Rebecca Burrows - Bring your whole self
Bring your whole self
Rebecca has a track record of delivery of sustainable growth in both mature and emerging markets, driving sizeable and sustained efficiencies across large scale operations and building and leading highly engaged and performing teams.
Rebecca is a true enterprise leader - with a track record of strong relationships across stakeholder groups including staff, customer, unions and government and is able to manage the complexities presented by competing priorities or perspectives.
Rebecca is a champion of diversity and a values based leader and has gained experience across multiple sectors including ecommerce, logistics, communications, consumer services, retail and resources.
Her Story – Rebecca Burrows
I am currently the general manager for small business at Australia Post, which is an amazing job as it allows me to have both a commercial role (building our products and services for small businesses now, and also in the future) and a community role in terms of advocating for small business, helping build their capability, and interfacing a lot with customers.
This brings together a lot of different things that I’ve done in my career so I am very passionate around driving great customer experiences. I’ve worked with small business for a long time and I really get a lot of energy out of working with them because it’s their stories that are so great. I’m really lucky that it is part of my day job to hear about their stories and work through what Post can do to help make their dreams a reality.
My career has always been in big corporate and I love working in big organisations but this allows me to feed that entrepreneurial spirit and work with those small businesses. I get a lot of energy out of that so I really love it. The other part that is really amazing about this role is that it goes across our whole business so no two days are the same and I am able to work a lot with our frontline staff.
I guess the biggest passion that has been unleashed within me, working in an organisation like this, is actually our amazing front line and what it means to work in an organisation that employs so many Australians. People who have made a conscious decision to work for Australia Post. Working with our frontline, who actually interface with customers every day, is really uplifting. It’s surprising how much of a motivator that has become for me in terms of working in an organisation that faces significant challenges in our core business.
I’m also honoured to be in a leadership position where we are about creating a future for the organisation. But when you break that down, it’s for those drivers, those posties, those retail staff. So, I feel really excited that I am able to start building out solutions that they believe in and can they can talk to our small business customers about but, ultimately, that creates jobs for them.
It's really different to what I was doing previously in that this role is more of an influencing role. As a leader, that’s been really interesting. To go into a role which is about helping the organisation to navigate certain challenges; rather than a real ‘doing’ role.
That’s also really great growth for me in terms of saying, “I think this is a great idea and I have everything in my control to make that happen.” I can get all this information from our customers and from our frontline - so really rich data. I can work with all these very smart people to come up with new ideas for potential commercial outcomes in the future. But, ultimately, I need to be a really strong advocate for our customers and our people internally to make that happen – to make change happen in our organisations. It’s been really great for me to work through how you do that. I guess it’s much more of a leadership piece than a management type role, so I really enjoy that.
We have so many people in our front line with great variability in what they do, but they are who our customers see as being ‘Australia Post’. We can talk a lot about our brand and our corporate ethos and what our different stakeholders are looking for, but when you go and talk to, say, your next-door neighbour about who is Australia Post, they’ll probably say their postie or the name of the driver who delivers their parcels, or they might know the owner of the licenced post office down the road or their retail staff member.
It’s so amazing that Australians feel this real affinity with the individuals in our organisation and the individuals feel a real affinity with the customer. We almost need to just get out of the way and let those two groups of people, our frontline and our customers, tell us what we need to do as an organisation now and into the future, then get out of the way of making that happen. I feel that is a very important part of my role.
In the role I was doing prior to this, which was a real shaping role for me as a leader, I was looking after our business hubs. These are a really large operational team. The drivers you’ve seen in red vans driving around Australia are a pretty iconic part of our business. We also had a group of retail outlets but for our businesses, that are actually called the Business Hubs - the sort of customer-serving element of serving small business.
If I look back at my career, this was one of those pivotal roles that I took without even knowing it was going to be an opportunity beforehand. I talk a lot about this idea of having an overall career plan, but not planning it too much. If you’d asked me, I never would have said I would be a leader in operations. Most people who meet me think I am quite unlikely to be working in an operational role. Before I joined Post, it wouldn’t have even been on my radar to do something like this.
But I came in and I was leading the business hubs, first in Victoria and then nationally, and, this changed my whole perspective about what’s important in a leader? What drives me? What motivates me? What can inspire me? It was such a privilege to work in that part of our business. To be able to go out and work with people who might be third generation Australia Post employees or who’ve worked here since they were 16 years old – an absolutely integral part of their community. They wouldn’t want to leave the centre that they work in and the community knows them.
For someone like me - who will only really work somewhere where I believe in the company but my role can be generic across different organisations - to work with such a large group of people where their job is such an intrinsic part of them, and part of their own identity, I found that really inspiring. It also gave me huge amounts of personal growth. So, dealing with someone who has been injured in their workplace, talking with their family, talking with them, working through what the future looks like for someone who’s been injured just for doing their job, you’d have to be a pretty hard nut for that to not fundamentally change you as a leader.
It was a role that interfaced with a lot of customers, so I was able to talk and think through any organisation around customer issues. Lots of people would know that if you came to me and said, “Customers want this.” I’d say, “Which ones. Tell me their name. Tell me their customer story. Tell me what happened to them.”
That really came through in this role, where we’d had a few hundred thousand customers that we’d worked with. But when you talked to each one, you realised what a big role this organisation plays in their business and therefore how strongly they feel about the pros and cons of working with us. It gave me this guiding principle around the centricity of our people. Yes, we have tens of thousands of staff at Australia Post, but that real individualisation of, say, if you’re talking about our drivers, I know who those drivers are. I know what their story is. I know what sort of impact a decision I make has on them. I also know how much value they can bring back into the organisation. So, that kind of individualisation of a very large workforce and the individualisation of customers.
We need to cluster customers in terms of building out great solutions for them but we do think though the positive impact we can have on the future of small business customers by making some simple changes and, especially, bringing those two things together. So, empowering those people at the front line to make a difference to those customers that they’re seeing every day, is absolutely unleashing the power of Australia Post.
For me, working in an operations role, there’s nowhere to hide. You make a decision that impacts the drivers, you’ve got to go and talk to the drivers about it – positively or negatively – and you need to own that as a leader. Look them in the eye and talk to them about what’s going on. You make a decision that’s going to impact the customer, not only are you going to see that on your financial results, but you should go and work in a retail outlet and see the customers and tell them about the changes you’ve made and then feel their reaction.
There is no use hiding from either of those things. Hiding from what the outcome will be is really kidding yourself because you’ll start to see the flow-on effects of that, of disengaged staff, or upset staff or, in a worst case, staff that aren’t safe or don’t believe in what you’re doing. You’ll see that impact at some point. Better that you see it in your face where you can deal with it than you see it down the track with some sort of future result. You’ve got to be able to take the good with the bad.
When I went into operations, I definitely wasn’t what they were expecting. I say that I went from high heels to high vis – and the high vis was both literal (wearing it) and figurative. I hadn’t grown up in this organisation, I hadn’t grown up in operations. The peer group that I worked with (some of whom now are some of my closest colleagues), many of them had worked together for a long time. I had a very different education and career background. There was so much that I didn’t know and I had a lot to offer as well.
I had this other sort of high vis on when I went into operations because I didn’t look how they expected me to look. I didn’t talk how they expected me to talk. I didn’t have experience dealing with some of the stakeholders we needed to deal with. I was learning it all as I went. Probably if I’d realised how much of the figurative high vis I had on, it might have been different for me taking that leap and doing something different, but I wouldn’t change it. It was absolutely career-changing for me in my mindset.
I did that operations role for 4 of the 6 years I’ve been at Post. I had one short role beforehand and then I’ve come into this role. It’s been amazing because people who didn’t know me before I joined Post (like external colleagues or friends) would say to me, “I can’t believe you’re doing that role” if they ever saw what I was doing because they had a certain view of me and what I’d done.
Then I thought, “I’m less of a pretender than I thought I was” because in this new role - which I’ve been doing for the last year - a number of people in Post said to me, “Wow, that’s a really big change for you, to come out of operations.” And I said, “I thought I was just pretending in operations. That was just a period of my time.” I felt I’ve obviously overcome a lot of the barriers that I felt like I’d had, because people who had known me in that role did see it as my natural environment but, in my own mind, I’d had this view that it was still very new to me or I was a bit of an outsider or a left-fielder. That’s also been rewarding for me.
I was in ops for about 4 years. I looked after Victoria/Tasmania at the beginning for about 9 months and then I moved into the national general manager role. That was rolling out this new operations model together, bringing out the commercial part and the operations part and then running those 60 facilities.
I don’t think I found it hard to move out of ops in terms of being known in that space because I had been a different type of person in there. I think most people were aware that my background and experience was different to that. So, it wasn’t hard for me to talk to people in the organisation around what a good opportunity would be. This type of role – which is now pretty much a natural fit for lots of what I’m passionate about - is what I’m skilled in and what I’ve done.
However, I found it harder than I’d expected so, just like it was hard to go in there and do something so different, it’s also been quite hard to give that up because I did really love it. A mentor of mine said to me on numerous occasions, “You have to let roles go. You can’t just collect them.” It was tempting for me to say, “Can’t I keep operations? Can’t I keep those business hubs and I’ll do this bit? They do link together in a way so it was very hard for me to give it up.
Part of it was that I do really miss the direct interface with the frontline. I love going out to our facilities and talking to those on the frontline. I love doing ride-alongs with drivers. I love interfacing with customers. I also realised that I love leading people. I think it’s a real privilege. Obviously, I have a team now and influence across the organisation, so it’s a different type of leadership. But being able to lead such a huge team, that was a hard thing to give up. Now, I can say, “Ok, I’ve got that in my back pocket. I know I love it. I know I can do it. I’ve still got these great relationships. I can still affect change in probably a much more impactful way than I previously could.” But it can be hard to give some of those things up.
Operations also has this amazing element to it where, even if you’re in a general management position where you’re working on some longer-term initiatives, you’ve got things that you can achieve every single day because it is very clear what you’ve done today. In a role like I have now, which is much more around creating a future, working on longer-term propositions, there are things that you achieve everyday but they’re longer-term goals. I’ve had to re-set my mindset (which I also had to do when I went into operations), around, “What are the things that make me feel like I’ve achieved great things?”
I realise that I am an achievement-driven person and there was a lot of satisfaction in operations in closing things out at the end of the day and the end of the week - a really clear operating rhythm with so many people and also people with a certain background. I was able to create some amazing opportunities for individuals and see them really grow. These were the things that really motivated me.
In moving out of operations I had to step back and reframe that for myself. “What do I view as the achievements? How do I measure that in a short-term and long-term way? Do I feel as though I’m having as much impact as I’d like to? How do I nurture people within the business and help create opportunities for them?” In a role where you have a few thousand people, you can create leadership opportunities for them. You can work on their personal development. You’ve got a little ground to do that with and that’s something I’m quite passionate about.
I think that when you move into any different role, it helps to take that little step back and say, “Right. What do I need to reframe here for myself?” When I moved out of operations into this role I was super excited (and I do think I’ve got probably one of the best roles going around) but, probably a couple of months in, I did need to stop and say to myself, “How am I going about measuring and motivating myself and keeping myself energised and feeling really positive about things?” because the two roles just operate at very different levels and speeds.
When I had to have that little reflection moment for myself in this role, it was like, “I never realised I was someone who would be motivated by those other things as much.” Probably, my personal DNA is more comfortable in where I’m at now. But I’d become really attuned to “Did every parcel get out of my facility tonight? Yes. Did everyone go home safely tonight? Yes.” It was very easy to tie that up with a bow and say, “Tomorrow is a fresh day, let’s go.” You knew if there was an issue that you had to deal with it straight away and it was a very fast pace. However, other roles require me as a leader to create that pace and energy and self-drive. It hasn’t been a big problem for me but it was definitely something that I needed to consciously reset for myself.
Advice to self and others
There’s been a lot of great advice. Mentorship has been very important to me. I can reflect on some really pivotal conversations that I’ve had with different mentors throughout my career. Before I worked at Post, I worked at Shell, working in London on a huge global project that was pretty amazing and I was lucky enough to be mentored by a guy who was one of our vice-presidents at the time. I don’t think he meant to mentor me, but he did, and I remember a piece of advice he gave me. I had done a piece of work that he’d asked me to do (I was probably the more junior members of the team) and it was the general manager and myself working on this together and reporting to this vice-president. I remember getting on the phone to him and I was really proud of this piece of work and he just said, “I’m really disappointed in this piece of work. I should have brought the paratroopers in.” I remember I was devastated because I had never really had that sort of negative acceptance of my work before. I’d been thinking that “Here we go. Smashed this one out. He’s going to be really happy with this.” But it was just like this flat, “No, and you’re not even getting another shot at it.”
So, we got off the phone and then the GM called me and said, “How do you feel about that?” and I said, “This is just terrible. Is he going to keep me on the program?” and he said “Oh, he obviously thinks really highly of you. That’s ok. Take some time and re-think it, then set up some time with him and take him through it.” And I said, “No. He told me that he should have brought the paratroopers in. Whatever that means?” Anyway, so I did re-do the work and I set up some time with the VP and presented it to him and it was fine.
I didn’t tell him at the time about how I’d felt about that feedback that he’d given me. Then, about 6 months later, he promoted me and I said, “When you said that to me, did you know that I was devastated?” He said, “Well, I knew that it would motivate you, so I was putting the challenge out there. The work was fine, but I knew that if I pushed you, I would probably get something even better.” I said that was probably not the best way to motivate someone, to make them feel really rubbish about themselves. And he said, “Well, no. What I wanted you to do... The challenge you set for yourself wasn’t high enough and you had just assumed that other people would do the same as you would.” (I was designing the program that I would run.) “You hadn’t been explicit enough about what you wanted from the stakeholders and what you wanted from these GM’s. You hadn’t said that. You’d just thought they’d do what you would do it you were in their situation and I wanted you to really own that.”
His biggest advice was “Don’t assume that other people are motivated in the same way or to the same level that you are. You need to be really explicit about what you’re willing to do and what you expect others to do. You need to be a bit bolder. The way you wrote this and presented it to me, you knew you were the more junior person so you didn’t put out there what you actually could do. You weren’t even unleashing your own potential. I knew you wanted to be regarded as my right hand or something so I put that challenge to you.” Maybe he didn’t do it in the right way but we worked together for a few years. I remember asking him when I left London, “Am I a paratrooper now?” and he said, “Yeah, you’re a paratrooper.” So that was great.
That piece of advice around not assuming other people are as motivated as you or motivated in the same way has been really important to me. It’s not to say, “I’m the most motivated” but it’s actually around saying, “Oh, I could assume that most people have high aspirations” or “If I give them a big challenge, they’re going to want to take it because they’re going to see their career grow” and I want that for them. I want it for them because I want it for me and that’s how I would be driven. So, very early in my career, he really ingrained in me this idea around having boldness around what I can bring to the table, leaving aside my job title and where I am at in the pecking order but bringing all of myself to the table if I want to.
That was very important to me in terms of my own confidence. What was really important to me as a leader is this piece around seeking to understand others, rather than putting my own lens on things. Actually understanding where the people in my team aspire to get to. “What is it that they want to contribute? Should I expect them to put as much in as they would if career was really important to them?” I had always assumed that career was really important to everyone, that’s what they were there for.
That was a great learning. It sounds really simple but I’ve been really surprised when I’ve asked people that question, how different the answers are, and therefore how I differently I might lead them or the kind of opportunities I would give them. What I would expect from them. How I might talk to them around opportunities I’m giving them because of their goal. That’s been really pivotal to me.
I’ve had a combination of formal and informal mentoring relationships. I’ve had the good fortune to be in a number of leadership programs or talent programs where you are assigned a mentor. I’ve also had mentors who I’ve sought out or with whom the relationship has sort of evolved. The most successful, enduring ones have probably been the ones that have evolved because, it’s that kind of natural affinity, finding each other, and, I think with all of my successful mentoring relationships, it has been a two-way piece. If I can think of a few people who have been mentors to me, they’ve definitely given me more than I’ve given them at the time but there has been a sort of two-way conversation rather than I give them my list of questions and they tell me the answers.
There have been some very pivotal people to me as mentors at different points in my career, all of whom are still people (not that I talk to every month or every few months) that I would reach out to for some advice in certain situations. So, Steve (the VP that I was talking about) and I check in around once a year on things like, “Here’s where I am at. Here’s what I’m doing. How would you have approached this?” He is retired now so now, over the last couple of times I’ve spoken with him, he can see the growth I’ve had in my career. We still use the paratrooper phrase and he is like, “Now you’ve got paratroopers.” Now, he’s the paratrooper.
I also learned a lot from Tania, the GM who recruited me into the operations base. The faith she showed in me was life-changing. A real mentor to me in, not only this organisation and the different culture, but a totally different way of leading than I would have had previously. A totally different way of understanding the values of people and that kind of thing. We were so different but amazingly complimentary. So, she’ll still be someone that I’d reach out to for advice in certain areas.
Then, the GM that I worked for when I first joined Shell. He was a country GM and I was a grad and I worked with him early on and again when I was in London. He is still someone that I would reach out to once in a while, but I feel like he is someone who gives me this advice because, if I’m honest, I am probably at now where he was when I started my career. But he led me in a time when I was just forming my career aspirations and he saw in me certain attributes and they are still the attributes that are there now. He was a great boss, and probably more of a sponsor than a mentor early in my career. But, now, he is a really great sounding board because he knew me before everything else happened. He knew the core of what I had to offer then when I was sort of a blank canvas. So, he is always a great person to speak to as it is very grounding and fulfilling for me to reach out to him.
I’ve also had other mentors along the way on more specific challenges that I was having and they’ve played a role. I think of mentorship as this idea around supporting somebody through certain challenges and opportunities that are in front of them at a time, and it can be a bit time-bound. And, then sponsorship being this idea around getting behind someone and supporting them and putting them forward for opportunities, and I’ve definitely had sponsors as well. I’ve always said not to confuse them with friendship, which the person who you go and have a coffee with when you’ve had a really bad day. I do try not to blur those relationships because, I think, what you choose to share, how you choose to talk about the challenges that you’re having or the opportunities that you want, with each of those three groups, it’s best if they are separate. All those relationships have been very important to me.
Now, it’s more like being that to others. The mentorship relationships I’ve had recently (and some of them don’t realise that they are mentoring me as well) is around newer people coming in to our organisation and what they can show me. We’ve had a formal reverse-mentoring program, which was great. But also, when I sit down and coach or mentor somebody, I get so much from that conversation around the skills that they’re bringing in. What they think is important in a team. What they look for in a leader. What they look for in an organisation? How are we going to keep people engaged in our workforce? That’s actually mentoring me in terms of making me a better leader and makes me think of things differently.
Separate sponsorship from mentorship. Seek out someone who’s got advice or perspective that’s going to challenge you, in a mentoring relationship. That can be from any level or any walk of life if they have the right experience.
I’m currently trying to foster habits that I keep hearing about, like “Get up early and go for a run and start your day in the right way.” That’s a work-in-progress habit. I’ve got more of a habit of the snooze button than I should have.
I do have a habit around the concept of balance. I think about the different buckets of things that are important to me. “Am I feeling like I’m nurturing and spending enough time on my relationship with my husband? How are things going with my kids? Do I spend enough time with us as a family unit? How are my friendships going? How’s my physical health and my mental health going in terms of looking after myself?” And then, “How’s work going?”
I definitely don’t have balance every day. I don’t have balance every week. I don’t have balance every month. They all go in ebbs and flows. In the back of my workbook, I have these buckets and I’ll rate them out of 10 on how they are going at the end of each month so I can see the trends. So, I can say, “Wow, things have been really full on at work. That’s been getting 10 out of 10 for 5 months, but I haven’t seen a friend for a coffee or a BBQ or anything for about 2 months. That’s been rating around a 2 for a few months so I need to prioritise that this month to get an overall balance.”
Or, “Somethings going on with my kids and I’m feeling like that’s all a bit out of control. I haven’t been able to pick them up or spend a lot of time with them on the weekend or whatever. That’s been rated 3 or 4 and work’s been rated at 8, so I need to get that more in balance.” Or the same thing with any of the other categories.
I find that a really helpful habit as it allows me to feel more in control and these things are within my control. I am monitoring them and it’s marginally scientific, it’s not just how I feel. At the end of that month, I can see if there is a pattern of behaviour that I need to look at. Was it just that, “I’m working on something that’s taking a lot of energy at the moment, or somethings going on at home and I need to put a couple of work things back a little bit because the kids have been sick or one of them is struggling with something. Or, I haven’t been going to the gym and I need to make sure I’m doing that because these other things have taken over.” I find this gives me a good perspective and when I’m going through the peaks of any of those things, it’s ok because I have a way that I will balance this eventually.
I think it is unrealistic to expect everything to be rated a 10 every week or month, but instead to say, “I’m going to fill each of those cups at some point.” Lots of the personal things do drop by the wayside a bit at certain times. But, I go on amazing holidays and I really decompress at that time, which is really important to me - so that would rate through the roof. So, overall for the year, I’m pretty balanced and I think that’s a good habit to have to measure that for yourself.
It can be a little bit confronting. It would be rare for work to be getting 1 or 2 (and I wouldn’t be doing my job if it was) but it’s more around saying that I feel ok leaving work to pick up my kids from school once a week because work usually rates an 8, 9 or 10, so I’m doing all right. But, equally, if one of my kids is sick or all of my home help has fallen away and I’ve needed to juggle a lot of things at home, then I’ll go “It’s ok for me to spend, say, Saturday afternoon going through some things as I’ll feel more in balance.” That’s very important to me.
A strong theme around these habits and my career is that a lot is focused around people and relationships. I call myself an excited introvert. I am high-energy and do things that people think are more extroverted, but that kind of nurturing of individual relationships is really important to me.
I’m not one of those people who had lots of quotes around the place, but I found this one from Maya Angelou. She’s an amazing person if you just read many of the things she’s said, but I liked this one. It said, “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” For me, that’s one that plays in both my work and my personal life and it is something that I look to talking to my kids about as well.
The explosion of social media and the web have changed the way I consume information. I read more articles and blogs and that type of media than books. A book that has stayed with me and I read a while ago is by Patrick Lencioni and it’s called The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. When I read it, that was important to me in terms of the team that I was building and the leadership team that I was operating within. It is one that I refer back to so I think it’s a great book for people to read.
For me now, it’s more like I’ll see something online and it leads me down this web of reading different things on a topic. I find the Harvard Business Review a really great read, so that’s something which I will actively seek out. More to keep my thoughts out of what I’m doing today and thinking more at a conceptual level about trends or ideas. Then, usually, that will lead me into reading other articles on different blogs, or sites or journals about similar topics.
When I was at the World Business Forum, Mohan said this idea around being a life-long learner. Being a curious person, I thought I was a life-long learner. Then, when I went away and thought about it, I thought that I haven’t recently participated in active learning. So, I am trying to think through “What is a topic that I can start to explore more deeply, rather than on the surface learning these concepts or ideas and then just sort of thinking about it?” So, I’m trying to think around this idea around leadership in a digital age. I don’t have a book to recommend. (So, if anyone has any ideas…)
With the explosion of so much media available, I think it’s really useful for people to think about, “What’s the topic and concept I want to do?” and then consume as much media around that as you can.
I can be contacted on LinkedIn or Twitter. They are probably the best way to reach me. I’m a pretty open book. I enjoy meeting different people and hearing different perspectives. Small business owners – obviously in my day job, I love interfacing with different small business owners and hearing about their challenges and opportunities, and, obviously, the role Post can play - but also just general trends. I am always looking for people who can offer me a different perspective. So, if there is something that I’ve said that someone thinks they’d like to challenge or talk to me about, then that would help with my own growth, in terms of sitting down and meeting with someone who could play that mentoring or stretching role with me. And I am happy to engage with people who have just been interested in these topics to hear a bit more.