“I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.” How Cassandra Smarrelli balances ambition and family.

1905_GP_Cassandra_06.jpg

‘Nothing can dim the light that shines from within,’ Maya Angelou. 

Cassandra Smarrelli is the leader of your dreams, she believes in absolute flexibility as the key to empowering people to be the best they can be and sharing vulnerability to create a level of psychological safety. Above all, she is authentic – and radiates a no-nonsense positivity. 

We caught up with the People & Culture Manager as she counts down to baby number two…and access the Woolworths Group’s progressive parental leave policy which will enable her to access 12 weeks of paid parental leave, and superannuation contributions on the paid and unpaid parental leave for up to 12 months.  

Cassandra, congratulations – how far along are you now with number two?

Twenty four weeks!  

1905_GP_Cassandra_27.jpg

Over half way, so exciting! How are things different this time around – at home and work?

Very different. I was National HR Manager for Dan Murphy’s when I was pregnant with Sienna, and I’d been in that role for five years. I found myself at an inflection point where I’d been asked if I was going to apply for a role with Supermarkets – the HR Manager role for Victoria and Tasmania – but I was six months pregnant. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t change roles now, why would anybody hire me when they know they’ll have to wait a year to get me back?’ But then I reframed my thinking and thought to myself, ‘Well, why not? What’s the difference between holding a role at Dan Murphy’s or with Supermarkets? Business is business.’

So I went and had the interview. I remember feeling intimidated at the idea of everything being new, but I decided to let go of the familiar and start a fresh chapter. I’d never had a baby before and I didn’t know how I’d be coming back, but I took a leap of faith because I didn’t want my career trajectory to go backwards and I felt supported by the entire business.

So how did you prepare to return-to-work – did you take any keeping in touch days, or work through Grace Papers?

In the end, I took around 10 months’ leave. I knew I’d be returning to work full-time, so I really soaked up every moment I had with Sienna. But it went really fast – and two weeks before I started work, we did sleep school and moved into our new house. In hindsight, it was mad to do all those things in such a short period of time. I took on a lot; because I’d always been so highly geared at work, I didn’t know how to go at a ‘different pace.’ Those extra projects were my way of calibrating back into work mode.   

My conversations with Prue from Grace Papers realistically calmed me down. Finding Joy in the Juggle really resonated with me, because I literally felt like I was juggling – physically – and at times found no joy in that. Prue helped remind me that this life doesn’t have to be torturous, and there’s so much magic to be found in it. 

I used some keeping in touch days, as well as great leaders along the way who just reached out. I remember my first breakfast with the Supermarkets team, I brought Sienna along. So I leaned in, but not all the way – and I think the fact that I was new was actually a great advantage, because I could learn. My mantra to myself was ‘you’ve done bigger things, just relax, you’ve got this.’ 

Still, I was unsure how to do both – I’d always been all or nothing at work and home, and I didn’t yet know how to combine the two. 

Unsure how you will balance work and care for your family?

How did you overcome that?

Finding the right care really helped, as well as Sienna being that little bit older – I didn’t feel like I was leaving behind an infant. We’d also just bought our family home; we were financially committed. Looking back, I think I deliberately put myself in that position because I wanted to make it work and needed that motivation. But the decision also aligned to my values, and I’d grown up with a role model who’d always worked in my mum.  

So I’d be breastfeeding in the middle of the night and listening to podcasts – by Brené Brown and Sheryl Sandberg, which are in the Grace Papers platform – to get into the right headspace. I was always trying to keep learning and growing. I also worked on prioritisation and where my efforts would have greatest impact, and then I learned to delegate. 

While on parental leave, you worked with Prue on your professional vision – can you share it?

When I hear the words professional vision, my grandfather comes directly to mind. I grew up in a middle class Greek family that worked very hard; family and work have always been of primary importance to me. My professional vision is really to live the best life I can – I want to keep moving forward – growing and learning - but at a pace that allows me to balance family and work. I always knew I was going to be a working mum, I love what I do and am my best self when I’m doing it. But I also love time with my family.

Want to unlock your superpower?

pjimage.jpg

If you could go back in time, what would you say to yourself – now you’ve returned to work and thrived (not just survived!)

I would say cut yourself some slack – be kind. Stop planning so far ahead and enjoy the journey. Do more for yourself, and accept that as OK. Use the supports Woolworths makes available to you – like the Grace Papers program. And surround yourself with likeminded people (the guilt I felt attending Mother’s Group as one of the only ones planning to go back to work when I did!) and know that it’s OK to have a bad day.

You’ve now been in the People & Culture Manager role with Supermarkets for 12 months – an increase in responsibility from 7,000 people to 36,000. How are you finding it? 

The volume has increased significantly; the portfolio is probably the same in terms of the number of stores, but the complexity and pace is different. I didn’t underestimate that, and have the support of an entire network, but knowing how to navigate and leverage, delegate, and then leave it at work – that was a learning curve I hadn’t experienced before. 

I remember saying to my leader at the time, 'I’m worried when I return to work that I’m not going to be as high performing as I have been in the past.' And he said, 'You will have more empathy for and connection with people, and better time management skills. You’ll be a much better practitioner as a result of having a family.' I didn’t believe him at the time, but looking back I feel calmer and more confident than I ever have over the course of my career.

Was your experience rare, in being promoted while pregnant? 

I don’t think it’s a typical experience in any business, being promoted while pregnant, but Woolworths is trailblazing in that space, and my experience, as well as that of my team members, paves the way for more women. I remember a gentleman at work sending me a note saying how proud he was to work for a business that acknowledged talent and not personal circumstances first. He reached out to me and said, ‘I don’t think you realise what you’ve done for people, we use your example as a model.’

I don’t think the situation around parental leave is ideal anywhere just yet, but that’s part of the reason we partnered with Grace Papers – to help us get there. 

1905_GP_Cassandra_15.jpg

How do you balance work with care for your family, and what you’d like your parental legacy to be? 

I’ve let being a perfectionist go – and I’m clearer on what my priorities are and where I need to add value. As a result, I’m better at leaning into the team, as well as ensuring I have the right people around me to ensure the business continues to grow and thrive. Relationships and growth are what I focus on, big things that help gain momentum as opposed to the thousands of little things I could be doing – that’s very different. I have support and lean on people that are better at certain things than me; I’m shocking at diary management, for example, so Andrew’s EA looks after my diary. 

At home, I always come back to something I once read – that it’s the small moments your children remember. So we try really hard to nurture that with Sienna, to play and laugh and be together as a family. We want her to be a happy, brave, adventurous and confident woman – and to know the life we’re creating is the result of the choices her mum and dad made. And one of those was to work.

pjimage (2).jpg

Have you any family traditions you've inherited or created for your daughter?

My husband’s Italian and I am Greek, so we do the tomato sauce and pasta making days, the big events around Easter and Christmas – family gatherings around food are central to both cultures. But when it’s just us, we like to do things like go to the aquarium and zoo. I wouldn’t call them traditions, more like memory making where we go out of our way to do something special together. 

And what about you – do you have any rituals for taking care of yourself? 

Self-care is something I’m still working on, what’s the right frequency or habit for me. I’m nervous about that heading into baby number two, and recognise I need to put my hand up a bit more. But I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything – it’s funny, the things I used to find enjoyable, they’re just not as important to me, so I’m learning about what self-care routines work for me.

Can you tell me us a bit about your experience with Grace Papers? Is it something you come back to?  

It definitely is, the professional vision is something I have to keep top-of-mind. Grace Papers’ questions are really thought-provoking – and I think it’s really valuable to stop and reflect on them before going on leave, because there’s a tendency at that time to focus on the practical things. Taking a step back to consider the bigger picture is really important. 

How does Grace Papers support policies for inclusion and flexibility in place at Woolworths? 

I think an external party that specialises in this moment in life is one of the greatest gifts Woolworths has given the team. Grace Papers provides a unique and authentic way to bring the parenting conversation to life, and build confidence in both leaders and team members. It’s helping us communicate in a safe way; the right way to create the movement we need. I’ve really appreciated the resources, contact and time – Grace Papers came at the perfect time for me, as I didn’t know where else to look for that expert support.

Can you give us a glimpse into how your days start and end with Massimo and Sienna – and how you #sharethegrass? 

In the mornings, we have a bit of a habit where Sienna gets up and comes into bed with us – we read together while she has her bottle. Whether that’s at five or six o’clock, we really enjoy that time together. What comes next depends on who needs to get to work first that morning – it’s really fluid and we help each other out. Massimo is fantastic, we communicate really openly as to each other’s needs every day. We share the load equally, and don’t prioritise one person’s work over the others.  

The end of the day is much the same. We keep in contact to see who’s going to finish earlier, which dictates who does what in the evening. I’ll often have a late call, so Massimo will feed and bath Sienna, or vice versa when I’ll do that. There are moments where we’re both frustrated with things bumping into each other – when someone has to say, ‘I’ll call you back in half an hour.’ But we make it work.

At the heart of that – what centres us – is love and respect. We know we need each other and it won’t work if we’re arm-wrestling each other over who’s doing what. We bring very different strengths to our relationship and make a point of talking through the little things that frustrate us – and I do some things that frustrate him! But we stay open because what we want is to get to the same place, for Sienna to grow up in a house that’s harmonious and filled with love.

1905_GP_Cassandra_04.jpg

And how do you #sharethegrass at work, model balance and encourage this in your team? 

I have a lot of opportunities to talk to large groups of people at work, and I always bring up my family to explain who I am and what I do. I don’t shy away from it, I talk about it openly – if I’m late or have had a tough night because Sienna’s been sick. I don’t try to have it together all the time, as I think it’s important for a team to feel that realness – and a lot of people have said to me, ‘Thanks for not pretending everything’s perfect, thanks for calling it like it is.’ 

And I share the journey: I’m quite comfortable saying, ‘Leaning back into work was scary, but here’s something I did to overcome that.’ I’m very solution-oriented versus problem-focused, if I discover people have had a bad experience, I’ll lean into quickly so we can course correct it. I use that term – course correct – quite deliberately, as I think people have a tendency to see things in black and white, right and wrong. But the reality is we’re on a path that keeps on going. Just because you didn’t have a good experience with return to work, doesn’t mean we can’t get it back on the right path. 

So, in closing, what would be your top tips for the best possible return to work? 

First, have a rough plan of what’s important to you going back in. I started back four days a week, but quickly worked out that wasn’t right for me and went up to five. That was fine, because I had a game plan I could massage as I went along. 

Second, find some confidantes you can talk to about your journey. For me, it was Prue from Grace Papers, a girlfriend that had twins, and my leader – three people with different perspectives I could lean on for support and guidance. 

Finally, balance your expectations around when you will add value and what that will look like – it’s so important to have those milestones of success so you can access that feeling of achievement. And I always say focus more on the output than the input. 

For all this and more, login to the Grace Papers Platform below.

elizabeth marton