“Success and burnout taught me one thing: It was never all on me to run the whole show”

Being headhunted to senior executive positions in the pharma industry for the first part of her professional life, Sarah Matthew took a major career turn in 2003 and co-founded her own enterprise, eventually scaling it to a big exit. Seemingly successful, she battled with massive anxiety, burnout and illness at the end of that process. Sometimes, one learns to let go the hard way and for Sarah, this was an entry point towards real, holistic transition that keeps unfolding.

Sarah Matthew's Transition Story
Sarah Matthew is the founder of Vibrant Company, public speaker and executive coach living in London. At work, she combines deep and strategic consulting with transformative coaching to help people and organisations become their most vibrant selves. At home, she manages two teenagers as well as her own steep personal growth that stemmed from her last career transition.

What was your last transition about?

To put it simply, it is a process that started with me being absolutely and unknowingly out of tune with who I was and it has been unfolding for the past two years, bringing me back to my intuitive self. We can talk about how things pan out on the outside, but the biggest transformation happens on the inside.

Let’s explore what is happening on the inside while one goes through transition.

Since I can remember, I had a knowing of things that were outside my rational mind. I could predict stuff and I knew with certainty which path to follow, or whether a person was trustworthy or not. I wasn’t paying much attention to it though. I took it for granted and after all, I’ve spent my professional years in the medical and scientific fields, which were all about the seemingly tangible and the factual.

But during my ‘big burnout’ in 2017, which was the culmination of a whole load of circumstances, both in my personal life and especially in my business, my intellectual mind went into overdrive. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, it seems to have said ‘I’m taking over the show. I’m going to solve this. I’m going to fix this.’ That’s what I thought I was capable of, but it doesn’t work like that. The intellectual mind, as sophisticated as it is, can’t think of a solution for all of the things that need to be done. Solutions don’t necessarily come from there and anyway, a lot is beyond our control.

“Relying only on your intellectual mind is like asking the central heating system to run a mansion house when it is really only designed for 1 bedroom apartment – eventually it is going to burn out because it is attempting to work far beyond its capability.”

From a commercial trainee at Johnson & Johnson to a wide range of roles in the pharmaceutical industry, Sarah climbed fast. “At 21, I was selling an ‘innovative product’ for genital herpes!”. Having had executive roles since the age of 24, there is no wonder she felt like a big change was needed a decade later. “I wanted to be in charge of me and prove what was possible via my own company.” Funny enough, she and her business partner agreed to start Virgo Health, a PR agency for medical communication, on a hospital bed, only 24 hours after Sarah had given birth to her son.

On the outside, you sold your business successfully in 2012 and eventually left in 2018. Take me to what was before. What was it like, to create and run VIRGO, a medical PR agency, since 2003?

It felt great at the time. I was so ready to be my own boss and to make the shift from executive positions to building something I wholeheartedly believed in, with my co-founder – a hugely talented friend of mine. We hadn’t planned to launch the company until that September, but a whole string of events meant we launched at the beginning of July instead. The perfect launch plan just seemed to reveal itself, although we had to move very quickly – to the point that our brochures and business cards were delivered only an hour before the launch event began. From the outside it looked like we had been orchestrating this amazing launch plan for at least 6 months, but that is not what happened at all. In fact, when you deconstruct some of the most successful moments of your life, if you are really honest, there were all sorts of things that came into play, and it wasn’t just down to you. That realisation actually came from the coaching after my burnout: I thought I was in charge and responsible for literally everything, but it was never just me running the whole show, not really.

Seeing that we are not in charge of everything, even in the most senior of positions, doesn’t mean you become passive, but instead it enables you to see with clarity where you can and should focus…and where you should not. You become more rather than less effective and it takes a massive amount off your plate.

“I can talk about achievements in my career, but it was never just me. And that took a massive amount of pressure off.”

What happened next?

We wanted to continue to operate as a global business and this led us in 2012 to join a global company with a much bigger footprint. At the end of the earnout, I stayed in the lead and took even more responsibility on my shoulders. Because we had sold for a very strategic reason, I was telling myself that I was responsible for making sure it happened and that our people, the people that built the company with us, would be looked after as they always had been, in this new, bigger corporation. I was awake and alert day and night to make sure this worked. And at the same time, because people are really fearful of change, I had been hearing members of my team say: ‘It’s just not going to work. It won’t be the same.The (new) parent group won’t do this or they will do that.’ I was trying to allay their fears and lead them forward, whilst at the same time work with the my new bosses, who were not experts in my market and understandably had their own requirements and aspirations.

I did what I’d promised to do, but being ‘sandwiched’ like this whilst also experiencing a number of external shocks and unforeseen (negative) events, resulted in total overload. I had always planned to recruit my own successor and just as the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle came together, I got a terrible chest infection. The symptoms were so bad that I couldn’t talk or even function. It was as if my body was telling me: if you’re not going to remove yourself from the source of this stress and pain, I’m going to do it for you.

Growing up, Sarah was a top performer at class, longing to be an astronaut. Later on, her exceptional grades let her advisors believe she should study medicine or law. “However, I didn’t like the idea of either and so decided to pursue marketing. I was attracted to it because of my dad’s career, but no one really sat me down and asked me: And what do YOU want to do?” At 18 years old, Sarah rebelled by not going to university and instead took a Commercial Trainee position at Johnson and Johnson. “Looking back at my younger self, she was awesome. Nothing put her off following her own instincts!” During her last transition, Sarah went full circle, reconnected with who she really was, became a coach and founded Vibrant Company.

What were the major takeaways?

When something massive like this occurs, we go through a cycle of grief. It has stages from shock to denial, resistance and eventually to acceptance. Our minds have a distinct image of our desired future and when that future picture is suddenly gone or not possible to have anymore, we have problems adjusting: ‘How could this have happened?’. Or, ‘this shouldn’t have happened’. Or ‘why me?’. Or ’if only this and that had happened instead…’ We simply can’t make sense of it. We can get stuck, burned out and experience massive regret about our past and/or anxiety about our future. Worrying about the future is a nightmare in business. We are trained to plan, to think ahead and we spend a lot of time looking at the future, but a lot of that time isn’t productive because it’s often entirely fear-based and, again, so many factors can come into play that we cannot predict. That’s not to say planning is futile, but it’s all about the orientation.

“Worrying about the future of your business doesn’t solve it”

I went through all these stages and then started to be kinder to myself. I actually said to my team that my successor was now in place and although they could contact me in an emergency, I really needed to focus on getting well again. This gave me permission to let go of all that responsibility and be present to my recovery. My mind settled down and was no longer constantly trying to resolve all these problems. As I was feeling much better, I started exploring. Through learning and inquiry, I discovered transformative coaching, which showed me the steps to take next.

How did these insights and realizations shape the way you go about business?

Coming out the other side, reconnecting to the inner wisdom that we all have and can rely on, was huge. It’s now more than a year down the line since finishing the “supercoach programme” and I don’t know if this transformation will ever be finished. I can genuinely say that practically everyday and definitely every week I discover something more. Of course I still coach and consult for my clients in The Vibrant Company, but I’d say as time passes, I continue to have a bigger, broader and increasingly truer perspective. Clients still come with very tangible goals like restructuring their organization, or dealing with change management, but I am now able to go far beyond my functional expertise and experience, to help them access what is important underneath the intellectual thinking and the fear – to free them from their rational minds and direct them into the ‘creative gut feel’, where solutions actually come from.

How did this evolution change the way you live your life, everyday?

It has dramatically changed it. In a nutshell, I don’t worry about 90% of the stuff I used to worry about. Over the years we collect more and more experience which our minds put into a database. Even if we’re not conscious of it, we store these thoughts that then keep popping up without us consciously choosing, selecting or inviting them. That is how thinking works. It arrives and then we deal with it. We treat thinking as being factual information about what is going on in our lives whereas instead, by stop taking them all so seriously as a default, we can happily and safely ignore many of them and create room for our lives to become easier, more creative, spontaneous and joyful and more successful – often by a far more meaningful definition.

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