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A Day in The Life: Figure.NZ's Lillian Grace

A Day in The Life: Figure.NZ's Lillian Grace

Lillian Grace is the CEO and founder of Figure.NZ, an online tool that allows people to find and access New Zealand data for free. Here's how she gets through the day, how she organises her time and how she handles the madness of business.

What time do you wake up?

Between 5:30am and 7am, it varies because I try and get eight hours of sleep regardless of when I go to bed.

What’s the ideal way to start your day?

I always feel best when I jump up and start exercising before I have a chance to think of all the reasons not to. I don’t like to think about work during it – I like to focus on making sure I’m feeling centered, happy, and strong.

Do you have any morning rituals?

Very first thing of the day is a ritual my partner Te Aroha Morehu and I do, which is to each say “I remember when…” and “I can’t wait until…” and pull up fun times from our past and describe fun times in the future – it is seriously such an awesome way to begin the day by tethering yourself through the past and reaching out to the future together.

How soon do you begin doing work-related things, i.e. checking phone or emails?

Totally varies – sometimes I do look at things straight away, but best for me is when I get into things about 8 AM after I have worked out, had coffee sitting in the sunshine, and straightened the house up so I feel on top of things.   

What’s your media consumption or interaction like from the morning onwards – do you listen to podcasts, radio, watch videos, read books and magazines, visit new sites?

I barely do any of those things. With so much information flying around, fake news etc. I end up finding it more restful to just opt-out entirely. My favourite things to read that are work related are articles that my team or others I know well share with me. One of the reasons I can do this without falling behind though, is because I know many in my team are across lots of content and so will highlight important things – it feels luxurious for me to be able to opt out because of that.

What kind of work do you do?

I am the CEO and Founder of Figure.NZ, we exist to get all people of Aotearoa to use data well. To do that we design and develop technology, we process data, and we educate people from the high level of how to think about data to the detail of how to use it, from running workshops in big private and public sector organisations to running a class for six year olds.

What’s unique about your line of work?

We’re the first in the world to assert everyone should be able to use data not just the experts, so our mission is unique. We are also a registered charity as we believe this knowledge infrastructure for our country needs to fall outside of public and private sector incentive structures, and it is unique for a data / technology organisation to be a charity so there have been lots of challenges to face with that. We also operate in quite unique ways: we document and publish all our internal and external documents here tohu.figure.nz, and we work in a remote-first way which is incredibly beneficial whilst also at times really hard. 

What responsibility does that involve in a typical day? What takes up most of your time?

I constantly move through many different layers every hour it feels. From the detail of approving annual leave requests, to making sure our insurance policy is up to date and accurate, to doing keynote talks, figuring out how to get money in the bank, or dreaming up the next phase of the organisational direction and then socializing it internally and externally, evolving it with input from everyone. I have recently brought on the amazing Ngapera Riley as my deputy CEO who is making an enormous difference and for the first time we’re able to start actually defining all the different areas for focus and segment them between ourselves.

Who do you see/talk to?

Completely varies! Sometimes I will have a whole day working from home with no meetings or calls, by design. I have realised that I can actually be proactive rather than reactive with the design of my calendar and just select days to be stacked with interactions and others to be for me. On days at home I will just see lots of tamariki who run around in our community! On days where I’m out and about I might be in the office with some of the Auckland team for a few hours, meeting with partners in the public/private sectors, running a workshop or doing a talk. I don’t actually spend a lot of time face to face with my team because of our remote-first approach, which is something that feels normal now.

Where do your best ideas come from?

I think best alone, and that is where my best ideas come from. But once I have the seed of thought I then heavily rely on my team and others I surround myself with to help evolve and refine that idea and turn it into something robust and amazing. I do that best by pulling people in one at a time to my thinking and just really devouring their thoughts, internalising them and then using that to evolve the model in my mind. I love the process ­– it relies on me trusting my brain and not trying to brute-force thinking into a timeframe, and it also requires me to really put myself and the ideas in a vulnerable space open for others to shape rather than just trying to assert I know how all the parts should work.

What are the most important tools or programmes you use for your work?

Slack is absolutely the most important tool for us. We have documented a lot about how we use it here. Trello is what we use to organise ourselves as a team, and I use Things for organizing myself personally.

How do you juggle all your responsibilities?

I actually don’t know, I just work in the way the feels natural to me and it seems to work our well. It feels like a creative process of weaving between things rather than methodical. I often weave things between work and personal life too as I find I can fit a lot more in that way.

What kind of breaks do you take throughout the day?

Whatever I need when I need it. I might not feel like a break at all, or I might feel like going for a big walk around Takaparawhau at the end of the road. Sometimes I might have a glass of wine at lunch if I’m having a delightful conversation, sometimes it’s just grab something from Little Bird and perch in front of my laptop. I have really prioritised making our mahi and organisation work well for our whole lives so that all my team and I can respond to what we each need as we need it. I’ve never felt like that flexibility has been taken advantage of, rather I think it leads to loyalty and an ability for people to be honest about their lives.

What’s the most enjoyable part of your day?

Generally, I enjoy most of my days. From home whānau time, alone time, chatting with team members on a crunchy problem, sharing our mission with others, or walking in between meetings appreciating the feel of the sun.

I think best alone, and that is where my best ideas come from. But once I have the seed of thought I then heavily rely on my team and others I surround myself with to help evolve and refine that idea and turn it into something robust and amazing. I do that best by pulling people in one at a time to my thinking and just really devouring their thoughts, internalising them and then using that to evolve the model in my mind.

What about the least enjoyable?

The hardest part for me is when I feel like people in my team aren’t happy and I don’t know how to help – whilst it appears I’m a good leader, I don’t think I’m a very good manager and am not equipped with lots of tools and techniques for dealing with issues. I’m pretty open about that with everyone, and I do greatly value good managers – it’s one of the things that has been so great to have Ngapera help with.

Do you procrastinate? Is it good or bad?

I procrastinate at times. What I have learnt though, is that most of the time when it’s something big I’m procrastinating about that it is because my brain’s working away in the background and isn’t ready to provide an output yet! So, I have learnt to just trust in my underlying motivation to achieve our mission and recognise any procrastination is usually just a signal of something else. I think it helps to feel like I can be completely honest with my team or board if I’m struggling to focus on something, it means there’s no extra layer of having to keep face when things feel hard to progress.

Do you measure your accomplishments or productivity? If so, how?

I don’t at a personal level and have never actually thought about it! I just view the summation of our output at Figure.NZ as evidence of my juggling all the pieces well or not.

Is there anything you think is unique about your day?

I think the permission I have given myself to shape my days, my time and how I do things is uncommon. I just have the view that to sustainably serve you actually need to put yourself first, and so I live that.

What’s your interaction with friends and family throughout the day?Can you be both a successful entrepreneur and a good mother/partner/friend?

I interact with friends and family throughout my days – my friends provide an incredibly strong foundation for me to operate from and so we are often across each other’s work as well as personal stuff. I have also recently gone from just having myself to consider to now having a partner, three precious step-daughters, and a much wider extended whānau so that has taken some getting used to in terms of figuring out how to make all the pieces work well. I often reflect on how I don’t know how I would have done the first five years of Figure.NZ with a family though, as I really dedicated all of me all the time to it. That’s confusing for me, because I don’t think that should be a necessity and it just makes me really think about the advantages that come from not having to think about others when you’re setting up an organisation, and I wonder how that could become easier for those that do have multiple things to focus on from the start. I love the juggle now though, I feel like now I’m getting used to more parts of life moving at once, all parts are becoming richer for having the others.

Do you get stressed? If so, how do you manage it? Do you practice any mindfulness or meditation?

My stress usually comes from something not going well in one of three areas: 1. Getting enough money in the bank, 2. Creating a team environment that means every person can be their best selves and feel good about it, and 3. Making sure we deliver on commitments and intent to specific people and partners who have backed us. On a day to day basis I don’t feel stressed, it is usually specific issues that cause that. My methods for dealing with it vary: I usually talk to people whether my board, partner, friends or Ngapera, I might have an enormous sobbing cry and let it all out, or go and stand on the whenua in barefeet with my arms out and remind myself of the big important things.

What do you do once you get home? Can you switch off?

I have learnt to switch off, it was very hard/nigh impossible in the early years. Then I forced myself to for a while, and now I find it easy. When I get home I might go for a walk if it’s a beautiful day, potter around home with music on, cook dinner with Te Aroha, chat with the girls, jump on a Lime and go to Mission Bay, or sit and read with a glass of wine.  

What time do you go to sleep?

Between 9:30pm – 11pm.

Hummingbird keeps the world – and great individuals like Lillian – humming.

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