Veteran leader: Q&A with Waratah GM Heather Robinson
By John Deere
By John Deere
Heather Robinson is the general manager of Waratah. A 30-year veteran of the construction, mining and forestry industries, Heather says its been encouraging to see more and more women in leadership positions in these industries. The key to women taking on leadership roles, she says, is for them to really understand the business and drivers within it.
How do you feel about diversity in the workplace? Is it important?
Absolutely diversity is important in the workplace. If everyone is from the same background and thinks alike, the likelihood of getting fresh ideas and new ways of solving problems is low. Study after study has proven that when you have a diverse group of employees, a business performs better.
What changes have you seen in the industry as far as cultural shift from the last five to 10 years? What has changed over the span of your career for women in the industry?
We’ve definitely seen a shift to broader business thinking within our customer base. Not surprisingly, technology is also playing a bigger and bigger role.
I’ve spent 30 years working in the construction, mining and forestry industries. While women are still underrepresented in all these industries, its been encouraging to see more and more women working in these industries and in leadership positions.
What do you think needs to be done to encourage greater gender-diversity in the industry?
I think it starts with education. Unless you grow up in a forestry family, many people (women and men) don’t have a good understanding of all the types of jobs available in the industry. Being in forestry doesn’t necessarily mean being a logger. Also, from those who don’t understand our industry (and some recent reality shows), we often get a bad rap among the broader population which discourages people from considering careers in the industry.
Something else that can help encourage gender diversity in the industry is getting the word out about women already in this industry. One thing I’ve often heard from young women over the course of my career is how important role models are.
Providing visibility to women currently working in the industry lets other see the possibilities for themselves.
Finally, I think pure economics will help drive greater diversity. I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting with logging contractors all over the world. One constant that I hear from them is how challenging it is to find good employees. If they’re only considering a portion of the population, they’re significantly limiting their available labour pool. They’re going to have to figure out how to broaden their appeal to a more diverse group of candidates to meet their labour needs.
Any advice for women who are trying to get in the forestry industry?
Believe in yourself. Believe you belong here. Be confident.
What was your career path to get to your current role? How did you get into the forestry industry?
I’ve had the pleasure of working for the John Deere Construction and Forestry Division for the majority of my 30-year career. During this time, I dabbled in the forestry industry in multiple ways. I had the opportunity to work with our European forestry group on improvement opportunities for our retail and dealer channels. The experiences I had building new dealer channels in growth markets like Russia gave me a first-hand look at the importance of the forest industry in these markets. When the opportunity to run the Waratah distribution organization came up, I vigorously pursued it because I was excited about the opportunity to work for an organization focused on supporting sustainable forestry practices which benefit the environment.
What is it about forestry that you enjoy? What is it that appeals to you about working in the forest industry?
The best thing about working in forestry is our Waratah customers. They are hard working, down to earth people who have a spirit of ingenuity. The remote and harsh environments we work in really help hone that spirit of ingenuity. Also, many of our customers are family owned operations. Small businesses are the backbone of most economies and I love being able to meet their needs and support them. The next best thing is being in the woods. I always say even a really bad day in the woods is better than any day in the office.
What was it like as a woman, in the minority, when you started out in your career?
I’m still in the minority so that hasn’t changed. Seriously, as strange as it sounds, I never really thought too much about the fact that I was a woman in a male-dominated environment. Let me give you a good example. A few years ago, one of the John Deere dealers was hosting a group of women who owned contracting businesses for factory tours. A VP at the dealership asked me to join them for dinner and spend a few minutes speaking on the challenges of being a woman in a man’s world. I struggled with this topic and finally realized its because I don’t look at things this way.
I’m a problem solver so my approach has always been “what’s the problem and how do we go about solving it?” This has always been my focus, not the fact that I’m the only women in the room.
I think the fact that I don’t look at the world through this lens has helped the people I work with also not look at me through this lens.
What are some hurdles you see for women looking at leadership roles?
One thing I always emphasis with the young women I mentor is the importance of really understanding the business. If you want to lead, you need to understand business results you’re trying to achieve and how decisions can impact them. All too often women get given advice about how we should act and what our “elevator speech” should be. All that is meaningless if you don’t really understand your business and the drivers within it.
This post is part of CFI, Pulp & Paper Canada and Canadian Biomass’ Women in Forestry project celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. Find more content here and follow on social media with the hashtag #WomeninForestry, as well as #IWD2020 and #EachforEqual.