Ever dreamt of ditching your corporate gig to start your own creative agency? Emma, the brains behind Sparo Studios, did just that. Join us as we unravel Emma’s journey from her childhood in prairies in Canada, to the bustling corporate world of Sydney, Australia to founding a thriving design agency. This isn’t just a story of entrepreneurial courage—it’s a playbook for leaders who want to steer their teams with authenticity and shared values.
The highlights of our conversation include Emma’s honesty about three of her key leadership lessons:
1. What made her grow from a “terrible boss who churned through staff”
2. How leading with values helped her fire someone on her wedding day
3. When systems streamlined her ability to scale
We all know that values are the backbone of any successful organisation, but how do you embed them? Emma and I dig deep into how honesty, community, growth, and creativity aren’t just lofty ideals at Sparo Studios; they’re actionable standards that are used daily to create a culture of trust and psychological safety with the team and clients.
By the end of this chat, you’ll walk away with strategies and insights to not just boost your leadership by 1%, but to create an environment where your team and business can thrive. Don’t miss out on Emma’s incredible journey and the valuable wisdom gained from steering a small studio to great successes.
Guest Bio – Emma Sparrow, Sparo Studios
Emma (Em) is the founder and creative director of Sparo Studios – a strategic design agency with an all-women team of innovative, results-driven designers, developers, and strategists.
A Canadian prairie girl who tore up her acceptance letter to business school and moved across the world to find something more. After spending 3 years working in a creativity-killing corporate role, she knew there was no opportunity for her to truly push herself and live the life she wanted to live.
So in 2019, the business came to life. After years of epic growth, the agency evolved from 1 to a team with a combined 20+ years of experience in the industry.
Outspoken leaders in strategic branding and design for established businesses — Em and her team are well known for thinking (and creating) outside the box and doing things differently.
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Speaker 1: 0:00
We’ve got our four values top of mind, and that’s honesty, community, growth and creativity. And so when we onboard our team, when we bring them on, they’re very much aware of this. But also when hard conversations are had, these are brought to light so they understand where decisions are being made.
Speaker 2: 0:17
Welcome to the level up leadership podcast. This is the go to podcast for chronically busy leaders and small business owners who are ready to get out of the weeds and start leading. The weekly episodes have micro leadership lessons focused on how to level up your leadership and help you to be 1% better every day. It’s all about growing your leadership wisdom, building your team and being the leader people want to work for. So let’s get into it. M is the founder and creative director of Sparrow Studios, a strategic design agency with an all woman team of innovative results driven designers, developers and strategists. Now M is a Canadian Prairie girl who I happen to know represented Saskatchewan in horse trivia which maybe we’ll ask about later but she tore up her acceptance letter to business school and moved across the world to find something more and who knew? She’d find it here in Australia. So she spent three years working in a creativity killing corporate role but knew there was no opportunity for her to truly push herself and live the life she wanted to live. So in 2019, a story we’ll hear a little bit more about her business can be a little bit more about her business came to life. So, after years of epic growth, the agency has involved, from herself to a team of combined 20 plus years of experience in the industry. Now Sparrow Studios is known for their outspoken leaders in strategic branding and design for established businesses a business that I have used myself and they’re known for thinking and creating outside the box and doing things differently, which is no surprise why I love M, because that is one of my favorite things to do. So M welcome to the podcast, thank you.
Speaker 1: 1:54
so much for having me. I’m so excited to talk about all things leadership today.
Speaker 2: 1:59
Well, we’ve got three particular leadership lessons that we’re going to share with the listeners today, and we had a good chat about the different things that you’ve learnt from your leadership and, I think, to get started to understand these lessons, it’s nice to hear a little bit of a background of how you got to where you are, because that gives the context to what these leadership lessons are. So do you mind sharing a little bit on how you got to where you are in Sparrow Studios?
Speaker 1: 2:23
Definitely, I started out in a corporate role in Sydney. I was working in finance and I always joked that I worked in finance but was terrible with numbers. So, I always knew I was going to start my own business one day, and that’s where Sparrow Studios came to light. Really, I started because I needed to restart my visa and get out of the country, and so I started it in Bali and got the ball rolling, and then I really deep dived into UX design and then started to grow my agency.
Speaker 2: 2:55
And for those that are maybe not aware, so M is Canadian but is now living in Australia, in the beautiful Sunshine Coast in Queensland. So Canada to Sydney, to Bali, to Sydney and then to Sunshine Coast.
Speaker 1: 3:08
Yes, exactly, I moved here when I was 18. I moved to Sydney for six years and then, of course, the sunny Sunshine Coast was calling our name and we moved up here about three years ago.
Speaker 2: 3:19
A lot of people have loved to move to Sunshine Coast, and I moved probably similar time, and it’s starting to boom up here. Your business has gone from just you and I know in the last two years you’ve been then building your team, which is where these wonderful leadership lessons have started to blossom.
Speaker 1: 3:35
Yes, exactly, it’s been a roller coaster, and I mean anyone who starts their own business and starts hiring a team. There’s a lot of lessons that you have to learn that they don’t teach you in school.
Speaker 2: 3:46
One of the things you’d said to me is you had to unlearn a lot of the things you learnt in corporate. What does that mean?
Speaker 1: 3:53
Yeah, so I came from an office that was very much male dominated, which is very normal in the banking and finance world. When I began, I started in an admin role, slowly started to hire different employees, but I was still very much the designated coffee getter, setting up a lot of systems and taking care of that side of things. But communication was very structured to the point and I knew that I wanted to grow an agency that came from a more feminine type of role. We run an all women team, but we also wanted to lead from a sense of empathy and lead a team where everyone felt like they were a part of it, that they were a huge part of the community. Every company they say they have a set of values in their business, but with our team talking about it and bringing it into our company culture.
Speaker 2: 4:41
Well, maybe that’s a good spot to start A lot of businesses that I work in. When we talk about leadership, what does leadership mean to you, what’s the special source of your leadership and what is important to you? And it’s really easy to presume that what’s important to you is important to everybody because it’s so natural for you. But sometimes writing down those values helps you put on paper and have a way you can have these conversations with your team and people with smaller businesses might get some values and put them on the wall or might not think about the idea of values. Same with big businesses you might get the values and put them on the wall, but it’s very different to have values, to actually run and lead your business with your values. And I know you have some great examples of this particular leadership lessons, of leading with values. Can you share a bit about that?
Speaker 1: 5:25
Yes, a bit of a backstory. When I first started my business, I was a terrible leader. I started with hiring people and bringing people on board. There was no clarity, we had no value set at that point, we hadn’t done any development around company culture and I was churning a lot of employees. A lot of employees were coming through and I was not communicating what I needed from them and in turn, they were leaving or we were ending not in the great terms. I hired someone at one point and they now still work with my client a really good client of mine, because I had actually referred them on but we ended in bad terms and actually had a conversation with her six months ago and I apologize because I know that we’ve done all this development. But we have very much developed those values of our clients when it comes to brand strategy and we find our clients love to use that in marketing but we very much make sure that it comes into our company culture and everything that we do with our team, and so we’ve got our four values top of mind and that’s honesty, community, growth and creativity. And so when we onboard our team, when we bring them on, they’re very much aware of this, but also when hard conversations are had, these are brought to light so they understand where decisions are being made. Can you?
Speaker 2: 6:37
share a bit about how that actually happens, because I think we understand the idea that we have values and we lead to values, but actually having a conversation using the values like a hard conversation. People are always curious and ask me how does that work?
Speaker 1: 6:51
We actually have a very recent example that’s very fresh for our team and I went away for a few months overseas or getting married. We had someone step into a leadership role and she very much wasn’t the right fit in that role and we noticed bullying and not that sense of community where we lead from when she was working with that other team member and we had to make that hard decision to let her go. But in those conversations, obviously, when you have someone who is at the top of the company or moving towards a more leadership role, when that person leaves the company, it can be a very hard conversation with the rest of the team and so when we made that decision, it was very much led from where we come from in terms of our values. Once it happened, we sat our entire team down and reminded them of the culture we’re trying to create within our team and showed them this is what we need from you. Your role is not in danger. There’s a space for you here, but there’s a reason and there’s a way we run our company and if you want to be a part of this, we really lean on these ways, not just for our clients but also for our team to enjoy and love the space that they’re in and we see it a lot in our reviews that we have with our team members every six months and they really bring back to that and they really appreciate that we always stick to those particular values and bring it up in regular conversations.
Speaker 2: 8:12
It reminds me of the other value that you mentioned honesty and I think about times when I’ve worked with people and they’ve had to have tough conversations with their team or someone’s had to leave the business and their uncomfortable conversations for everybody. It’s rare that someone feels comfort in that, and then it’s not just the conversation you have with that one person, but how do you bring your team onto the journey so they don’t feel concerned about their job. And something that you just shared that I think could be a good one percenter for our listeners is sit down with the team and talk through. We can’t always share all the information. It’s important for some discretion, but share what you can in an honest way so they understand how you make your decisions and it’s based on values and keep people across why the business runs the way that it does, and I think honesty, being one of your values, is something you’ve naturally done and I think it is something that our listeners could also take it as their one percent of. Okay, I’ve got to have a tough conversation, but this impacts everybody. How do I have that conversation then, with the whole team?
Speaker 1: 9:10
When you got something that happened. We would love it if it was just always an uphill climb, but especially when you’re running a team, there’s hurdles, there’s downward slopes, there’s things that just don’t go perfectly, and that’s where our core value is honesty, and we’re very upfront with our team in terms of what’s happening, obviously in a tasteful way, especially when other people involved, but it’s important that they’re aware of everything that’s happening and really clear on it and knowing the reason why they’re being told this information as well.
Speaker 2: 9:39
It gives good psychological safety for your team as well. Exactly.
Speaker 1: 9:43
They see the future in the company and they don’t see it as just a role for them. They see it very much as a long term part of their career. Just us able to communicate that set of things and be really upfront and honest in terms of where they are in the company really helps.
Speaker 2: 9:57
And I think this honesty is a good lead into your second leadership lesson. And it stems from that you say you’re a pretty shit boss.
Speaker 1: 10:05
Yes, 100%. I don’t think I’m the only one. Maybe I’m the only one to admit it. I know that entrepreneurs, we have very different skill sets when it comes to running a business. It’s a very different skill set, I believe, to start a business versus when you grow your team. You have to step into a different type of role and that’s really the greatest hurdle for anyone that’s small business and wanting to grow and expand is jumping into that leadership role. At least that’s what I found in my own business and I’ve had to spend a lot of time developing those skills, reading a lot of resources, listening to Kate, going to her workshops, getting to learn who I am as a leader. Over time we’ve been through the ringer, we’ve dealt with different situations and turned through different staff members, but if I had spent that time earlier on in my journey learning those key leadership skills, it would have made a world of difference.
Speaker 2: 10:57
I think it’s such a good point about leadership being learned. There’s an earlier podcast episode that I talk about the leadership ladder, and what happens is when you’re technically really good at what you do, you either lead other people doing what you’re doing. So either you’re an engineer, and then you lead all the engineers, or you’re a web developer you lead the other two web developers, or you start your own business, and I think anyone listening to this thinking leadership is really hard. It’s a great reminder that it is a skill that you can learn. Leadership is learned.
Speaker 1: 11:23
It’s very learnable, and if you are someone who’s a natural born leader, it’s almost harder to teach leadership because at least I’ve found, it’s almost like that. People come from the bottom. They have to learn how to develop those skills, and so that’s been another hurdle, as well as remembering back that I also had to learn these skills, so I have to teach my other leaders how to learn these skills too.
Speaker 2: 11:45
Reminds me of learning a second language. If it’s something that you have learned growing up, it comes so naturally you don’t think much of it. But if you learn as an adult, you have to learn the whole structure of how things to go together. How do you put this sentence? All the different terms and there’s so much to understand. It can really hurt your brain. But if someone that knows leadership so naturally won’t think about all the bits that go into it like you would if you knew a language as a kid, so I think people that are learning leadership just to remember that there are so many parts of it and we can help people coming sort of behind us with leadership by giving a few tips and not just presuming, which I think is your point remembering. Ah, this is something I know now, but I didn’t always.
Speaker 1: 12:25
Exactly what you said before, like it’s a whole different ladder. So you have to remember when you’re asking in the past to grow, you need obviously leaders to oversee different teams and as they jump onto the other ladder, they’ve got so much to learn too.
Speaker 2: 12:38
So the growth process can hurt, but it does get better. And one thing that really helps is your third leadership lesson that you’ve picked up, and this is something that you are phenomenal at. It’s a way that your brain works, and I think it’s great to hear a little bit about this leadership lesson, because hearing how you’ve done it will help a lot of other people.
Speaker 1: 12:58
So I actually learned this from going to one of your first workshops. It’s actually where I first heard of you. This was probably just a stepping stone to it all and it’s really evolved over as we go, but I learned what type of leader I was at the very first workshop that I went to yours and really started to develop those skills. But a huge way that I work is I know what kind of leader I am and then I’ve developed systems to incorporate different pieces of leadership that may not be my strong suit, so I am very much a systemized learner and I mean anyone who has built a business has to build operations. So either they’re gonna be a systemized learner or they’re gonna have someone on their team that can do something like this. But setting up systems anywhere in your business where you or your leadership team may be lacking to be able to make sure you’re hitting all different points of leadership and just having a well-rounded culture.
Speaker 2: 13:56
Can you share a couple of the systems that you have set up? As you said, they’re not your area of expertise.
Speaker 1: 14:02
Yeah, the very first thing when we bring on employees is we’re very particular in terms of the information that they get as they onboard our onboarding process with us. So we’re making sure that we’re setting really clear expectations, because I know as a leader that I talk very quickly, I’m very much an ideas leader and I can get a lot of ideas out and my team don’t get to absorb them completely. So we have very set onboarding and information that gets our team members onboarded and so that starts with they get their full employee handbook, they get their onboarding call and then we set their three months, six months, 12 month goals and work towards those, and so very much getting that onboarding process sets the transparency for them. They’re able to see everything real clear. And then we have regular check-ins with our team members. So we’re constantly, every single week my leaders are trying to do this, but I do this as well we try to keep it personal, but not too personal where they have to open up, where it might not be appropriate for them. So we have check-ins where we’ll ask the question from one to five how is your workflow today? And then they’ll either say one or five. If it’s below five, then we say how can we make it a five? And then they can open up and figure out is it a problem with the actual systems or if it’s something where they need to sit down and figure out where they can improve. And then the final question we ask is how is your personal happiness from one to five? And being a remote team, it’s very difficult to see how everyone’s feeling throughout the day, and so this is a way for us to check in and see how they’re going, without them feeling like they have to fully open up and completely share their soul when they might not be completely comfortable with it. So if it’s anything below, then we’ll say is there anything we can do to make it a five? And then they can either feel comfortable enough to share or we can move on and know that we need to check in with them in the future. So we have those very sets on boarding process, but also check-ins as well, and make sure that, again coming back to our values, very transparent in our way of working with our team members, which make them feel really comfortable in sharing and collaborating with everyone.
Speaker 2: 16:12
The thing I love about that is, when you set up a system, it doesn’t rely on you remembering every time, but also people know what to expect. So, again, psychological safety of the team, there’s clarity and just your recruitment process. So you have a set process that people go through when they come on board. They have their induction process and, like you said, there’s initial conversation, three, six, 12 month check-ins, which is always what I recommend people do. Even if you’re really clear on what they should do and they’re doing a great job, if you just wait until things aren’t going well to have a conversation, they’re always gonna be panicked that you’re gonna pick up the phone and call them when things aren’t going well. Having that structure in place is both ways. So these systems can help you, especially if you’re not a systems person, which, as Em said, it’s not her leadership style. So, knowing your leadership style and working at well, how can I set up my business to support me in the things that I’m not so great in?
Speaker 1: 17:07
Exactly and like that, three to six month is just a great way for you to set expectations, especially someone who may struggle to have those hard conversations. We actually sit down in writing and go through it together on an actual presentation and talk about what they’re gonna expect from the whole position in the first three to six to 12 months. And again, it just helps you in those hard conversations where you might struggle to, especially when you’re starting out. That’s probably one of the hardest things is having those types of conversations so you’re able to show them and really clear in terms of what they need to do. So if that conversation is coming, they’re almost aware because they know that this is fully outlined from the initial get go.
Speaker 2: 17:49
Yeah, expectation management looks like the number one thing for leadership.
Speaker 1: 17:53
Exactly, and it can all be so simply systemized and just through your general operations. And lots of times when we’re setting up a business, we set up the operations for the business, but when you hire a team, it’s really important that you set up the operations for your team to make sure that that is systemized and everyone again is getting the equal treatment, they’re getting full transparency. And then we even systemize the types of fun that we have within the office because we’re a remote team. So there’s so many ways that you can set this up, especially if you know that you struggle in certain areas.
Speaker 2: 18:29
Yeah, and I also highly recommend it to my clients. We’ll talk about how do you want to set up your systems, to run your team. And then what about the culture of your business? How often will you be having and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a social, face to face event, particularly if you’re not in the same location, but how can you still connect? Because, in the end of the day, we’re all people that are working together. So even if people aren’t having those face to face social interactions, we still need some sort of interaction, and if you systematize it, you don’t have to remember it 100%.
Speaker 1: 18:57
And lots of times when you’re starting a business, a lot of us are introverts. Building that connection is very much easy to put on the back burner and forget about. So there’s certain ways that will run our connection calls. You know, have once a month connection call and I’ve got the team love it. I’ve got my set silly questions per se about them, especially when you have a team that is very diverse or even remote as well. Getting to know them and asking them those kinds of questions that you usually don’t ask unless you’re taking your team out for a coffee or a drink after work or something like that, or dinner, like what did you want to be when you grew up? For just anything that would start the conversation and out of the box answer, and it’s something that is so ridiculous. But they look forward to every single monthly call. It’s just a way for us to connect and something for them to laugh about when usually connection wouldn’t be me being an introvert. That wouldn’t be the first thing that I would be reaching for as a leader.
Speaker 2: 19:58
Well, we were actually having a mastermind dinner and this question came up what is your secret skill? Again, a silly question. And what was your answer? Horse trivia. Yes, and please, please explain more, because this was such a fantastic conversation that came from one of these so-called silly questions.
Speaker 1: 20:16
Yeah, so I grew up from a farming background, so we were very much in Pony Club I believe it’s in Australia here too and I was a part of the quiz team. So I traveled around Canada doing horse trivia. So how many inches in a hand, or what was this famous racehorse’s name? That was something I competed for. So these are the kinds of questions that we throw a team all the time and it definitely gets a giggle.
Speaker 2: 20:42
Well, it did, and I feel like I know you so much better now that I know that you represented Saskatchewan in horse trivia. You weren’t just good at, you were really good.
Speaker 1: 20:51
Yeah, I ran the Saskatchewan team. We were a small population, but it’s still really good.
Speaker 2: 20:57
So with your business Sparrow Studios. My last question is what? Is the thing that you love to do the most for clients.
Speaker 1: 21:05
Yeah, so we are a result driven web design and development agency and what we do really well is we’ve developed this process that’s a combination of user experience, design and brand strategy and we bring our team together that’s a mix of designers, developers and strategists to create our clients results and really focusing on our clients overall goals and then bringing that together with design and websites.
Speaker 2: 21:32
So if someone works with you, they can expect a great user based website and what else.
Speaker 1: 21:38
Yeah, exactly so. We do websites that are very much focused on the user and the experience that they have, but we bring all the pieces together. So we’re very much about sitting down with our clients, getting understanding of what they need from their business in the next three to five years and then seeing how a website would fit into that or a brand as well, and then help them, bring all those pieces together and talk about what the plan is post launch and support them not just with the website, but also ongoing. We’re able to support them all the way through, have constant strategies with our clients and check in with them and make sure that their website is performing and helping them grow, and so our team is a core part of that and something that we all absolutely love to do.
Speaker 2: 22:20
Recently I got to experience having a strategy call for you and it was a great experience to sit down and really think about my website and where I want to be, and does this website support it, and I know this is a service that you offer people. How do they get their hands on that?
Speaker 1: 22:38
So on our website. You can jump on there and there’s just a short form to download our packages guide and you’ll see a link. We can also drop a link in the show notes as well. But yeah, we offer free strategy calls for anyone who’s looking to they feel that their website might just not be doing or working for them. And especially in this same age, your website is your storefront. Everyone is going to be Googling and trying to find you first online. It’s so important that whatever goals you have for your business, your website fits into that. So we love sitting out down with people and figuring out you know, what are they, what are their pain points, what are they working towards, and then we can talk about and backtrack and see how a website or a brand fits into that.
Speaker 2: 23:19
And I always say we’re always growing. You don’t want to stay in the same space. We, as humans, we continue to evolve, so it makes sense that our businesses continue to evolve, particularly if you are a small business or a founder business. Your business is a reflection of who you are. So if you’ve changed, it’s likely that your business has changed, which is likely that your website needs to change, which is a conversation that you and I have been having recently, like how have I changed and how have my services changed, and is my website still reflecting that? And it definitely needs some updating.
Speaker 1: 23:51
That’s the thing, though, with businesses. We are evolving, like we’re involving our team or our business or marketing. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re having a lot of these conversations recently because of the way that the whole industry has evolved so quickly in the past not even 24 months, but 12 months, I mean. The whole industry and the whole economy has changed so quickly that everyone is kind of doing a little bit of a 180. And so we’re having this a lot, and that’s not a wrong thing. Businesses, it’s supposed to evolve, it’s supposed to grow, and it’s so crucial that your website and your brand is growing with you, and also you have a team to support you that you trust, that is there for your best interests and it’s going to help you grow and be a part of that Well.
Speaker 2: 24:36
M and her business growth have three leadership lessons. So if you’re wanting to take your 1% from today, we talked about these three things which was leading with your values, that leadership is learned, that M used to be a really good boss and now is a good boss, and I can tell you, because I’ve spoken to her team, she does actually do the things that she says that she’s doing. And the third big leadership lessons were about systems and how to set up your system to support your style as a natural leader. You don’t have to change who you are to be a leader, and I think that’s probably a really good little side note. We think we need to change who we are to lead a team. I believe if you know who you are, you can then set up your business and your systems and your team to support everyone to be the best in who they are, because we all perform better that way. Is there anything you’d like to add to close up today?
Speaker 1: 25:25
A huge part of the development that we’ve done in our leadership and our leadership styles is a big part of working alongside you and learning from you. Okay, it’s been incredible, and I know we’ve also sent one of my team leaders to your workshops and that’s been a huge reason for the way we’ve developed our team and we’ve developed our company culture, and I know that my team leader has taken a step back based on what she’s learned from you as well, and anyone who’s curious about your services too. It’s just done tremendous for us and our company.
Speaker 2: 25:57
Thank you very much, amy. Make me embarrassed. If you’re watching this, you’ll see there. Thank you for joining on the podcast today. I will put in the show notes the transcript with your leadership lessons, but also the links for people to book in for their strategy call if they need an update on their website and for people that are listening to this. I’m all about your 1% of what can you take from this podcast that can help your leadership be 1% better. So having a think through these lessons from M about values, about learning leadership and about systems and pick one thing that you want to implement to make your life is a little bit easier. Thanks for listening in. It’s amazing.
Speaker 1: 26:31
Thanks for having me, kate, you’re very welcome.
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