As a chartered accountant working in Syncrude’s Business Analysis Group, Sherill Stevens was comfortable crunching and analyzing large numbers. Moving into a leadership role at Syncrude’s Aurora mine brought those numbers to life, in the form of massive haul trucks and other heavy equipment.

“It’s the same business but a very different world,” says Sherill. “But it’s an example of how Syncrude provides different roles and opportunities for its employees to grow their career.”

In Sherill’s case, her move to the mine was prompted by the relocation of her group to Calgary in 2016. While Sherill had earned her accounting science degree at the University of Calgary, her roots were firmly planted in Fort McMurray.

“My husband works as a heavy equipment operator at Suncor – we’re what’s called a mixed marriage in Fort McMurray,” says Sherill, who joined Syncrude in 2008. “Moving wasn’t an option so I asked my leader if I could be transferred to a role based in Wood Buffalo.”

Out of the blue, Sherill received a phone call from Doug Simms, her manager at the time.

“He told me, ‘We have a position as a Business Team Leader for Trucks & Productivity up at Aurora – we think you’d be a good fit.’ I was astounded – I figured they’d find me more of a traditional office job, such as a maintenance planner. But somebody believed I’d be able to do that job. I knew I was going to say yes.”

Sherill’s transition from the corporate office to the mine was aided by her frontline leaders, who helped her acclimatize to a new world of large rolling steel.

“There were challenges but I had frontline leaders who made it their mission to get me up to speed,” she says. “Justin Beaudry, Mike Atkinson and Steve Maidment helped me grasp the business. And I really enjoyed learning the people side of things. I would go for ride-a-longs with operators so I could listen to their ideas and concerns. Their jobs are extremely risky so I would look at ways to make things easier for them.”

Sherill, in turn, won the respect of her team for her willingness to generate positive change.

“I remember her first day attending our leadership handovers. It was highly unusual for a business team leader usually join us right away, but she was new to mining and wanted to learn. She showed an awesome commitment,” says Justin. “Seeing that, you couldn’t help but want to help her journey.”

“She made us feel like her success was our success,” Mike said. “She didn’t want us to do what she said just because she was the boss. She solicited our advice. She showed trust. She wanted us to be leaders, not followers. She didn’t put herself above anyone.”

“When you take that approach, it doesn’t matter what you know or don’t know about your job at the start,” Steve says. “When you build relationships with your employees, their knowledge becomes your knowledge. That’s what Sherill did.”

Along the way, Sherill learned more about herself, both as a woman and Indigenous person working in leadership.

“I never really thought much about being a woman in leadership until my manager Lorne Shearing, who is now retired, brought it up with me,” she says. “And I was really glad he pointed out how I could be a mentor and role model for women working here. We’re not bound by glass ceilings, only our fears of the unknown. The mine isn’t a man’s world – it is Syncrude’s and Suncor’s world and that includes women. I’m so glad I made that switch.” 

Sherill, a member of the Qalipu First Nation, also appreciates the emphasis on Inclusion and Diversity shown by Syncrude and Suncor. 

“I am Mi’kmaq but didn’t embrace it for lots of different reasons when I was growing up. It wasn’t until Greg Fuhr, our Vice President for Mining & Extraction, recommended a course on Indigenous Canada. I did a complete 180 in my thinking,” she says. “With Scott Upshall’s support, I started to really embrace my heritage and I appreciate how we are starting to talk about the differences that make every one of us unique and working to build a more inclusive culture that truly celebrates our differences and drives our success as a business.”

After five years of working at both of Syncrude’s mines, Sherill now works as a Value Stream Leader for Mining, Extraction & Tailings. “Essentially, I’m working eliminate waste and bottlenecks in those areas,” she says. “Having all the touchpoints in the organization, from Business Services to Mining along with the training you receive as an accountant makes it an ideal role.”

And the fact she can continue to live in Fort McMurray makes it the perfect job.

“I grew up in Edmonton but I love the small-town life here. It doesn’t take you long to get anywhere,” she says. “I have some hidden blueberry patches that I look forward to picking this summer. And there’s nothing better than sitting outside in my hot tub with my husband in our backyard and staring up at the Northern Lights to pass an evening.”