Human Capital: You moved into an HR role after some time in other areas of business at Mars. What drew you to an HR role initially?
Sylvia Burbery: I’ve always been interested in people, particularly in supporting their development to achieve their full potential. Mars provides great opportunities for its Associates – that’s what we call ‘employees’ at Mars – to move cross-functionally as they develop their careers, and I was excited about the opportunity to work in this area. The people & organisation area also piqued my interest because it seemed that it was a function that had the opportunity to get involved in all aspects of the business.
HC: What do you think it takes to succeed in HR?
SB: Firstly, I think it’s critical to be able to effectively balance being an Associate advocate and also be a business advocate. Successful HR people are able to walk the tight-rope between what’s best for the business and what’s best for its people. I also think successful HR operators need perspective, broad business acumen, strategic agility and a genuine desire to engage and develop people. You also need to be a sound judge of talent, have the ability to see the potential in people and then work collaboratively to draw out the best in them.
HC: How has your HR experience helped you in your current role as GM of Mars Petcare Australia?
SB: Mars has a very people-centred philosophy, based on our Five Principles of Quality, Responsibility, Mutuality, Efficiency and Freedom. I see my role primarily as creating the conditions that enable people to succeed. My HR experience helped me better understand what drives people, and how to tap into those passions to drive real engagement and empowerment. For me it’s all about setting direction and strategy, then giving others the responsibility and freedom to decide how they’re going to make it happen.
HC: Any advice to other HR professionals looking to move up the corporate ladder – perhaps to CEO or GM roles?
SB: I would encourage people to stay broad – getting experience outside of the HR function early in their careers is helpful. The important thing is to develop strong commercial acumen and focus on creating value across the full spectrum of HR – from administration to associate relations, and change agent to business partner. Taking opportunities to participate in and/or lead business-wide, cross-functional activities is always helpful as it gives you a real sense of what makes the business tick.
HC: You’ve worked in New Zealand and the US – has that international experience helped your career?
SB: Absolutely – one of the great things about working for a company like Mars is the opportunity to gain a wide range of experiences across multiple functions, business units and geographies. New Zealand gave me the chance to really get to know the breadth of – and the details that made up – the Mars business, as well as developing a very diverse set of skills. Mars’ USA operation is a much larger, more complex organisation where I gained huge perspective on scale, as well as being given the opportunity to dive in and focus on specific areas in far greater detail.
HC: What do you consider to be your biggest career achievement to date?
SB: I’m extremely proud of the achievements of the New Zealand business while I was general manager there. We underwent a significant turn-around, recording a massive improvement in business performance and – more importantly – a major cultural shift. One of our greatest achievements was being awarded the JRA Best Place to Work in NZ (medium size enterprise) in 2008. I’m particularly pleased about the legacy that I left behind when I moved on to my current role in Australia, as the NZ team went on to win overall Best Place to Work in the 2010 JRA Best Place to Work Awards – a fantastic result!
HC: Describe yourself in a few key words?
SB: I’m definitely driven and achievement oriented, but mostly I think I’m just a pretty normal human being – a Mum with adult kids who loves to travel and enjoys a bit of scrap-booking, going to the gym and being involved in my local church. I’ve been told I never forget anything – not only by my kids! – and I’m deeply committed to seeing people reach their full potential.
HC: Do you have any role models professionally or personally?
SB: I like to learn from all sorts of different people at all stages in their careers and from all different backgrounds. I’m constantly looking for new things that I can learn from others. I am a big fan of Ernest Shackleton and love his style of leadership but I honestly believe that there’s something to be learned from every person I meet.