Suncor’s youngest field supervisor thrives on opportunity.
Michelle Liebau is a 26-year old supervisor at Suncor Energy. She is the youngest field supervisor hired to work in Suncor’s mining operations, and one of three female field supervisors in a traditionally male-dominated area.
Liebau grew up in Kingston and Belleville, Ontario. An honours student, she attended Carlton University to study Public Affairs and Policy Management. Like so many others, she went to Fort McMurray for a summer job—and decided to stay, inspired by the boundless possibilities to work and learn, and the opportunity to realize her potential as a leader in the oil and gas industry.
LEADERSHIP AND INDUSTRY ISSUES
How did you get involved in the oil and gas industry?
ML: I was studying Public Affairs and Policy Management specializing in International Studies at Carlton University. I was planning to work for the government in Foreign Affairs. At the end of the school year in 2007, I moved to Fort McMurray in hopes of finding a summer job to continue funding my university education. There, I found a thriving community full of career possibilities and endless potential. I became interested in the health and safety field while working my first job as a contractor. It motivated me to begin a new career path by completing the National Construction Safety Officer certification. Shortly thereafter, I was employed as a safety trainer. It was this unexpected career path that opened the door to so many opportunities in the oil and gas industry; cementing my decision to dig in, work hard, pursue every opportunity and make Fort McMurray my new home. I was also inspired by the people I met in Fort McMurray who took chances on me, coached and supported me to become successful in each role I held.
Your job title is Supervisor, Oil Sands Roads and Hoppers. What exactly do you do? What’s the best part of your job?
My duties include supervising the safety and production of all people and equipment, including the haul roads, facilities and crushers (that receive the oil sands dumped by haul trucks at rates of 15,000 tons per hour). I’m responsible for this across the entire oil sands geographic area of Suncor’s Millennium Mine. I enjoy being part of a high-functioning team in the fast-paced, ever changing environment that Suncor provides me. I thrive on knowing that the successful execution of my responsibilities contributes directly to the safety of all employees in my area of accountability, as well as the overall performance of oil sands deliveries.
There’s a perception that the industry is male dominated, particularly out in the field. What would you say about this perception?
ML: It is no secret that more men than women work in our oil and gas industry. The mine where I work is no exception; however, there are plenty of excellent opportunities for both men and women to take advantage of. Through active recruiting, advertising and strong female leadership at our director level, we are seeing more interest and ultimately growing numbers of women in the workforce with each year that passes.
As a supervisor, leadership skills are an important part of your job. What does leadership mean to you? How do you apply this in your day-to-day work?
ML: Leadership is one of the most important aspects of my position as an oil sands field supervisor. As a leader, I strive to understand the values and opinions of my team so that we can work together to deliver business objectives and results. I enjoy creating a positive and inclusive work environment so that everyone feels that they are treated equally and respectfully.
Being a leader at such a young age must present special challenges. How have you handled this?
ML: By becoming a supervisor at a younger age, I did not gain as many years of operating experience as many of the people who report to me. As a result, I have to work hard to gain the knowledge and learn the skills of those I work with. I am very fortunate to be able to tap into the vast knowledge and experience of the people I work with. To provide myself with a foundation, I take the time to study the procedures and work practices pertaining to Suncor’s Mine Operations, the rules and regulations of Alberta’s OH&S Code and I always arm myself with a portfolio of the common and critical ones to reference. From there, I take advantage of all of Suncor’s development training available to learn from trainers and mentors who are experienced in the business. Even with all of this as a background, the most valuable technique I use is to have the people I work with actively involved in developing plans with a clear understanding of the common goal. If you have the knowledge, but have your team come up with how to put that into practice, you gain much more buy-in and respect from the people executing the work. I also try to be a “sponge” out here, absorbing all of the knowledge, advice, recommendations and experiences I possibly can.
In a video you did with CAPP, you mention “I’ve been given opportunities that I would never have experienced anywhere else in Canada.” What did you mean by that? Can you elaborate?
ML: I have worked with amazing leaders since coming to Fort McMurray who have been instrumental in supporting the progressive path I’m on. In this industry, my hard work, willingness to learn, energy and dedication have been recognized and are rewarded with opportunities for career growth and development. Alberta is the economic driver for Canada, with the oil and gas industry supporting many complementary industries that continue to develop and grow. Because of this, I am one of many fortunate Canadians to have found myself in the heart of this booming economy that has opened the door and allows me to explore my career potential to the fullest.
What industry accomplishment are you proudest of?
ML: In the oil sands industry, our land reclamation is the accomplishment I am most proud of. What is beneficial about the sheer scale of our industry are the departments dedicated to technological advancements. They allow us to apply vast resources to the recovery of any land that is disturbed – not just as a single milestone, but as a continuing endeavour that grows and improves like the industry itself.
What’s it like living in Fort Mac? What’s the biggest misperception about the city among outsiders?
ML: I moved to Fort McMurray almost seven years ago. At the time, I was uninformed about the city, perceiving it to be a “mining town” for the oil sands workforce and no place for family life. I think this is a misconception many people have about McMurray, that it is not family friendly. How very wrong I was. Because so many Canadians move to Fort McMurray looking for a fresh start in life, most of the veterans of the city are open, welcoming and helpful—having once been in those shoes themselves. Our city is rapidly growing and under constant construction, but to see so many positive changes over the years is always exciting and gratifying. It is a city built to sustain itself, no matter what the economy brings – a city I am proud to call home.
As a resident of Ft. Mac, please give us your thoughts on the importance of investment from the oil and gas industry into your community. What type of difference does this make as an employee living in the community?
ML: Everywhere you go in Fort McMurray, the benefits of our thriving oil and gas industry are felt. From the Suncor Community Leisure Centre, to the Syncrude Sport and Wellness Centre, companies in the region help fund, build and support endless community programs, sports teams and schools. They invest in our community in sustainable ways.
What advice would you give other young professionals hoping to get into the oil and gas business? Any tips for success?
ML: Determination, willingness to learn, perseverance and a touch of stubbornness are all valuable qualities to possess when starting out in the industry. It is important to set aggressive and strong goals to work toward. You want to have measurable targets with high expectations. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, the rewards are infinite.
THE PERSONAL SIDE
What personally inspires you?
ML: My mom is my personal inspiration. She has always been the standard I strive for. A single working mother of two, she worked herself through the ranks in the Ontario Government all while raising us. She is the strongest, most independent, motivated and inspirational mentor in my life.
If you weren’t in oil and gas what do you imagine you’d be doing right now?
ML: Both my parents work in the environmental protection sector of their businesses. Within the oil and gas industry, I also see a strong focus and commitment to the environment and sustainability. If I weren’t here, I’d probably pursue something along those lines for the federal Ministry of the Environment.
Is there an interest or accomplishment that might surprise people to know about you?
ML: A key interest in my life is to give back to those in need. I have been a blood donor since the age of 16, organizing several blood drives while still living in Ontario and continuing to give while in my new home in Alberta. I am also a registered bone marrow donor.
What do you like to do best on a day off?
ML: On a day off in Fort McMurray, I enjoy taking a trip to our local ski hill with my boyfriend to hit the slopes. Also, with a great schedule of six days working then six days off, we take advantage of as many opportunities to travel as we can!
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