In this episode, we meet with Sarah Prime, CEO of Champions Academy on total burn out, reigniting the community and being a role model.
Raised on a farm in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, Sarah has qualifications in both behavioural psychology and accounting. She walked away from a successful corporate career in Queensland and returned to her roots and formed the ground-breaking Champions Academy.
Sarah is highly regarded for her foresight and commitment to mentoring up-and-coming business, industry and community leaders and empowering youths to shape their future. She’s a former National Rural Woman of the year, Westpac Social Change Fellow 2019 and Australian of the Year Local Hero SA Finalist 2017 and is a thought leader on the topic of rural contraction, decline and exodus, and a champion of change for rural revitalisation.
We talk all about:
- Rebuilding her life from the memories of her youth
- Her rapid rise to CEO role and the complete and utter burn out that almost cost her her life
- How everyone is a mentor ALL of the time, whether you choose to be or not
- Her work with communities and how we can rebuild the social fabric of our own ones together.
Connecting with Sarah Prime
You can reach Sarah via sarahprime.com
Books and resources mentioned in the episode
- Sapiens – by Yuval Noah Harari
“I would love to say that there are great opportunities and advantages for people to find that sense of community outside of cities in the wake of COVID. I know that the communities are crying out for them.”
On her early rapid career rise to CEO and burning out
- I came back to South Australia in 2012. And I now live roughly an hour away from where I grew up. Which is a funny old twist of fate in itself. But what I came back to was a much more sparsely populated region in Eyre Peninsula here in South Australia. The farms are much bigger than they used to be and a lot less reliant on human labour. And so, there’s really not as many jobs in agriculture because of the technology and the innovation that’s taken place.
- It’s still a very vibrant area where I live. And the farm that I’m on, I’m extremely fortunate that I’m part of quite a successful farming family who have passed down land through the generations and been able to manage it really conservatively and is doing quite well. I think we have seven different farms that make up the property that I live on, about five different families help to run it. Yeah, it’s a place where it’s pretty marginal country. People certainly aren’t gloating about being wealthy or having all of these assets around them or anything. But they’re very resilient people. And they always find something to … the silver lining, if you’d like, in the sense of community that’s here. Yeah, it’s pretty powerful returning to that.
- One of the first things that struck me when I came back to South Australia was that feeling of being home. And that sense of place. You know, that attachment that you have as a kid that shapes you as a person. It really bowled me over how ingrained in me that was. Because I think the whole time I was away, I was probably thinking that I’d left that part of my life behind. But, yeah, it turns out I was wrong.
- Then it got to about seven years with that firm and I thought, “Well, this can go one of two ways.” You get the seven-year itch. You can either shoot for partnership, and I didn’t really picture myself sitting around the boardroom table in a suit with the grey hairs. I could either do that or I could start another career. I was still young enough and had enough energy to start again and really broaden my experience rather than just move vertically. I was a senior advisor with the firm at that time. And I was looking through the paper the weekend that I was having this sort of thought process. And there was a job for the Peak Economic Development Agency in town. And I thought, oh, well, economic development’s not that different to business development. It’s just that instead of working on a client, your client is the community.
- I threw my hat in the ring and had a go for that. And yeah, I was lucky enough to win the position. But what happened after that was after a very short time, my boss, the CEO of the Peak Agency, had cancer. And had to go away for treatment for some time. And so I sort of had to step into this acting CEO role well and truly before I felt ready for it. Total imposter syndrome. Total being found out as a fraud. Just kept me awake at night, not knowing all of the answers, not knowing what to do if something went horribly wrong in the economy. But fortunately, I had a board who were very supportive.
- And then I got a call from Regional Development Australia when they were starting up the new offices all around the country, 52 offices that they were opening to set the strategic priorities for the regions. And yeah, I got a call to invite me to apply for that job. Which instead of just looking at economic development, was looking at the economic social and environmental priorities for the region, to inform government strategies. I thought, “Oh, well, being invited to apply is one thing, but actually getting the job’s something that was completely … ”
- But again, I threw my hat in the ring. And turns out that I won that job. So I was the set up CEO for Regional Development Australia for all of far North Queensland and the entire Strait Region. Yeah, from there, life took a very different turn.
- By the time I got to Regional Development Australia, you can imagine I’d been running on adrenaline for such a long time, that I was pretty well burned out before I even got there, or well on the road to it. And after not very long, less than two years in the CEO role, I had just finished a regional road map for the government strategies with the board. And I absolutely crumbled into nothingness.
- I had a massive burnout. My doctor pretty much gave me a leave of absence and told me to take a good, hard look at myself. Did I want to continue down this path and end up in a very precarious state of health? Or did I want to take this moment in time to reassess was this job really what I wanted? And if so, how could I do it differently so I wasn’t damaging myself the way that I was? Because I was just doing ridiculous hours and really ignoring basic human needs. When you do that, your body doesn’t let you off the hook for it. You end up paying a price.
- At that time, I was 34 and I just sort of thought to myself, “Wow, being given a bit of a wake-up call here. A wake-up call.” I knew I wasn’t that well. Sort of my clothes were falling off me. I’d just lost all of this weight without realising it. My hair was falling out. All sorts of other horrible things going on with my health. And I thought, “Well, it is probably time for me to just take a big step back so that I can take a sigh of relief and just go … I don’t have to hold it together anymore. I can just exist and just have some sort of peace and not live on this constant state of high alert.”
- But of course, a little bit like how when you go on holidays you get a cold, the moment that I mentally decided to stop that job and to leave that job, I just went to pieces. I was pretty much incapacitated. Yeah, it took me a long, long time to recover healthwise. I actually ended up walking away from my corporate career at what was probably considered my peak, left behind all of my material wealth, the only thing I kept with me was my camping gear and my Land Rover. And left behind a 13-year marriage with a really, really wonderful person, who I still hold in very high regard. But who I couldn’t be in that situation with, because I needed to leave and sort of rediscovering my health and sanity. Yeah, focus on being selfish for a while, really. That’s what took me back to South Australia. That’s how I landed back here.
Her message of wisdom for those burnt out or struggling with single-mindedness
- I sympathise. And I feel your pain, what you’re going through right now. I know that you’re waking up in the middle of the night feeling like you’ve got someone’s hands around your throat. I know that you’re having panic attacks at times that you least expect. I know that you’re driving somewhere and forgetting the journey. You just arrive and think, “I don’t even remember driving here.” I know that you’re being woken up at all of those ridiculous hours in the morning with these thoughts of things that you’ve forgotten. You’re probably sleepwalking. You’re probably forgetting meals and forgetting to drink water and all those really important things.
- Just take a big step back and perhaps even do it holding a mirror or standing in front of a mirror and say, “I owe it to this person in front of me to put some fuel in the tank.” Whatever that thing is that fills your cup, that isn’t work, it’s time to start putting that in there however you can. Think about something that you care about that something that’s important to you. And see if you can invest some time or energy in it. Because it’s going to be a different kind of energy than the kind that you use at work. If you can do that, I don’t know if it’s writing a screenplay, whether it’s gardening, whether it’s bringing happiness and joy to other people’s lives with random acts of kindness, I don’t know.
- I felt like the world might stop turning if I dared to sleep. And I was driven by the fear of letting other people down. I was beyond the imposter syndrome by this stage. I was like, “Nope. They have these expectations and I cannot let them down. I cannot let my team down, my staff down. I cannot let the community down.” You know what? They would have been fine without me. Someone else would have stepped in and done my job.
- But if I didn’t do something to look after myself, something to nourish my own self at that point in time, there would have been a lot more serious implications of the people that I would have hurt and harmed in my life and in my family. And they needed me. But most of all, I needed myself. And it wasn’t until I was forced to focus on that, that I actually did.
- And if you want to talk numbers and what numbers people are operating at, the doctor’s appointment the day that I went in that she gave me this letter for a leave of absence. She did a whole bunch of blood tests to see if there was anything going on that was anything more sinister than stress and anxiety. But she said, “I want you to do this K-10 test.” Which is the depression, anxiety, well-being sort of scale. And I just said, “Oh, yeah.” By this stage, I was just numb. I was masking all day, every day. I just was on autopilot.
- And so I was just answering the questions, “Yeah, that. Yeah, that. Yeah, that.” And then she picked it up and she looked at it and she put it down on the table. And told me that I was in the top two percent for suicide risk. And I had to see a psychologist every second day while I was on watch for a number of weeks. And then once a month for a long time after that. See psychiatrists and all sorts. You don’t want to get to that stage. You don’t have to get to that stage. You’ve got a chance to just wind it back a bit and do what you need to do for survival.
- I can give you the number one takeaway for me that I’ve learned from this process. Which has been the realisation that I love to work so much, that I misunderstood filling the cup. I thought you fill your cup with things that you love. So here’s me filling my cup of life with work. Because it felt so good, the sense of achievement, the sense of productivity, the sense of mattering in the world.
- What happens when you fill your cup with work is all of the other neglect to self. All of those other things that you really need for human survival. And it wasn’t until the psychologist pointed out to me, she said, “Sarah, you’re going to need to find some stuff to fill your cup with, because you’re just bottoming out. It’s still like you’ve got nothing in your life except work.” And that’s great that you love it that much, I didn’t even realise I did. I thought everyone worked the way that I worked that was an executive. I just assumed we were all … like that’s how they get their shit done.
- But turns out, normal people have hobbies or lives. Now, I didn’t have kids at this time. Now more than ever, it’s important for me to fill my cup with other stuff. Now that in itself was a lesson, too. Raising children and feeling this compulsion to go back to work. Because I needed some sense of productivity and achievement in life again. I needed to find a way to be with my kids that would fill my cup. And to find things that we could do together that would fill my cup. Yeah, that’s probably the linchpin for me.
How she is now working to rebuild the fabric of our society through community work
- I thought I’d go on sort of a nostalgic trip down memory lane one day. Not long after I’d come home. And it was a drive back to Darke Peak. And as I drove down the main street, pretty much the only thing missing was the tumbleweed. It was, for all intents and purposes, a bit of a ghost town. I think the only business still in town was the pub, the golf club still had a Sunday session, but it was not what I remembered. And I knew, having worked in economic development, I knew that rural communities had been through a huge change in culture and change in economic and social sort of landscapes.
- But as I drove past where I’d done my primary education and the school was literally gone, the house that I’d grown up in looked like squatters had been living in it. I drove past the general store and there’s the old cracked windows at the front with the gaffer tape and cracked, old façade across the front with the paint peeling off of it.
- And it was like a real punch in the feels, you know? I drove out to the community sporting club where I’d grown up playing netball with my brothers playing football and cricket. And the oval was just bare, dirt with prickles on it, dust bowl. And the net was caught, so I was standing there. And the torn AstroTurf is just flicking in the wind. And I cannot describe to you the feeling in the pit of my stomach as I thought, “My God, this is the place where I learned by watching other people how to be a good leader, how to be a good teammate, how to support other people in my community, and how to give without the expectation of receiving something in return.” Just being a part of something that existed as a support network, I guess, to the entire town.
- And so it really was quite a pivotal moment for me. Because as I drove home that day, I suddenly was seeing everything through this new lens. And I drove through four other places that were communities when I was there as a child. But were now just faded road signs that people speed past on their way to somewhere else. Bare patches of ground where buildings used to be. Derelict town halls and crumbling grain silos.
- And as I got back to where I was living now and where I do live now in Wharminda, there’s still a sign out in front of the old school that closed in 2008. Which reads, “It takes a community to educate a child.” And it’s one of the saddest sights that you’ve ever seen. That pretty much set a bit of a fire under me. I started thinking a lot about the connection of sport to communities. And the notion that these are one of the last remaining incubators for leadership in community participation that we have access to, as just the everyday person can get involved in. They are interestingly also one of the best and most reliable lead indicators of community health and well-being.
- I designed this mentoring framework, which I call Champions Academy. Initially, it was delivered through sporting clubs, using them as a vehicle, just knowing that people were turning up already engaged and willing to participate. But it’s now also through schools and community programmes. But what it sought to do was really to teach people a lot goes on behind closed doors. There’s this entire value system of volunteers and that holds real communities together. And if you’re not giving something to it, then you cannot expect this town or community to survive beyond the current generation. It just can’t survive without people reinvesting in that value system. And so, in whatever ways we are capable, we either need to give our time and energy or we need to give some kind of economic stimulus or some kind of social impact.
- And so, it really is a mentoring programme which links people with high profile mentors that can bring outside knowledge into regions that can really help communities to adapt to the change in conditions that are going on around them, that rural contraction decline that I talked about. And help them to, I guess, move out of that holding pattern of survival and toward a time where their community might be sustainable and prosperous once again. Because sadly, all the indicators are that the pattern of rural contraction decline will continue. And it’s not something that’s unique to Eyre Peninsula, to Australia, it’s a global phenomenon. It’s happening all around the world at the moment.
- Having a sense of belonging is the first social cognitive need after survival. Understanding where you fit in. And if you don’t know what your connection is to your sense of place in your community, then you just aren’t equipped with the tools that you need to be able to flourish in other areas of your life.
- I hope that individuals do what’s good for them and what’s right for them. And if they choose to move to the regions or to rural areas, it’s because they realise they’re not living their best self, their best life. That they are recognising the value to be gained by consciously choosing the path instead of just reactively living to whatever’s being thrown at them at that point in time.
- And if where you are living, whether it’s in the city or the country anywhere, if you feel like you’re not a part of a community, maybe it’s time for you to reimagine your sense of place. And have a look at what else is possible. Because your time on this planet is finite. Always has been. It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for us to figure that out. And if we’re just living reactively on autopilot and we’re letting everything come at us like oncoming traffic, we’re just wiling that time away as if we can recharge it or buy more of it. But we know we can’t. What are doing with that time? Are we living our best life doing it? Yeah, there’s my little rant for the day.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- I honestly think that we need to make our choices more consciously. I really do. I feel like we’re living reactively as a society. And all we’re doing is bringing ourselves closer to the brink, I think. As a society, we’re standing on the precipice. And instead of being in high alert like we should be, and going, “Oh, we better make a smart choice,” we’re just letting that future come at us. Choose a path toward where you want to be and charting a path to what … mapping out to how you want to get there. Don’t just follow the road because it’s there.
- I know it’s hard. I know it takes creating new neuropathways. And that’s like trying to cut through a jungle with a pair of scissors. But if you want to lead your best life, that’s what you need to do. Because as I said before, your time on the planet is finite.
- I think there was a fantastic poster that used to be on the back of a toilet door, which read … it’s probably a famous proverb, but I pilfered it. Do not go where the path shall lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. I think that, that’s what we need to be doing. And as we’re doing that and we’re letting our path be known to the world, make sure you realise on that journey, at that moment and from there onward, recognise consciously that people are watching you. The next generation is watching you.
- Be aware of the example that you’re setting for them. Because whether you want to be or not, you’re an educator. Now kids aren’t smart enough to know to choose the best role models. They choose the ones that are most famous and most in their face. My challenge to you is to get in front of them in a more positive way than what other celebrities are doing. Be that role model that they need. And show them how to lead with integrity. Show them how to carry commitment without harming themselves. Show them what it means to turn up with responsibility to community.
- Because if they can’t learn it from you, where else are they going to learn it from? Not all kids have access to parents who are setting those examples for them. And so, recognise that even when you’re not on duty, they are still watching you. If you’re a person who’s going to the footie club, they’re not just watching you when you’re captaining the team, they’re also watching you at the end of the day when you’re standing at the bar slurring your words and dropping the f-bombs. If you’re in the shopping centre, the way that you’re dealing with other people who are annoying you is something that they’re learning from.The paths that you choose, the way that you dress, everything. Recognise that you’re a role model.
- And despite all of the influences that are open to our kids, if they’re choosing role models or they’re put in front of role models like you who are making choices consciously, they’re going to be okay, no matter how f-d up the world gets. Because they will have learned how to cope and how to handle it. As a role model, every time you learn something of value, turn around and teach it to someone from the next generation. Because they need you to educate them. Because sadly, the systems of education are quite antiquated. And until they change, they need more people to keep injecting them with that knowledge that they’re going to need to survive. And hopefully, we can teach them in a way that helps them play a more active role in shaping the communities that they’ll grow up in. There’s my rant for the day.