Sharon Warburton began her career as a numbers person and now the 2014 Western Australia Telstra Businesswoman of the Year is riding high as head of strategy and finance at Brookfield Multiplex, overseeing its portfolio of construction projects, and a board member at Fortescue Metals Group.
Born and raised in the northwest of Western Australia, Sharon Warburton was no stranger to the mining industry growing up. After becoming a chartered accountant, Warburton joined Hamersley Iron (now part of Rio Tinto) in the mid-1990s, a “bold move” for a young female number cruncher at that time. She started in tax, then moved into finance and then hopped from location to location with the company, which gave her the experience and insight to move into the strategy division.
“It’s fair to say I got the travel bug,” she recalls. “For the next decade or more, I had roles in Sydney, London, Abu Dhabi, and now I’m settled in Perth. Through it all I just kind of transitioned from a finance role to strategy based roles.”
The complementary nature of mining and construction then saw her skills readily transfer into a role at Brookfield Multiplex, one of Australia’s largest construction companies. “I have the luxury of having senior roles in both the construction and mining industries,” Warburton affirms, referring to her position as head of strategy and finance at Brookfield Multiplex and her seat on the board at Fortescue Metals.
The jump didn’t happen in a vacuum, however. Warburton says her skills and knowledge were enhanced through “the power of relationships” rather than formal education.
“I didn’t go off and do a masters in construction management, yet I understand more than enough about how construction and mining works to be able to have leadership roles in those industries. There were a couple of gentlemen who became my sponsors. I taught them how to think commercially and financially; they taught me about the business operations and the art of mining or the art of construction,” she explains.
“To progress to the leadership levels, you can’t just be an accountant. It’s really powerful to create those relationships and have those sponsors where you can get that knowledge on the job. Don’t underestimate the power of what you can learn from those around you in your current work environment.”
Warburton wears two executive-level hats for Brookfield Multiplex—one for strategy and one for finance—where she rarely has two days the same. “The easiest part of that is the finance, where I lead a team that is responsible for providing all the financial support to the projects and the business, and all of the corporate financial reporting,” she says.
“On the strategy side, I work with the leaders of each region in our business to help them create strategies to win projects. That includes how to increase our competitiveness in the market and our efficiency, and I do a lot of work with them around creating strategies to attract and grow and retain the best people for Brookfield Multiplex.”
Her role at Fortescue is a more straightforward non-executive board position, which involves attending board meetings that guide the strategy of the company. “My two roles are quite aligned in terms of the type of work and the type of thinking I do.”
But don’t think of Warburton as all ideas and numbers, she’s a woman who cares about outcomes as well. “I love the people I work with and I love the fact in both the mining and construction industries that we’re creating and building tangible things. I love the diversity of my roles; there’s not a lot of routine in the work I do, which I find incredibly attractive.”
One myth Warburton would like to dispel is that construction is not a place for women, that females can’t have great careers and succeed in a construction environment. “You can have a very, very successful career and you can have a very fulfilling one in a very safe and respectful environment,” she declares.
There was only one place where she didn’t feel respected, and that was during a two-year stint in Abu Dhabi where she was the only female on the executive team. “I certainly didn’t feel valued or respected during my time there. I found that incredibly challenging and incredibly demotivating,” she recalls. “With hindsight, I take away from that some incredibly powerful learning which I apply here to make sure that we build on the healthy and respectful environments we have in Australia.”
Asked why she believes the myth is so pervasive, Warburton says the low participation rates of women in the industry can be a drawback. “And it’s not helped by the stereotypes that we have about the grubby builder. There are certain assumptions about how they work and how they behave.”
Part of her mission is to be visible, not just as a role model but also as an advocate of alternative career pathways for women in the industry and alternative ways of working, a position she forged when she had her daughter.
“I became a single parent when my daughter was very, very young. That forced me to change the way I work: I could no longer be a globetrotting workaholic because it was really important for me to spend quality time with my daughter,” she explains. “It was quite a transition for me to work very flexibly, very balanced hours, and to break that culture that said we have to be globetrotting workaholics to succeed.”
As a result she is now a mentor to more than 50 protégés around the world and regularly speaks to young people about her journey. “The assumption is ‘this is the path and you must be on this path’. We need to dispel that myth and give females the confidence to create paths and identify paths that work not only for them but also for organisations.
“The work I do around strategy is working with the leaders within Brookfield Multiplex to unlock any barriers, to make sure that those different pathways are open not just to females, but also males.”
Next generation thinking
Warburton’s strategic thinking has enabled her to fashion a generation of future leaders that will be as diverse as the work styles she wants them to support. While it seems crazy to take on dozens of protégés, her thinking is sound. “By putting extra energy into the emerging generation, I can learn from the experiences that I and others have gone through in the previous generation and that will inspire them and give them confidence to create different cultures and leadership styles in the future,” she reasons.
And that diversity will extend to future outcomes, she adds. “I mentor both males and females. I would love the male leaders of tomorrow to reflect on their experiences of learning from a female and to be more open-minded about recruiting, growing, and retaining females.”
The power is in sharing the story, says Warburton. “Sharing our experience can empower and inspire the emerging generation.”
Sharon Warburton’s lessons for success
- Act with confidence. “Focus on why you can do things, rather than why you can’t.”
- Learn from your peers. “Don’t underestimate the power of what you can learn from those around you in your current work environment.”
- Identify good leaders in the community and follow them. “You can follow a leader and learn so much from the way they’re doing things.”
- Expand your skills and knowledge. “As early as you can in your career, look for roles to broaden your experience.”
- Develop experience in strategy. “Great leaders have the ability to think strategically. Get some experience in strategy, whether that’s through reading or study or coat-tailing someone in leadership roles in your organisation.”
The 2014 National Telstra Businesswoman of the Year will be announced on Wednesday 26 November 2014 at a gala dinner in Melbourne.