Lead interview: Sarah Smith

Chief People Officer, StrategiQ

Our lead interview in the TEAMWORK issue of Suffolk Director business magazine is Sarah Smith.

Published in UK Director Magazines Spring 24

Finding the passion

 “For it to succeed with us both involved, we have had to work as an equal team – to continue being a husband and wife, but with a shared business vision, joint goals and mutual respect.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock / Anna-Marie Casas Pictures: Warren Page

Sarah Smith talks to Suffolk Director

The greatest marriages are built on teamwork. The same can be said about business. But running a company with your husband surely has to be the ultimate test of collaboration and cooperation.

For Sarah Smith, mum-of-two and chief people officer for national integrated marketing agency, StrategiQ, the experience of working alongside her husband and CEO, Andy, has proved to be an adventure.

But it is one that is testament to their strong relationship, support and respect for each other, and shared desire and drive to achieve business success.

A decade after co-founding their full-service marketing strategy agency, the couple have taken their two-person operation from the kitchen table to a 54-strong workforce spanning offices in Suffolk, Warwickshire, East London, and now Manchester.

“For it to succeed with us both involved, we have had to work as an equal team – to continue being a husband and wife, but with a shared business vision, joint goals and mutual respect,” reflects Sarah.

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Growing Up

Born in 1977, Sarah lived with her parents and an elder and younger sister in the Broke Hall area of Ipswich until she left home.

As a child, Sarah lacked confidence and was indifferent about school. She says she had a good friendship group but didn’t feel inspired by the education system, finding the need to achieve high grades across all subjects frustrating – even though her hard work meant she left with good results.

“I just felt it was too rigid. You needed to be good at everything rather than focus on the things you could be brilliant at – that set you apart.”

It is something she feels strongly about to this day and now tells her own children as they go through school.

“Work hard, but celebrate the things you are good at, the things you feel passionate about, because that is where you will excel.”

Strong Work Ethic

Though she found nothing in school life that informed what she wanted to be, Sarah knew she had to work hard and says that is something she really got from her dad.

Sarah’s dad worked night shifts for News International’s printing works in Wapping and any spare time was also spent grafting.

“I didn’t see much of my dad because he worked so hard – seven days a week – but he was a real inspiration. His one aim in life was to make sure his family had everything they needed because he’d had a pretty rough childhood, and we didn’t want for anything. Even now, in his mid-70s, he still works hard.

“My mum also worked whilst raising the family. She was very supportive of Dad and how hard he worked, taking on the role of looking after us and the home. Her nurturing nature inspired me to be the mum I am today,” adds Sarah.

Career Choices

She first met her future husband when she was 16 and a pupil at Copleston High School, Ipswich. Andy was a year older and attended Holywells High School, also in the town.

At Copleston, Sarah enjoyed creative subjects like art and drama, and social science piqued her interest. She then moved to Northgate High School to do her A Levels.

Still unsure of a career to follow, and with a lack of options or alternatives, she applied to three universities to do a business degree, but then decided not to go.

“If I’d had a clear idea of what I wanted to do then I might have felt differently, but the idea of further study just wasn’t appealing enough – I wanted to get out to work.”

Having been told by a school careers adviser that law or social work might suit her, Sarah decided to apply for legal and insurance jobs. At the same time, a neighbour who was a police sergeant suggested she should apply for a job in the force.

“I passed all the criteria, but I stumbled in the final interview with the superintendent. I was told I would be brilliant, but I didn’t have enough life experience – I was eighteen. Even though I was offered a role as a ‘special’, I now look back and see this as my first taste of failure; the first time I had to really look at my choices. I learnt from that experience, and it helped me build resilience.”

The next day, however, and following on from the applications she had made, Sarah received some good news – insurance giant GRE (Guardian Royal Exchange) in Ipswich wanted to offer her a job as a claims handler.

At GRE, which was later taken over by AXA, Sarah discovered a love of the office environment and working with people who were role models. She ‘felt grown up’ and was eager to learn from her colleagues who ‘knew so much’. A career ladder was opening up and she stayed six years, but a spark was missing.

“My dad always taught me that good things come when you work hard. But what I would add to that is to discover a passion, something that fires you up and makes you excited about going to work. I developed in my job, but I never really enjoyed it because it wasn’t a passion.”

Changes and Opportunities

Sarah and Andy got engaged in 2000 and were married the following year. Their first home was a 1930s house in the town with no heating, so spare time was spent bringing it up to date.

By then Andy was working in sales for a large corporation and was moving rapidly up the ladder.

Having moved on from AXA, Sarah was commuting to London, working for a loss adjustor. In 2002, she returned to Ipswich and joined a local insurance broker. It wasn’t long before she became pregnant and the couple’s first daughter, Amber, was born in 2004.

In 2005, just as Sarah had returned to work part-time, Andy was offered a role with a digital marketing agency that he felt he could not turn down, despite the lengthy commute to the Midlands.

Andy relished the opportunity to progress, but following the birth of their second child, Sienna, in 2009, they both decided that they needed to improve the quality of their home life.

“Andy suggested we moved to Leicestershire so that we could spend more time together as a family,” recalls Sarah. “It scared the life out of me because everything I knew was in Ipswich, but we both knew it was the best thing to do for our future.

“I had to put our family first and relocate. It was an emotional conversation, but not one part of me wasn’t going to do it. We are a husband-and-wife team. We did it, and I’m glad we did.”

However, the family had been living in Market Harborough for just 10 months when Andy put his cards on the table with an idea that would test their teamwork as a couple to the hilt. He had begun to seriously think about the benefits of setting up their own agency and working together as a team.

“I didn’t see it coming in terms of the timeframe, but I should have known it was on the cards having known Andy since I was 18 and recognising his huge ambition and drive,” says Sarah.

Going It Alone – Together

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Andy’s vision was to create a fully integrated marketing agency to help businesses build their brand, grow their strategy, and deliver all their marketing goals.

“The idea moved quite quickly. We had a clear plan and took the risk and went for it.

“One of the first things we did was undergo psychometric testing, so we could understand each other’s personalities, drivers and communication preferences. It is an invaluable tool when people are going to work together and it set us up for success from the start. We now run this as standard, together with Motivational Mapping, on all members of the StrategiQ team.”

The couple’s decision to relocate back to Suffolk was a no-brainer; there were well-nurtured business connections across the area and a strong support network of family and friends to help with school runs and childcare.

While having no knowledge about setting up and running a company, Sarah felt reassured that she had friends who did, that she could turn to for advice.

“We were like many business owners who were starting out, in that we had some financial obstacles to overcome. There was the relocation to sort out and we had no savings to fall back on.

“We are incredibly grateful to our family for their support. We simply couldn’t have started StrategiQ without fantastic parents and grandparents on both sides.

“It was August 2013 when we launched the business and a year to the day that we had moved to Market Harborough – a lot happened in the space of 12 months.”

Equal Terms

Initially, the couple worked from home, mapping out their business plan while juggling family life.

“Those early days were particularly challenging, and you only had each other to talk to about it,” recalls Sarah. “One of the biggest was the dynamic of Andy’s vision and the day-to-day running of the business.”

“We both accepted that we would have to work together as an equal team. We’re going to have different opinions, but it’s how we share those and communicate with each other – that’s what’s really important.”

Another challenge was learning boundaries and how to separate their personal and professional lives.

“I still don’t know that we’ve figured out the perfect setup, and I’m not sure it even exists,” observes Sarah. “I still find it hard to stop work and switch fully to family mode. We’ve learnt to put in time to talk things through, to listen to each other’s opinion even if we don’t agree with it, and to show mutual respect.”

She adds, “All I know is that after 27 years as a couple and 10 years of running a company, we’re still together with a strong business and an even stronger marriage. But it’s taken a lot of sacrifice, discipline and effort to not let work completely consume us.”

Building a Team

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With the vision to begin building a team around them, a year into their new venture, the couple took on their first employee.

“Doing this was a big step for us, but he took a chance on us, and we took a chance on him. He was really great and ended up staying with us for a number of years.”

It had also become time to set up an office away from the family home, taking some space at a client’s premises at The Havens, Ipswich. It was not long before another member of staff joined and within a year the team had grown to six.

From the outset, the plan was to get the right team in place first to enable the business to grow.

“By the time you recruit somebody and train them, it makes sense to have them already embedded when new business is won,” explains Sarah. “It’s quite a bold approach, but it allows you to be ahead of the curve.”

StrategiQ had been making a good name for itself and the referrals were coming in.

“We had enough clients on a retainer to keep overheads covered and a roof over our heads, but it was years before we took a dividend from the business,” reveals Sarah.

With space running out at their client’s offices to grow the team further, the decision was taken to search for premises of their own.

An office was found at Brightwell in former pig sheds that were being converted, but completion was delayed forcing the couple to accept temporary premises at Masterlord Office Village in Ipswich until the new premises were ready.

Developing People

While a director and having taken on the job of chief financial officer, Sarah says her role was still not visibly defined, but as they continued to build a team it was becoming clear where her strengths, and her passion, lay.

“At first, I was only arranging interviews, not doing them, but I started to find my calling. In my previous career, I’d managed people, but I’m not sure anyone was really invested in my development. I didn’t enjoy doing the company finances, but I did enjoy supporting people and helping them develop, so it became an obvious thing for me to do.”

Sarah has now held the role of CPO (Chief People Officer) for over three years, and her responsibilities have grown significantly with the workforce growing rapidly. “It’s a big job, but I absolutely love it,” she declares.

While there is no typical day, much of Sarah’s time is spent coaching and holding one-to-ones with staff. She has succeeded in making her workload more structured in order to balance the business demands with family life, but admits it’s been a struggle at times.

“There have been a lot of sleepless nights and mum guilt over the years.”

Support and Inspiration

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Sarah credits her membership of executive coaching organisation, Vistage, as being a huge source of support, describing the Suffolk branch’s Chair, David Sheepshanks, as ‘instrumental’.

Her passion has been inspired by high-profile business leader and TV personality, Baroness Karren Brady CBE, who champions women in business and technology.

“As previous MD of Birmingham City FC, I took a real interest in her approach to business in a very male-orientated industry. She carved out her career on sheer hard work and doing something that she feels passionate about.

“In insurance, I had no passion, which probably means I would never have been amazing at it. I feel very passionate about people development though. I’ll never be Karren Brady, but I can apply some of her principles. She said you can’t determine where you start in life, but you can determine your end result – and I believe that, wholeheartedly.”

As successful a business leader as Sarah is, she admits to still lacking confidence in herself, being a people pleaser, and battling with imposter syndrome.

“My lack of self-belief has been frustrating at times, but Andy has always believed in me and my ability,” reveals Sarah. “It probably started in my early career when I never really saw myself achieving that much and I camouflaged it with wanting to be an amazing mum.

I certainly never saw myself as running a company. I don’t think I’d ever be the person I am or where I am today without Andy constantly being in the background saying,
‘you can do this’.”

Looking to the future, Sarah feels like she’s ‘just getting started’ and there are no fixed plans. She hopes that in the next five years or so, she and Andy will be able to focus on other things while still staying close to the business.

“The end goal is financial freedom, but it’s just about having options, being healthy, happy and loving life. If all those things come with a successful business and watching our team develop and achieve their potential from the side lines, then I think we will have done what we set out to do.”


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