Inspiring the Next Generation of Female Leaders – Sarah Buelow

Inspiring the Next Generation of Female Leaders – Sarah Buelow
Diversity and Inclusion
Female Leaders

In our ongoing series of conversations with remarkable women leaders, our next installment features a captivating conversation between Margaret Jaouadi and Sarah Buelow, former Global Director of Human Resources Operations at Kerry, a publicly traded global leader in the food, beverage, and pharmaceutical markets.

Sarah Buelow, a Wisconsin native, had an unconventional career journey. She trained initially as a licensed attorney and worked as an in-house counsel, before finding her passion for HR while working as an Adjunct Professor at Cardinal Stritch University. Her unique background and diverse experiences have shaped her into a seasoned professional with a knack for connecting with people.

In this exclusive interview, Sarah shares insights into mentorship, career advancement, and effective DE&I strategies. Join us as we unravel the journey of this exceptional female leader and learn from her valuable experiences.

Special thanks go to Paul Galanti, Head of Sector – Industrials, Americas at Pacific International Executive Search, who introduced Margaret to Sarah Buelow.

Margaret Jaouadi
Sarah, thank you for speaking with me today. Can you please introduce yourself and tell us about your career journey?

Sarah Buelow
I’m Sarah Buelow, a Wisconsin girl born and raised on a farm. My journey to where I am today has been quite unconventional. I started as a licensed attorney but changed my career track and fell into the HR world. I’ve worn many hats in various industries, from dairy and automotive to medical devices and food packaging. Then I circled back to food, beverage, and technology.

Growing up on a farm wasn’t exactly the typical start for someone heading into the corporate scene. My dad was a teacher, and my mom was a nurse, and now we’ve got two engineers and another nurse in the family. The funny thing is my mom always joked that I’d be a lawyer with the way I argued as a kid. And guess what? I did become an attorney. Dad, on the other hand, always wanted a teacher in the family, and well, I became a professor too. So, I managed to fulfill both of their dreams while still curving my path, and it’s been one heck of a journey. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

These twists and turns provide me with a unique perspective on things and help me see the world through a different lens, which in turn makes it easy for me to connect with people and help educate not only employees but leaders as well, both from a risk mitigation perspective but from a strategic perspective, too.

Margaret Jaouadi
Reflecting on your career, have mentors or role models played a pivotal role in shaping your professional development? What advice would you give to others seeking mentorship?

Sarah Buelow
That’s a great question. When I reflect on my career, one person who truly made a significant impact is Jean Kraft, who, at the time I was at Kerry, was a VP of Human Resources – North America & Global Foundational Technologies there and currently is a Global HR Leader at Honeywell. She is not just a former colleague; she’s a friend of mine to this day. I’ve had the privilege of working with and for her at different stages of my career, allowing her to witness my growth.

Looking back, I didn’t realize at the time that Jean was subtly teaching me valuable lessons. It’s funny how hindsight works. She had this unique coaching style that I can best describe using a swimming analogy from my childhood in the early ’80s. We didn’t have organized swim classes like they do not. Rather, picture learning to swim by being thrown off the end of a dock at the cottage but closely watched to ensure your safety. It may seem harsh, but it triggered your fight-or-flight instincts, coupled with critical thinking and analytical skills. You become self-sufficient, motivated, and take the initiative. These are skills you can’t just learn in theory; you must experience them.

Jean applied a similar approach when I transitioned from a small company to a large corporate matrix organization. It was a whole different ballgame, relying on others, navigating a complex network, and adjusting to a scarcity of data points. I was expecting a bit more hand-holding, but that wasn’t Jean’s style. She threw me off the dock, ensuring I didn’t drown but forcing me to be self-sufficient and develop crucial skills early in my career.

She also taught me, again using a swimming analogy, don’t set yourself up and expect to be an Esther Williams (American swimming champion who became one of the most popular Hollywood movie stars of the 1940s and ’50s). Understand the importance of being an “ugly swimmer” in a world where we often expect perfection. Whether managing a new team or transitioning between companies, it’s essential to understand that not every decision or project will have a flawless, end-to-end outcome. It is about making the best decisions possible with the best information available at that point in time; acknowledging data is constantly evolving which may impact analysis/decisions differently later. This lesson in adaptability, problem-solving, and course correction is invaluable and can’t be taught in theory.

Another crucial lesson was the courage to speak up and challenge, particularly as a female professional. Jean exemplified this courage by skillfully handling difficult conversations. I vividly recall her ability to bring leaders to acknowledge and take accountability for improper behaviors without being forceful. It was about bringing them along rather than pushing, making them see what needs to be done – a lesson that stuck with me in my HR role.

The fourth lesson marked a shift from a boss-employee relationship to a friendship. Jean, coming from a corporate background, acknowledged that she needed my operations-based expertise as our division grew. This humbling moment, where she admitted she needed what I brought to the table, was a significant confidence boost.

Overall, Jean’s impact on my career has been profound, and I strive to pass on the same lessons to my team. It’s about earning respect, embracing imperfection, navigating challenges with courage, and recognizing the value each team member brings to the table. Jean’s lessons continue to resonate, shaping not just my professional life but my approach to leadership and collaboration.

Margaret Jaouadi
Thank you. What advice would you give to others seeking mentorship?

Sarah Buelow
Seeking mentorship is crucial. Whether it’s within an organization or from external sources, the key is actively pursuing opportunities to learn and do things right. As we discussed earlier, it’s not just about theoretical knowledge; it’s about practical application, finding chances to learn, gaining insights into critical thinking, honing the skill of prioritizing, and embracing agility and course correction. These are the skills that drive tangible results. I’ve personally experienced that as I improved in these areas, I found myself taking on more projects and handling larger responsibilities. It’s this ability to deliver results that truly sets one apart and builds a reputation in the business world.

Learning happens in the trenches, not just in the pages of a book. It’s about facing real challenges, navigating through uncertainties, and developing the expertise to bring projects to successful fruition. This hands-on experience is invaluable and forms the bedrock of a skill set that is indispensable in driving meaningful results.

So, seeking mentorship isn’t just about finding someone to guide you; it’s about actively engaging in the process of learning by doing.

Margaret Jaouadi
Would you like to nominate a woman in your professional network who is not yet a senior leader herself, but who deserves recognition for her exceptional contributions and skills?

Sarah Buelow
When I think of someone who deserves recognition for exceptional contributions and skills Stephanie Spangle immediately comes to my mind. She used to be one of my direct reports, but she’s someone with a unique perspective. Stephanie, or Steph as she often coins, uses her “inner Sarah” in her approach.

She has traversed from an HR BP role to an early career director, witnessing different plant managers and adapting to their styles, which has undoubtedly influenced her ability to perform. Transitioning into a smaller company presented its own set of challenges. Steph walked into the midst of M&A work, took charge of building her team, and navigated through transitions with two different CEOs – quite a whirlwind within a relatively short time frame of a year and a half.

What sets Stephanie apart is her can-do spirit and hands-on approach. Having experienced acquisitions from the receiving end in our past company, she brings a unique perspective to change management. She understands the intricacies of being on the receiving end and is now contributing to the giving end, helping the company improve processes, fill gaps, and think beyond spreadsheets.

Stephanie’s approach focuses on the human side of change management. She emphasizes the importance of considering people first in any acquisition. After all, they’re the ones operating the machines and driving the company forward. Stephanie’s ability to merge her practical experience, change management expertise, and people-centric approach make her a valuable resource for gaining insights into executive-level challenges and solutions.

Margaret Jaouadi
The emphasis on humility and focus on people came up very frequently during the recent Leadership Insider interview series to discuss attributes needed by successful leaders in the age of AI. Interestingly, the majority highlighted essential human skills like empathy and humility as critical for navigating today’s challenges.

Sarah Buelow
I agree. It’s crucial to prioritize people, even when faced with tough decisions. There is always a way to approach these challenges empathetically, even when delivering difficult news. While difficult decisions are sometimes unavoidable for the survival of a business, it’s essential to handle them with empathy.

Thinking about people and doing the right thing are key principles that should guide leadership decisions. After all, it’s never wrong to do what’s right.

Margaret Jaouadi
Drawing from your experience, what strategies or initiatives do you believe have proven most effective in fostering an environment where women can thrive, advance, and succeed in their careers?

Sarah Buelow
When crafting a DE&I strategy, companies must stay aligned with their purpose and maintain a balanced approach. Failure to do so can lead to unintended consequences. For instance, we have seen cases where candidates were hailed as DE&I hires but later proved unqualified for their roles. Additionally, well-intentioned celebrations of one group can inadvertently exclude others if not done equitably.

An equity example ties it all together: if a company values results and an employee demonstrates both technical and behavioral leadership skills, compensation should be gender-neutral. Both male and female candidates who meet these criteria should be compensated and recognized equally.

If discrepancies exist in how individuals are treated or compensated, then the company needs to seriously evaluate why that’s the case. The bottom line is, that successful strategies are simple: if you’re qualified and delivering results, you should be treated fairly, regardless of gender.

It’s a straightforward approach, but unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet. Reflecting on it, it’s akin to Occam’s Razor – the simplest solution often being the best.

Margaret Jaouadi
In your perspective, what are the three key actions that women can focus on to position themselves for senior-level leadership roles within their organizations?

Sarah Buelow
I would say again, that individuals should connect themselves and be open to finding their own Jean – someone who serves as their ally and is willing to provide learning opportunities. Soft skills like critical thinking and agility are vital for growth, and they’re best developed through hands-on experience, not just theory. Embracing failures and learning from mistakes are essential parts of this journey. You have to learn to fail and as Ted Lasso says, “be a goldfish”. You are gonna fail, and believe me, I have had my failures. But that is when I have learned the most, from the mistakes that I have made. That is when I have learned the most of what not to do, and how to improve. And that’s all part of that critical thinking, the problem-solving, the agility, the flexibility.

Furthermore, it’s crucial to be open to learning beyond your function. People often found me surprising because I could speak to them about their domain. But they may not know that apart from my knowledge of HR, I grew up on the farm, have worked in operations on the plant floor, and am an attorney and a professor. While I’m not an expert in every area, I can contribute to conversations in diverse domains. By broadening your horizons, you can contribute more meaningfully and make a greater impact. For example, when speaking to an engineer, I could start the Ohm vs. Volt and impact on Amp debate or make an o-ring joke, and suddenly they’d take notice. Embrace the opportunity to expand your knowledge beyond your immediate role – it can lead to surprising connections and opportunities for growth.

Putting yourself out there is key to personal and professional development. It’s about taking risks, putting in the effort, and being open to learning and growing. Don’t be afraid to step up to challenging projects and put in the hard work needed to succeed.

Margaret Jaouadi
Thank you for sharing your story and such invaluable tips. It has been a pleasure talking with you, Sarah.

For a confidential chat about how Pacific International can assist you with your Industrial Goods and Engineering Talent Acquisitions and Diversity challenges, please contact Paul Galanti or one of our Executive Search Consultants specialising in your sector.