My brilliant career – Deborah Burt

by 26 Jun 2007

What is your current role?

I’m the head of human resources for Zurich Financial Services Australia. This role reports to the chief executive and is a member of the executive team, so as well as being responsible for the HR strategy and day-to-day HR function, I also contribute to the broader business strategy and operational decision-making.

What qualifications do you hold?

I have a bachelor’s degree with honours in economics. Additional study has covered psychology, (two years as a non-degree student) and organisation psychology. I’m currently completing a program about social justice issues and corporate responsibility, called the Sydney Leadership Program, run by the Benevolent Society.

How did you get into HR?

It was an accident. Having spent my whole university career preparing myself for a career as a current affairs reporter with the ABC, when I failed to get that job (got down to being one of the last three candidates). I applied for any role that would take a graduate. The first job offer was as an HR officer for a computer company. I loved the work and never looked back.

Where do you see yourself in five years time?

I hope I’ll be using my corporate expertise and networks to assist both business and the community to achieve significant corporate responsibility, social justice and business goals. I can do that from many places – a role like I have now, as a board director, as a volunteer or in a place yet to be discovered. What I like about my current role and Zurich is that I’m encouraged and supported to combine my pursuit of these goals right now.

What has been your biggest career high so far?

There are a few. One was running my own HR consulting business and another was being the CEO of a start-up HR software database company. The latter brought many challenges and lessons, from selling, to taking control of software development schedules.

My current role, especially over the last six months, has also proved a high. A new chief executive has brought a new energy and vision to the company. Being part of a team which is so committed to growth and innovation is stimulating. Specifically in this role, my team and I introduced initiatives that genuinely make a difference to people’s leadership potential. We introduced the Zurich Leadership Development program and the ZurichAcademy, a unique program in the financial services industry which provides leadership skills to our business intermediaries.

What do you think it takes to succeed in HR?

The people I regard as successful in HR are very bright – they know a lot about a variety of topics, and not just HR ones; they are good judges of character, can assess someone quickly, know how to influence, negotiate and motivate and are willing to take risks.

On a personal level, they should be able to handle difficult conversations and state the truths that others may find hard to tell.

From a business perspective, they should fight for difficult and unpopular issues or programs and have the personal traits of compassion, integrity and high energy levels.

How do you manage relationships with senior executives?

Relationships are built on trust – professional and personal. I see my role as helping others to reach their potential and be the best they can be. I try to do this by providing support on multiple levels, delivering on commitments, giving feedback of all kinds and demonstrating an ability to add value in a variety of situations.

Who is your biggest professional inspiration?

I can’t single out one individual. I like to watch and learn from as many people as possible and it’s very reassuring to see so many people who can provide inspiration, sometimes in surprising ways. Watching other people communicate so engagingly is both a comfort and a great lesson.

What advice would you give to graduates considering a career in HR?

Get objective feedback about your level of personal insight and your ability to read others. You need to know yourself well to be able to influence others. You need to be able to assess others accurately in order to influence their behaviour and decisions. HR is largely a function that relies on influencing skills rather than power.

Describe yourself in three words

Action-oriented, flexible, insightful.