Sarah Gatehouse transforms the culture at Fujitsu General while maintaining a full family life

by Liz Marchant

Sarah Gatehouse, Head of people and culture ANZ, Fujitsu General.
Age: 46
Number of kids: two along with the adult one!
Age of kids: 12 and 15

What’s important to you in a role?  

Having support from the top; a leader and colleagues who value the role that the people & culture department plays in an organisation’s success, along with striving to achieve strategic goals.

Can you describe what’s involved in doing your job on a day-to-day basis?

My team and I cover approximately 200 employees in both Australia and New Zealand who work across all traditional business functions, along with a specialised focus on commercial business development and field service activities.

A typical day is spent developing and driving strategic initiatives such as culture, benefits and retention, well-being and social responsibility, career development and internships, Kaizen (change) initiatives, along with overseeing the traditional functions including, recruitment, payroll, training, policy, budget, reporting and compliance.

How have you changed the culture at Fujitsu?

When I joined Fujitsu General, our current managing director and I had a clear vision that we wanted Fujitsu General to become an employer of choice.

With our vision in mind, I organised participation in the Best Places to Work Survey run by the Great Place to Work organisation. This enabled us to commence the change journey and, more importantly, identify the key areas requiring focus to drive cultural change and improvement.

The survey revealed that our culture has gone from being disengaged at 67 per cent in 2015 to 88 per cent in 2017 as the average of all statements. In our latest survey, conducted this year, 94 per cent of our team say that overall, Fujitsu General is a great place to work.

This focus on driving cultural change across the business has also resulted in one of our best financial years (2017-18), reduced turnover of employees and improved resilience. Pleasingly, we are progressing with our continuing change journey far more quickly than we have previously, further accelerating staff engagement.

How has it affected the individuals who work in the business?

They are happier, more fulfilled and greatly appreciate our efforts, and this is measured every month through our employee check-in surveys. We are using our talent across the business at all levels creating an agile workplace. We are constantly looking to provide staff with career and development opportunities leading to more and more internal promotions.

Is your work in that space done or do you have more you’d like to achieve?

As for culture, you always need to keep driving change and improvement so we will continue our focus and journey in Australia, particularly around health and wellbeing, agile working and flexibility.

What’s next for you at Fujitsu General?

I’ve recently taken on the people and culture responsibilities for the NZ business, so I look forward to working with our general manager in New Zealand to drive similar improvements. I am also guiding my team to take care of the operational areas to allow me to completely focus on longer term people and culture strategies.

How did you decide what you wanted your future to hold when you were at school?

I was terrible at school, too busy having fun to focus on life beyond the classroom! However, once I started working, I was bored and decided to get on with it. I picked up the TAFE handbook and decided that HR suited my beliefs and likes. I commenced seven years of study at TAFE and MGSM while working full time and, during my studies, my passion for HR was fuelled and my determination to gain a role in the profession was cemented.

What advice would you give to younger people about the importance of education?

The future of the workplace is changing. Young people need to consider the future of work and their personal goals. If you are unclear of what you would like to do, take some time away from study after school perhaps, gain some work experience, find what makes you passionate and then decide on your career path. Try to avoid multiple and expensive degrees. I believe there is too much focus and pressure placed on obtaining good results at school as study is not for everyone. There are other pathways into degrees and good careers. You never stop learning so it’s important to have a flexible attitude to being mentored. Take advantage of those opportunities as much as you can.

Where do you think you would be today if you had decided not to pursue an education/professional career?

Very unfulfilled, unhappy and bored. I assume I would also struggle to be financially secure which is so important with the current costs of living. I also believe my children would not have a very good role model when it comes to balancing family and work priorities and striving to improve all aspects of your life. Both my children are very independent and capable young people with clear visions for the future.

Did you have any personal concerns or worries in relation to family or out-of-work commitments when you started combining working and parenting?

Definitely! The mother doubt kicked in from day one and it was heartbreaking. However, most of the time, your children don’t remember whether you stayed home or went to work when they were little. I worked part time until my 12-year-old was two and I value the time I had with them. One day, he commented that he would rather be playing at kindy than at home with me as he is sporty and social, and that was the permission I needed to go back to work full-time in a meaningful position. By the time number two came along, any extra time was spent washing and doing errands, so who could blame him for wanting to go to kindy?

What kind of support do you have at work and outside of work?

Our managing director is an advocate of flexible workplace practices. He encourages me to work remotely and allows as much flexibility as I require in order to achieve the right work/life balance and drive productivity. It really is a two-way compromise. My husband’s workplace is also very flexible. When the children were little, my mum and sister assisted a lot.

What are your work commitments?

As part of my full-time commitment, I regularly travel interstate and overseas as required for the role and further participate in board work requiring occasional commitment after hours and on weekends. However, I’m extremely passionate in sharing my knowledge and skills in helping drive change with other organisations.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced finding a balance between work and parenting commitments?

School holidays are difficult for late primary school and early high school years, especially with the number of holidays and the hesitation of the child wanting to go to vacation care. It is also hard to miss some of their primary school events. You can’t go to all of them, but I try to ensure I don’t miss the extra special moments.

My husband and I both travel for work so at times the diary can get quite chaotic, but we always manage to be organised.

How long did you take maternity leave/time out of your career with each of your children?

With my first child, my company went into receivership, so I lost my annual leave forcing me into a part-time contract when she was three months old. In those days, there was only the childcare bonus, not maternity leave payments, so financially it was very tough. Three years later after having my son, I was climbing the wall after four months and headed back to work on a part-time basis for the next six years before progressing into full-time employment.

What advice would you give someone before commencing maternity leave?

Be clear regarding how much time you are having off. If you are the breadwinner, perhaps consider sharing the time off with your partner. See if your organisation would allow you to work remotely for a while, even if part time. Babies sleep a lot so you may have capacity to contribute during those periods. Alternatively, you could also use the time to do extra study and development.

What advice would you give someone returning to their career after having kids?

Your kids will be fine! Find a role that will offer you awesome flexibility, allowing you the autonomy of achieving both your work and family goals, give yourself downtime, and spend some money on a cleaner each week or fortnight to help. Being organised will help. Ultimately, you must make yourself happy and fulfilled and your kids will thrive.

Are there many women at your level juggling family and work at your organisation?

I find these days that the men and women share the responsibility, so our flexibility policy assists everyone.

Do you find time for yourself? And if so, how and what do you use it for?

Daily exercise keeps me sane and helps sleep with a balance of walking, weights, cardio and Bikram yoga. There is also the hair and skin maintenance that is essential as you age. Getting the right amount of sleep is also important. I take magnesium to help me sleep, no caffeine in the afternoon and manage my use of technology before bed.

Do you have a daily routine, and if so, what does it look like?

Up at 4.30am, exercise and grocery top-up, prep for the day and out at about 7:45am. My son is now getting himself off to school as he is going to high school next year. This is making him more responsible for getting ready. After work I am normally cooking or Mum’s taxi for the various sporting activities.

If you could do anything differently in relation to developing your career over the years, what would it be (if anything)?  

I would have been in less of a hurry to progress into management, taking my time to ensure I was ready rather than failing in my first management role. I strongly recommend finding the right organisation that will take the time to develop you and provide you with mentors. I would have ensured that I listened and observed more. I suggest this needs to be balanced with the confidence to step up, speak up, and back yourself at the right times. Experiences can put doubt into your head and reduce your confidence. I joined an organisation called the National Association of Women in Operations and they encouraged me to step up and back myself. This was very valuable advice which gave me a lot more confidence.