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Women in Leadership: How Spir Marinakis has evolved within the food safety industry with a deep care for the food we make and people who make it

Women in Leadership: Spir Marinakis

For Spir, pride in working for a Canadian company that does good by its people is key to her nearly two decades of success at Maple Leaf.

Spir Marinakis is the Vice President of Food Safety & Quality Assurance, Technical Services and Sanitation (FSQATSS) across the Maple Leaf Foods, Viau Foods, and Greenleaf Foods companies. For 18 years, Spir has been part of the Maple Leaf team, and her passion and pride for the organization shines as bright as ever when reflecting on her accomplishments and accolades over the years.

Originally joining Maple Leaf as the Director of Food Safety for Poultry, Spir then spent about five years as part of the Six Sigma team, working on various corporate strategic projects. In 2012, she made the move back into food safety holding various roles. In 2016, Spir transitioned into her current role where she makes a positive difference for our company, our customers, and for her team every day.  

What brought you to Maple Leaf Foods?

Maple Leaf Foods is an iconic company in Canada. I wanted to work for a Canadian company after 12 years of working for a multinational global company. I was also attracted to the strong Maple Leaf culture.

What made you stay?

It’s the culture, the exciting pace, and the people.

It was also during the 2008 Listeria outbreak that the transparency, accountability, and commitment to fix things going forward that was openly demonstrated by our most senior leader at Maple Leaf Foods and the entire company’s response to the outbreak that inspired me to stay. The commitment and actions during the years that followed, and still today, really means a lot when you’re in food safety. That keeps me motivated to always do the right thing.

I also work with great people in many diverse functions at Maple Leaf. I thrive when I work with positive, collaborative people who strive to improve and look for better ways to do things while enabling team members to grow and develop.

Why is gender equity so important in the workplace?

I grew up at a time in my extended family where boys were often held to a higher level of achievement and expectation than girls. But in our home, my parents didn’t raise me or my sister that way. I was told from day one, “You’re the same, you’re equal. You need to be independent. You need to be strong.” So, I grew up with that mindset and approach. Now, I walk into work with that same conviction. People should be regarded and considered based on their performance and results, not based on their gender.

In the meat industry and the world of food manufacturing, it’s still tough to see that gender imbalance exists and that it’s not right. I’m glad to be part of Maple Leaf where we’re focused on making meaningful change in this area through Women in Manufacturing groups and their important initiatives. As a leader, I also have a responsibility to make time to coach and develop talent and provide advice based on my experience. I had my own great mentors, and they cared about me and my career. They made a big difference in my career journey, and I want to do the same for other women.

How do you define your purpose at Maple Leaf?

My purpose is to be the food safety and quality ‘conscience’ of our organization, to make sure we always do what is right when it comes to food safety and quality. We can never forget the 23 people who lost their lives in the Listeria outbreak. My job is to collect the facts and make sure that we keep calm during difficult situations—that we make decisions based on factual information rather than just on business risk.

It’s also my purpose to make sure we create a great environment for people to grow and develop in, make mistakes, and learn from them. This is a big part of my job, and quite frankly, it’s one of the most important parts. I work hard to continuously strive to create an environment where great people feel respected, cared for, and can grow and be challenged. From my own experience, I flourished when a leader created such an environment.

What advice do you have for women in the early stages of their career?

Work hard at building your leadership skills and critical competencies in your functional area, in whatever field you’re in. That takes time. Your education gave you core  ‘technical’ skills, but it will take time to build experience, leadership, and confidence. By rushing to get to the end state quickly to achieve a title, you might bypass all kinds of knowledge and experiences that could help you be successful as you move higher up in the organization in the long run.  

When I was starting out in my career, I didn’t have access to mentors or a vast network, so I used to watch leaders and identify those whose approach I admired. I would reach out to them and ask if they would spend some time with me and provide leadership advice. In every instance, I had a positive response. I would get a wonderful nugget of learning from those individuals, and in time, some of those individuals became incredible mentors. I encourage everyone, but especially younger women to reach out to strong leaders and learn everything you can from their experiences and their wisdom.

Finally, don’t let fear make your decisions for you. Fight your fears or the concern of feeling like you’re not good enough. For example, if your goal is to become a senior leader or to achieve a recognition of some kind, then aim for it and never let fear get a hold of you because it can prevent the best side of you from coming out. This was great advice given to me early in my career, and advice I would give young people today.

At the end of the day, it comes down to good old hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in a leadership role? How did you overcome them?

There have been many challenges. One of them was figuring out what it means to be an authentic, respected, and strong leader for me. When I moved into the VP role, I had people telling me what I should do, how I should act to be successful, or compared me to other leaders’ styles. There were times I was confused and uncertain. I finally realized that learning more about myself, self-reflecting, being authentic and sometimes vulnerable, and building off my own strengths is what worked tremendously for me.