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Women in Leadership: One Woman’s Successful Journey in Operations

Successful women in Manufacturing

Cheryl Firby, VP of Agri Ops and Industry Relations at Maple Leaf Foods, reflects on her career.

By: Barb Callander, Vice President Operations Excellence, Learning & Six Sigma

Cheryl Firby, Vice President of Agricultural Operations and Industry Relations at Maple Leaf Foods, is a sought-after expert in the agricultural operations of the food industry who built a fulfilling career in manufacturing operations.

Cheryl is passionate about chickens, gets her boundless energy from helping others stretch beyond their expectations and is a strong advocate for women in operations. She’s an inspiration!

As her retirement draws near, we sat down with Cheryl to reflect on her experiences as a woman in operations and the benefit that operations experience brings to developing senior leaders.

Q: YOUR CAREER HAS BEEN ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY IN OPERATIONS. WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE TO BE A WOMAN WORKING IN WHAT IS PRESUMED TO BE A MALE-DOMINATED FIELD?

Most of my career has been defined by chicken and turkey operations, starting with Campbell’s Soup. Early on, I learned from a variety of operations leaders, all of whom had different leadership styles. And, most of my leaders were men. So, as a young mother balancing work and night school, I had to find my own path within a male-oriented field.

What I value about operations is that the days are never the same! Interestingly, operations has a reputation for repetitive work, but the reality is that there’s so much variety, day-to-day, hour-to-hour with lots of people engagement. 

I especially love dealing with people! Because there’s such variety in work and opportunity, you’re constantly learning and growing. Case in point: you often have to make decisions in the moment, but at the same time, you need to think strategically and know where you want to take things. Results are measurable and many are immediate. 

Q: WHAT KEY LEADERSHIP SKILLS DO YOU THINK PEOPLE DEVELOP THROUGH OPERATIONS EXPERIENCES?

There are so many skills when working with others and always on tight timelines.  One I’d like to call out is creativity.  

You often have to find new solutions to various daily challenges. Whatever the issue, you need to be creative at finding new ways to solve it.

Operations experience early in your career also roots you in the business of how things are made. It teaches you the fundamentals of our core business.

Q: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE WOMEN WHO WANT A THRIVING CAREER IN OPERATIONS?

I have three pieces of advice that apply to everyone, but may be especially helpful to those who find themselves in a minority:

  • Be yourself. Women often suffer from the “imposter syndrome.” We feel we’re not good enough and try to be what other people think we should be. Always be true to yourself. We waste so much energy trying to fit in.
  • Keep communication real and honest.
  • Things are changing on a dime. Keep finding ways to adapt. 
Q: SUCCESSFUL FEMALE LEADERS LIKE YOURSELF OFTEN POINT TO THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTORSHIP. WHAT WERE YOUR EXPERIENCES AS A MENTEE AND A MENTOR? 

My first work-life mentor was a Senior Operations Manager at Campbell’s Soup. He encouraged me to build on my strengths and helped point out skills that I didn’t see in myself. I often had more than one mentor at a time, each with different strengths and experiences that could support different aspects of my development.

As I advanced, it was important that I be a mentor in addition to being mentored. I love helping people be successful in whatever success means for them. Sometimes you need a sounding board for the ideas in your head, a safe “place” to talk about things. Everyone needs coaching no matter what level you are in the organization. Mentoring starts with making a connection and having a true interest in showing up. And, a good mentoring relationship benefits both partners. Remember that we all have space at the table.

Q: IT’S NO SECRET THAT MANUFACTURING TENDS TO BE HEAVILY DOMINATED BY MEN. WOMEN IN MANUFACTURING AND OPERATIONS LEADERSHIP ROLES ARE FEWER IN NUMBER, DESPITE THE RESEARCH CONFIRMING THAT INCLUSIVE GENDER-BALANCED, ETHNICALLY-DIVERSE TEAMS PERFORM BETTER. ACCORDING TO A 2017 CME STUDY, WOMEN WORKING IN CANADA, ACCOUNTED FOR APPROXIMATELY 48 PER CENT OF THE LABOUR FORCE, BUT ONLY 28 PER CENT OF THE MANUFACTURING WORKFORCE.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO ENCOURAGE MORE WOMEN TO PURSUE OPPORTUNITIES IN OPERATIONS AND MANUFACTURING?

That’s a question I’ve wrestled with for a long time. Maple Leaf Foods is doing a lot of great things – like investments in technology and infrastructure in our plants, ongoing learning and leadership development experiences, a strong maternity, parental and adoptive leave program for salaried team members and a commitment to building diverse and inclusive teams. 

But, I think we can do more. I think we need to let women see, feel and have operations experiences beforehand through programs like internships. Understanding what people need when they first join operations is important as well as ensuring that we provide it through strong onboarding programs and mentorship. 

Happily, these are gaps we’ve already identified, and this work is already underway at Maple Leaf Foods.

Q: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOUR 25-YEAR-OLD-SELF STARTING OUT IN OPERATIONS?

Start by keeping the end in mind and remind yourself regularly what type of leader you want to be as you go through life. Ask yourself, why would someone want to be led by me? 

Value the unique skill sets, strengths and experiences everyone brings to their role. It’s important to ensure that every voice is heard. You can expect great things from everyone.  And – always try to have fun! 

Q: ANY FINAL THOUGHTS?

As retirement draws nearer and I ready for my next transition, I’ve been thinking more about what kind of legacy I’m leaving. After a lifetime in operations, I hope it’s a good one.