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From South Africa to Suncor — Choosing to Make a Difference

Pierre Perrin-Monlouis Dernière mise à jour: 20 octobre 2021

Remarks by Sue Lee, Senior Vice President, Human Resources & Communications

Suncor Energy Inc.

Famous Five Foundation Luncheon

Calgary, Alberta

May 22, 2008


I was very flattered to be invited to speak about my perspective on the responsibility of leadership. But I must admit, I was hesitant at first. After all, what do I have to say to a room full of bright and talented women leaders? But friends and colleagues persuaded me to do it. Because every one of us has a unique story to tell … myself included. And by sharing these stories with each other, we can help shape and refine our own abilities as leaders.

In my view, being a leader isn’t an entitlement; it’s a privilege and a responsibility. As such, a leader’s success isn’t defined by a title or pay cheque, but by how she – or he – strives to build something meaningful.

Emily Murphy, Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby understood that leadership is about making a difference. In Louise McKinney’s words, “The purpose of a woman’s life is just the same as the purpose of a man’s life – that she may make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living.”

This notion also guides me. True leadership is reflected in what you contribute … what you give back … and how you make a difference. What’s exciting about this definition of leadership is that it has no limits. Everyone has the capacity to be a leader….everyone has the capacity to bring about positive change.

The young man who drives a truck at our oil sands operation can make a difference to his community just as easily as an executive in the corner office. But getting to that point in your life when you can effect change requires a strategy. That’s because leadership and making a difference to your community… or as Ms McKinney said… “contributing to your generation”…doesn’t happen by accident.

In order to make a difference, first and foremost, you need to understand yourself – know what you are good at and what your passion is. Then my guiding principle for leadership is about the ability to make choices:

Choose to seize opportunities to pursue your passion, grow and develop. Those opportunities are out there, no matter what your circumstances;
Choose to be open to mentors who will challenge, support and nurture you;
Choose to appreciate and savour your good fortune;
Choose to say ‘no’ when things don’t align with your values or interests;
And finally, when you find success as a leader, choose to do all you can to make a difference.
These are choices I’ve tried to make throughout my life … and continue to make.

My strategy has always been to influence change from behind the scenes … making a difference from within. I learned this approach on the job in the various management roles I’ve held over the past 33 years. I also learned this growing up in South Africa – the country where my story begins.

Mine was not a story destined for success, growing up as I did on the wrong side of South Africa’s racial divide. My family’s history in South Africa started with my grandfather who left China to work on the railway. It was 1925 and he viewed South Africa as the land of opportunity. My parents – penniless and not speaking a word of English – moved to Johannesburg.

I was born in 1952, the youngest of six children. I quickly came to know my place in society under apartheid rule. Though we were not treated as poorly as some ethnic groups, we still faced many restrictions. I needed permits just to go camping or take the train to university. Certainly, I would never have been able to marry a white man, as interracial marriage back then was not only forbidden – it was punishable.

My brothers didn’t finish school – they needed to work to support the family. Their hard work and determination resulted in a very successful family-owned business that made it financially possible for me to get an education.

Thanks to their choices – and their commitment to family – my brothers made a difference in my life.

Soon after graduating from university, I worked for a major South African retail company. I got my foot in the door as a secretary, but soon other opportunities presented themselves. I encountered my first of many supportive mentors – outside of my brothers — who had very high expectations of me. He pushed me out of my comfort zone – even when I didn’t think I was ready to be pushed.

To give you an example, my boss and mentor charged me with designing a leadership program for managers. It was enough of a challenge to develop it, but my boss also encouraged me to take his place … and lead the program. It was an unwelcome assignment back then, as I really preferred to work behind the scenes. But he was trying to push me to the next level. So what did he do? He simply called me up the night before the program to say …”sorry, I’m not feeling well. It’s over to you”. It was trial by fire, but he was right – it was a great learning experience for me. I learned that skilled mentors see things in us that we don’t recognize ourselves and challenge us to step outside of our comfort zone. They have no doubt that we will succeed.

It was because of this kind of encouragement that I eventually advanced. I became the first woman and non-white personnel manager in that organization of 9,000 employees. The odds really were stacked against me, since I was initially told that no white employee would ever come to me for human resources advice. I’m glad I chose to ignore this notion.

The South Africa of my youth left a deep impression and taught me important lessons. After all, each of us inherits a time and place in history that shapes our view of the world. So rather than regretting my apartheid experience, I’m grateful for what it taught me:

First and foremost, I learned to be comfortable with complexity and ambiguity. Ironically, it was in a society divided into black and white that I learned how to deal with shades of grey.
I learned to influence without authority or acceptance. As a result, I was able to make subtle changes in an organization that previously excluded people like me.
I learned that even as a Chinese woman in a white, chauvinistic society, I could find ways to quietly, gradually carve out a path and pursue my passion.
And finally I learned to appreciate the lessons and opportunities I’d been given. I knew only too well the dire reality of so many people living in South Africa at that time. I would not take my good fortune for granted.
This good fortune gave me the courage to leave South Africa. Though I worked for a progressive company, my life was still very restricted. I chose Canada – a country full of opportunity. It took me three tries to be accepted here as an immigrant – I almost struck out. But in 1978 I left South Africa to start my career all over again.

There were many hard moments as I struggled to get used to my new home and country.

So much was different. For example, I couldn’t believe the natural confidence of my new Canadian colleagues and friends. They were accepted as citizens with equal rights, and they felt safe. This was completely foreign to me!

I also experienced for the first time in my life what it’s like to be truly part of a community. In South Africa, I lived on the fringes of mainstream society. I never enjoyed many of the everyday experiences we take for granted. For instance, I wasn’t even allowed to go to the same swimming pool as white people. But in Canada, I discovered many inclusive community organizations, which I am committed to supporting to this day.

Above all, it was clear to me how fortunate I was to be living in this peaceful, opportunity-filled country that welcomed my participation. Imagine what it was like to finally be allowed to vote! At the age of 29, I cast a ballot for the first time in my life. Every time I vote, I think of all the people in the world who are still denied the fundamental right to participate in democratic elections.

So you see, even though it was hard to leave behind all I knew, my decision to come here changed everything. In this country – even without Canadian work experience – I could pursue my chosen career path.

So, what helped me to do this? I mentioned before my leadership strategy. That strategy comes down to making the choices that were right for me. I chose to reach for something more than my circumstances otherwise might have offered. I sought inspiring mentors who nurtured and pushed me. I worked hard to stay true to my own beliefs. And finally, I chose to commit myself to giving back to a society that had given me so much.

Of course I find plenty of inspiration from the legions of great and pioneering women leaders who have gone before us. One whom I particularly admire is Katharine Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post.

Her husband ran the paper – previously owned by Graham’s father – while she stayed home and raised a family. When her husband committed suicide, Graham was left in charge, with no particular training or support. Another example of trial by fire! At first, Graham doubted her abilities as did most of her male colleagues. But she did what many pioneering women have done – she worked within her circumstances to effect change. Over time, she proved herself to be an exceptional business woman and actively promoted gender equality within her company. Of course, she also presided over the Post when it broke the Watergate scandal leading to the resignation of President Nixon. Katharine Graham went on to become one of the most powerful women of her generation. Clearly she made her mark.

So how do we make ours? How can we make a difference as leaders? I’ve never set out to change the world, but I am committed to making things better, bit by bit, wherever I can. As I mentioned earlier, I try to influence organizations from within.

This is what guided my decision to join Suncor over 12 years ago. I saw in Suncor’s CEO, Rick George, a leader whose values I shared. I saw he had a vision for the future and was someone who would both support and push me. In other words, he was the ideal mentor.

With Rick, the executive team and my own talented team of HR and communications professionals we have impacted the entire organization from the inside through the company’s values, policies and programs. Together, we do our best set our people up for success.

How lucky can you get? I’ve been fortunate to be part of the team behind Suncor’s enormous growth. To put that in perspective, Suncor was a two billion dollar company when I started there. Today, following three major growth phases, Suncor is now worth about 50 billion dollars. Our workforce has tripled and we boast an executive team that I’m proud to say is comprised of about 25 per cent women.

I hope you can tell how proud I am to work for Suncor … and how privileged I feel to contribute to this tremendous company.

Another of my passions as a leader is providing opportunities and encouraging others to develop as leaders — not only at Suncor but people in my community as well as in my huge extended family. Encouraging people to realize their own untapped potential is one of the most rewarding parts of my job and my life.

One way to develop our leadership skills is by getting involved in our communities. I didn’t have the opportunity to do this as a young woman, and now I view it as both a privilege and responsibility.

I’ve collaborated with other committed volunteers on the boards of the Bow Valley College and YMCA. Together, we strive to open doors for more people and build healthy communities. YMCA is all about developing strong and healthy kids, youth and families. Bow Valley College is the school of second chances. Its students include young single parents, people who want to upgrade their skills, and immigrants who either lack qualifications to work in Canada or whose qualifications are not recognized here. The Suncor Energy Foundation, which I chair, also supports educational, environmental and community-based initiatives. We are making a difference.

Finally, I use my influence in my personal life. I have two stepsons, an adorable grandson and an extended family of almost 50 people. I encourage them to take charge of their lives and career paths. I don’t let them forget that the world is filled with opportunities – and that it’s up to them to seek those out and find success. I won’t let them off the hook when it comes to taking accountability for their lives and careers.

I want them to recognize – as I hope all of us do – the unequalled privilege and opportunity we enjoy in Canada. But I also want us never to forget how much work there is yet to be done, particularly to ensure women are fully participating in everything our society has to offer. I just don’t think we’re there yet.

I’m worried about what I see as a troubling shortage of women leaders in both the public and private sectors. Women hold just 20% of elected seats in federal and provincial governments and comprise only about 15% of corporate officers in FP500 companies. This despite a survey of senior women which shows men and women equally aspire to the top job.

Despite all the advances we have made – and this won’t be news to anyone in this room – women continue to struggle with the dueling priorities of family and career. We haven’t done a very good job of encouraging women to pursue non-traditional careers, such as the skilled trades. And traditional organizational hierarchies have not been particularly welcoming to women in the past.

But it’s not all bad news. Some of those old hierarchies are evolving into more nimble organizations. As the workforce ages, we will rely more heavily on women and other non-traditional groups for our next generation of leaders. And it just so happens that the skills needed in today’s “wired world” are those at which women tend to naturally excel. Communication, collaboration, teamwork, multitasking – women reign in these areas.

The choice is ours. As women, we can choose to make a difference. The Famous Five made that choice. These ordinary women with no special power, privilege or influence drove tremendous social change. They profoundly improved the prospects of Canadian women for generations to come.

We owe it to them to make our own changes for the better, wherever we can.

So I’d like to leave you today with a question… and that question is – why not? Why not decide to be a part of something meaningful? Why not choose to use your hard-earned influence to build a better world for those who come after you? Why not choose to be a leader who gives, rather than one who just takes. After all, it’s powerful and rewarding to be a contributor, striving to make things better in our families, in our businesses and in our communities.

Emily Murphy once said, “I think women can save civilization.” I think women – and men – can build on the enormous good fortune and opportunity we already enjoy. If we strive together, slowly but surely, we can make a better civilization for us all. Why not?

Thank you.

Pierre Perrin-Monlouis
Pierre Perrin-Monlouis
Fondateur de Rente et Patrimoine (cabinet de gestion de patrimoine), Pierre Perrin-Monlouis est un analyste et trader pour compte propre. Il vous fait profiter de son expérience en trading grâce à ses analyses financières et décrypte pour vous les actualités des marchés. Son approche globale des marchés combine à la fois l'analyse technique et l'analyse fondamentale sur l'ensemble des marchés : crypto, forex, actions et matières premières.