things differently and get different results. When I started mastering my thinking and choosing to think in a more empowering way I started to get well.
What was your greatest lightbulb moment?
Sarah: I was in the Priory Hospital for a long time, returned to work and ended up back in hospital. My consultant said, "You didn't learn anything. You're still working crazy hours and not getting enough sleep or holidays. It's not surprising you're back." I said, “I don't have a choice, this is Goldman Sachs”. He said, "Not true. You always have a choice. Will you always choose to put financial regulation above your mental well-being?” That was my lightbulb moment. I had a choice – to do something different at Goldman Sachs or find another environment.
My recovery took a long time after that. I lacked the stamina to return to Goldman Sachs’ world or any demanding corporate job. I joined a small corporate finance boutique doing a job which was easy. That lightbulb moment influences me every day. When I say, “I must do x, y, and z”, I correct myself with “I choose” and I feel liberated. By making different choices I chose a lifestyle change. I'm happier than I’ve ever been because I’ve chosen a simple life that’s a rich life and I’ve time to enjoy it.
What resource was crucial to your success?
Sarah: Discovering NLP and personal development gave me hope and many resources to be more powerful and successful.
I was conditioned to believe you were educated in your early years and that's it. And workplace training would be formal and one off. Personal development has given me a love of lifelong learning as there’s always another onion ring to peel. That learning could be real or virtual, e.g. reflecting, being coached, or attending training events.
I’m much healthier now, and yet I still have work to do, e.g. rewiring my brain and undoing the damage caused by years of chronic stress. I'm doing that through personal development.
What do you understand by leadership?
Sarah: You can be a leader but if no one follows you then you’re not leading. So, leadership is about enabling others to follow, being courageous and authentic, sharing your beliefs and calling things out that aren’t right. And you need to inspire and be believable and human. Also, you need to model what you want to get out in the world. So, you need to self-lead. And it's okay to have setbacks because that’s where the learning is and it gives others permission to do the same.
As a mental health champion challenging organisations’ contribution to mental ill health at work, I’m a leader. I'm often asked to be a guest speaker in mental health arenas and during mental health awareness week. And I was interviewed by Alistair Campbell for an event recently. I'm doing six speaking gigs at the CBI this year.
As a woman leader, what difference do you make?
Sarah: In Goldman Sachs’ fast pace environment, being a woman leader really helped. I was more empathetic and understanding of others’ psychology than many of my male counterparts. I was recognised as the best manager at the time. And I believe that's linked to being a woman.
Women see things and nurture differently. They set people up for success differently. I'm more the carrot than the stick. I'm much more about being available when people feel that they can't handle things alone, which was different from many male leaders in the organisation at the time. I believe when there are more women in senior positions globally the world will be a better place.
What are your three top tips for women who want to be leaders in their field?
Sarah: First, honour who you are. Do what you want, what brings you joy, not what others want you to do. Use this as a compass. If I’d done that earlier in my career I probably wouldn’t have worked at Goldman Sachs. But, then it gave me so much knowledge and experience. Nonetheless I ignored my inner compass and paid the price. We don't know how long we've got on Earth, so we might as well do something that brings us joy. It's important to be you and in the driving seat of your life so you can choose the destination.
To discover what brings you joy, know your values. It’s like wearing a new pair of glasses so you see things clearly and your choices become easier. You can enter an organisation and see it’s not right for you. So, honour you totally and allow that compass to guide you.
Second, trust that there are no mistakes, that the universe has your back, that when things go wrong there’s something to learn. Even if it feels horrid, it's horrid for a reason and it gets better.
Develop trust by looking for evidence. For example, I could mourn the fact that I’m no longer earning the same big salary. Yet I've lots of evidence that what I'm doing now is what I should be doing as it brings me joy, people want to work with me and they get fantastic results. Whereas, before, I felt wretched. If you spend quiet time reflecting, (meditating helps), and allow messages to flow, they’ll guide you. You’ll get a huge sense of relief and hope because it’ll work out.
Third, never give up; keep learning and growing. I was born perfectly formed and conditioned with many ‘ought’s’ which are still in my head. They made me a crooked and smaller version of myself. So, the growing and learning is all about returning to whom I'm meant to be so that I can be my best self and shine a light for others to do similarly. Many people are compromising themselves because they feel they ‘should’ and ‘must’ do things. They’re a shadow of what they could be. When I never gave up, I found a better me. We're all work in progress.
In my experience, women give up quicker than men. So, never giving up is more relevant for women. Rather than thinking “I've got to be all things to everyone”, women should just focus on the next step and then the next step to reach their destination.
To learn more about Sarah Sparks, click here.
Would you like to join Sarah's Thrive Tribe Facebook group? Click here.
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