In conversation with… Sarah Thomas

We were lucky to get hold of Sarah recently.

Despite being so busy as the Chief Operating Officer at Peabody, she somehow found time to tell us about her favourite brands, her best advice, her first job.

In short, her career story.

And what a story it is.

What was your first-ever job?

When I was at school, I lived in Cornwall and worked in a local seaside shop selling ice cream. And it goes without saying that I mostly sold the Cornish clotted cream flavour! The little shop is still there today, continuing to still sell ice cream and inflatable boats.

Looking back, it was my first experience of customer service and dealing with unhappy customers. I learnt how to deal with angry customers when they returned to the shop with holes in the inflatable boats which they had bought – learning the hard way! I had a wonderful boss who taught me a lot too. He had a great sense of humour, and yet, very high work standards. I’ve thought about that great management attitude many times since then and I think it’s key to inspiring a great work ethic. So in short – that little Cornish shop shaped me in ways that I’ve only recently come to appreciate!

Who would you most love to share a coffee with / go for a drink with?

That’s an easy one: Sheryl Sandberg. I’ve only ever seen her as portrayed in the media but I wonder what she’s like in person. I know a lot about her highly publicized, professional and personal life but I’d like to find out more about the person behind the headlines. I’d ask her how she copes, how she adapts her leadership style and how she maintains a work-life balance. Despite everything, she seems to have that stuff figured out.

Highlight of your career (so far?)

One very specific highlight comes to mind. That was when I was working for Eurostar and our London operations moved from Waterloo station to St Pancras. We only had a few night-time hours between wrapping up the operations at Waterloo and the first departures running out of St Pancras – so a huge undertaking – but we pulled it off without a glitch! I was very proud of my team.

A more general highlight of my career has been the past 11 years that I’ve since spent working in the social housing sector. My job revolves around delivering affordable homes to communities and I’m hugely proud of the important work we do.

Nature or nurture?

That’s a hard one. Anecdotally, I have friends who have adopted kids and they often seem like carbon copies of their adopted parents. I guess that suggests it’s above all nurture at play.

Best advice you ever heard or received?

Don’t worry about things outside of your control and take charge of things within it. Doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

What talent do you yearn for?

A great singing voice! Musical ability blows me away.

What is your favourite brand and why?

I love the brand Chase. I discovered it recently when my daughter turned eighteen and therefore had to open an adult bank account. I did a bit of Googling and came across Chase, an app-based online banking system from the US. It’s incredibly easy to use, you get cashback on what you spend and it has a good savings rate. 10/10 in my book.

What book do you most recommend to others?

I find The Tattooist of Auschwitz incredibly powerful. It reminded me of the horrors of the past and what humans are capable of. On the flipside, it also highlights how resilient people can be – even in the face of the most nightmarish situations. It’s, in short, the best and worst of humankind distilled into one well-written book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I am also a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a powerful reminder that dystopian practices, attitudes and norms exist in every country – not just not one.  I think that reading can shake you out of a certain complacency, reminding all of us that social, political and economic rights are hard-won and need to be defended.

What last impressed you at work?

One moment, in particular, comes to mind. A junior member in our complaints team was recently contacted by a customer. They were working from home and took the call after hours one evening, not wanting the caller to have to wait till morning. Not only did the team member go above and beyond to work overtime, but when they realised they only lived 10 min away from the customer, they went over immediately and addressed their housing-related problem. I was so impressed by the dedication and kindness!

Which lesson has been the hardest to learn? What failure did you learn the most from?

As a manager, you need to put your trust in people. You need to accept that you rely on them to do their job well. So the first time someone lets you down, you can’t help but feel burned and risk becoming more controlling as a response. I’ve found it difficult, but imperative, to learn that you need to accept that people will sometimes let you down without reverting back to a command and control managing style. That’s when learning from failure is a vital tool to improvement.

What do you want to do when you retire?

I can’t really imagine retiring – I just love being busy. If I am physically able to, I would spend my time going for a lot of long walks in the country and swimming at the seaside. I’d want to be a very active retiree.

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