The Hyphen Spotlight Series

Exploring the career and life journey of... Dr Laura Joan Salm

A black and white photograph of Dr Laura Joan Salm smiling while looking off camera.

How does one make the most of the opportunities that come their way? Just go with the flow. It sounds so simple but that approach has helped Dr Laura Joan Salm build a successful consultancy career, launch a thriving coaching business, and visit 100+ different countries.

Dr Salm’s passion and introspective qualities dovetail perfectly with her natural business savvy, making her a popular figure when she has partnered with us. A self-described ‘free-floating radical’, she has balanced her career to date by responding to what matters to her and being prepared to do things her own way.

In our second Hyphen Spotlight interview, she shares her approach to coaching, her career and life in general, the growth of her business savie, and how she channels her emotional energy into projects that bring her meaning.

HYPHENYou have already had so many different experiences – you have travelled and lived in a wide variety of places and worked in several different industries. Have all of these things been part of a conscious plan on your part?

Dr Laura Joan SalmSometimes people have the assumption that I might be restless or that I can't stay in one place but that's just not at all how I perceive it. I have lived in 10 countries over the last 18 years, visited over 100 countries and I speak four languages so the variety in my background is quite apparent and the internationality of it is one of the parts that probably stands out most.

I grew up in Germany with my parents, also living in Ibiza, Spain and Miami, United States. When I was 13, I took the initiative to stay with my ‘adopted parents’ in Fort Lauderdale, United States on a regular basis. When I was 15, I moved to Valencia, Spain to finish high school there, once again living with a loving Spanish family. After that, I moved to Milan, Italy to start my university studies there, without knowing a single word of Italian. As luck would have it, the English language program was full and so I took my bachelor’s degree in Italian, yet another experience of full immersion.

For me, growing up, it was really a case that when something finished, another opportunity presented itself. That's pretty much also how my current engagement with Hyphen came into place – it was about saying yes to an opportunity and not by design. There was a strong sense of saying ‘yes’ to whatever was right in front of me, and one experience enabled the next.

HYPHEN Has that approach come from you yourself or has that been inspired by your friends and family?

Dr Laura Joan Salm There was no external push whatsoever. When I was a child, I must have been frightening <Laughs>, I said to my mother “I'm going to move to Spain to finish school there, I will learn Spanish, I'll finish one year early, and I will live in a much warmer climate.” Initially my mom said, “This sounds crazy – let's talk to your teachers and they will talk you out of it”. However, my teachers thought it was a great idea and my mom, once she let it sink in, also became very supportive. I definitely had an internal drive, and I feel very lucky that everyone supported and encouraged my, in hindsight, rather bold moves.

I lost my dad when I was very young and my great-grandmother lived to 102 so I've been living for a long time with those two perspectives: that life can be really short or really long and it has to be worthwhile no matter what.

A photograph of Dr Laura Joan Salm standing inside the sculpture of a large cat face.

Hyphen That’s an interesting perspective on life – would you say that outlook has affected how you approach your career, in terms of your decisions to go into consulting and then into coaching?

Dr Laura Joan Salm I think of myself as a free-floating radical. <Laughs>

I have lived through at least three broad life chapters. I started off climbing the ladder and did all the things that society would have you aspire to – I got my PhD, worked in strategy consulting, and did things like running marathons and climbing mountains. I spent the first part of my life very much ticking a lot of boxes in my quest for happiness, trying to discern what makes people happy and figuring out what fills me up. I’ve always been very good at accomplishing goals, so this was somewhat in my comfort zone.

I think a lot of what is generally seen as successful, I accomplished during that phase, and then there was a turning point in my life where I started looking more inwards, and side-ways, away from the generally accepted ways of doing things and more attuned to what I wanted to create. That's when I also started my own business.

I think I am now in a more integrated and embodied place where, for example, I'm no longer afraid of working in the corporate world without “losing myself”. I feel grounded, I speak my truth, I do things my way and give back from a much more centred place.

HYPHEN It sounds like this is something intrinsic within you but are there any tools or techniques that you use to create or harness that reflective mindset?

Dr Laura Joan Salm I am a big fan of journaling; it is a way to be in dialogue with myself. I write morning pages and I have a gratitude journal practice – every day for more than seven years I write about the five things that made my day. The first few usually come easily, the big highlights of my day, then I go deeper, and it brings awareness to the beauty in the small things. I learned a lot through those reflections – for sure, a knowing of what makes me happy, and an awareness that there are no cheat days in life, every day must be worthwhile, so I need to be/ do things I will want to write about.

For a few years, I was also into meditation and now I am finding my self-expression more through dance, kundalini yoga, and bodywork. I think I know very well what I need and how I feel centred.

A photograph of Dr Laura Joan Salm dancing inside a church-like building.

Hyphen You mentioned earlier that there was a moment when you started to look inward and decided to make a change – can you describe your thought process at that time?

Dr Laura Joan Salm I loved everything about my time in consulting until I no longer did.

Now, I feel very lucky that I was an engagement manager for three years. Due to my PhD, I was quickly promoted to manager. I learned so much, I'm very grateful and I wouldn't be able to do what I do now if it wasn't for that experience. Sometimes, I feel that you have to climb the mountain to say, ‘I no longer need it’. From where I was standing, partner track didn’t look as appealing and ultimately, I wanted live a more fulfilling and resonant life.

HYPHEN How did you decide what the next mountain to climb was, so to speak?

Dr Laura Joan Salm I took a sabbatical and started by simply pursuing my personal goals and passions. I was about to finish a wine and spirits certification and I ran my second marathon, for example. Before I was doing everything alongside my 80-hour-week consulting job.

After I had done all the frivolous and meaningful things on my mini-bucket list, I had a funny realisation. For the first time in my life I had both time and money. It felt like for a moment I could fast-forward to feeling ‘retired’ and the question quickly dawned on me, ‘so what do I do with my life?’. I wanted to do something meaningful with my time and I wanted to explore what would I do even if I wasn't paid for it.

I've always been very business-minded, entrepreneurial. That's how strategy consulting or also ‘what is it that companies need’ has always been very much a part of my life. I grew up in an entrepreneurial household, and I had a strong longing to integrate more of what I learned from my personal development journey into it. In a serendipitous way, coaching came my way and became part of everything I do.

HYPHEN After that first taste of coaching, how have things evolved since then for you? And now that you are back in the consulting world, is it a challenge to balance savie and your work with Hyphen?

Dr Laura Joan Salm There are now four strands to what I do with savie – (1) one-on-one coaching, (2) lectures for universities, based on my first career and network in academia, (3) hands-on trainings and workshops, typically focusing on leadership, and (4) strategy consulting. The consulting work I do is not consulting in the traditional sense, I usually take on ad interim leadership positions, such as building up a department or function, running it for some time, and eventually handing over to somebody internal.

Every year, the composition of my business looks a bit different and that’s the beauty. Also, the different areas of my business fulfil different needs. For example, my work with Hyphen allowed me to travel a lot and feel immersed in an organisation with a lot of meaningful touchpoints with colleagues and stimulating content areas, from tourism to global market dynamics.

A photograph of Dr Laura Joan Salm

Hyphen Can you explain a little how you approach interacting with clients at savie? You have lived a pretty full life – do you share much of that or do you try to keep your experiences out of things?

Dr Laura Joan Salm For myself, I hold the standard that I want to be living my truth. That's something that I also want to bring to my coaching clients.

For one, I really encourage and champion them when they commit to a course of action that allows them to live their truth, start pushing past that uncomfortable zone of not people-pleasing and figure out what really drives them. It’s important to recognise, because, without a doubt, you do face some challenges when society takes note that you're stepping outside of what you're ‘supposed to be doing’. <Laughs>

Luckily, my clients voluntarily engage in coaching, so they are somewhat on their path, albeit at different stages. Most of the time they come intrinsically motivated so we partner up to explore how they can lean further into their boldest, wildest vision of what they want from life.

Hyphen Thinking about things away from work, it’s clear that you have a lot of different interests – and interesting ones at that! How do you ensure that you retain a sense of balance in your life?

Dr Laura Joan Salm There are lifestyle themes that are important to me – pleasure, aesthetics, diversity in cultures, for example. I think there's a lot of breadth to what I do. To name a few – travelling to more than 100 countries, getting my motorcycle and motorboat licence, everything up to rescue diver, three levels of wine education, different kinds of dances, kundalini yoga, and other forms of spiritual development.

As I say, there is breadth <Laughs> but then within those areas, I enjoy going really deep – I enjoy getting proficient in whatever fascinates me. For example, my entry point to wine was actually my love of food and nice restaurants, and I just can't cook that well. When I was based in South Africa, people around me had super high basic wine knowledge and I, on the other hand, only knew whether I liked a wine once I had it in the glass. What started off as a two-week-long fun experience turned into a two-month, and then a two-year wine and spirits journey. First, there was WSET Level 2 [Wine and Spirit Education Trust] in Johannesburg, then Level 3 in Cape Town, and then Level 4 in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. I was working in Saudi Arabia back at the time, and remember when I was flying over, the flight time would usually be the time when I would get a lot of my practice in. I would have about six wine glasses on my little tray and people, sometimes religious folks, would be sitting next to me, looking like ‘What is going on?’ – and I would spit because I needed to really get my taste buds ready! And, wine is one passion project among many.

A photograph of Dr Laura Joan Salm over a background of a bright blue lake and mountains.

Hyphen Passion is an apt word to use there as it certainly seems like you have a clear view of how you perceive and try to enjoy life. Would it be fair to say that you’re more driven by fulfilment than just ticking off goals?

Dr Laura Joan Salm An example would be that at some point, I had visited 80-something countries and I decided, ‘Hey, why don't I try just to get to 100?’ Yes, there can be this element of, ‘Oh, I'm going after a goal’, but then once I'm in the country I immerse myself and simply enjoy being there.

There's no more checklist character to what I do. There are other things that just have a natural endpoint – for example, I ran two marathons. Fun fact, you have about 700 kilometres of practice leading up to a marathon, which is a lot of time, a lot of running. I loved it but I have no urge to pursue it any further. I'm good now. Something else is more meaningful to me so I feel like I'm not a slave to who I used to be.