Although wonderfully successful, with an impressive career history, Mary Van Buren is a very grounded, personable and sincere woman. She might be one of the nicest women in business I've met. I have known Mary for a number of years in a professional capacity. She was one of the first women I looked up to early in my career. She held high positions in large corporations and had a considerable amount of respect from her peers. And although I have known Mary for some time, our conversation surprised even me! Read on to learn more about my conversation with the wonderful Mary Van Buren.
Tell me about your career history:
After I graduated with an MBA from McGill I wanted to go into the services field and was fortunate to get a job at American Express. where I learned all the aspects of Marketing: product development, marketing communications, partnerships. And it was a large organization. It was at American Express where I developed an internal database tool that changed how American Express mined which consumers would be most likely to get a credit card. I found it fascinating to mine data to achieve business results. I moved to Petro Canada and learned about retail Marketing on a National scale. Ottawa Tourism gave me a good grounding in sponsorship. I eventually ended up at Export Development Canada (EDC) doing strategic planning. EDC also provided the international experience that matched well with my MBA. From there I was recruited by the Canadian Medical Association and offered the position of Vice President of Client Services for MD Physician Services which allowed me to run a web company, run a team of people and create innovative tools and technologies. I am now the VP of Marketing and Technology at the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) which I love particularly because I am required to forecast, conduct the strategy and planning for the future.
Did you set out to build an impressive career?
I always went after things that interested me, I never really hada set path. As opportunities presented themselves I determined the level of interest it had for me, and made my decision based on that. Then, with each career opportunity I built up my skills and learned new ones. I wanted to take opportunities that would help me grow. Did that always mean moving forward? No. I have taken a position once where I thought the decrease in pay would be made up for by the experience the job would afford me. And I was right. When working at Ogilvy & Mather they came up with a slogan for a client called "Expose Yourself". I always kept that in my mind; that to keep growing and adding value you have to expose yourself to new and different things. Not only in work, but in your personal life. I want to be open to try new things.
I didn't seek out more responsibility, I sought out interesting work. With it, came more responsibility
What kinds of things?
I've learned how to wakeboard, I've learned how to mountain bike. I took a class in hip hop dance, just to expose myself and stay in touch with what's current today. It comes down to your comfort level with change and how open you are to it. It comes down to you keep in touch with what's happening today, and be open to it. Whether that be technology, fashion, music or whatever it is that is current. Do you have a high capacity for change? My dad was in the military, so we moved around a lot, and I became very adept to change. We moved every 3 - 5 years and this became my way of life. But I also have a curiosity and need for stimulation of something that's new. You never had a plan, but you have a MBA.
You must have known you wanted to be in business?
I always wanted to be a writer. I started at Carleton in the Bachelor of Journalism, but I realized very quickly I was interested in creative writing versus journalism. I decided Marketing would suit me well as it offered creativity and impact. My undergrad degree is in Marketing and with this degree I wanted to work with the best companies, hence the MBA.
Was it hard to get a job out of school?
I always worked. In high school I was a bank teller. I was also a life guard. So, I had work experience coming out of McGill.
What are your passions outside of work?
What is interesting to me know is connecting with my colleagues and other professionals. I recently joined International Association of Business Communicators as their VP of Marketing which is a way to give back to the community but also a way to put people in touch with each other. People leave themselves vulnerable by accepting that where they are today is enough. Knowing what's out there is important. I like to talk to young people and other professionals and share my experience and guidance. I don't have all the answers, but I may know someone who does. Another aspect is volunteering. If you have a passion and can't get it through your current employment you can volunteer your time to get these skills.
Are you doing this now?
Yes, when I was Chair of Communications for Alpine Canada I volunteered my time and set up a Twitter account which was a great way to get exposure to Twitter and social media, without exposing my employer to it. It allowed me to increase my skill set.
Keep yourself open to new opportunities
Why did you move on?
It's the fit between the organization and the individual and when it doesn't align anymore it's time to leave. That's the motivation for moving on in my career. It wasn't done without consideration, but if I wasn't fulfilled it was time for me to leave.
Your role at MD Financial was actually located in Montreal, but your husband and children were in Ottawa. Was this a difficult decision?
It's always a challenge to take on a role with increasing responsibility and one that has a distance role. My children were teenagers at the time and I had to balance what was in it for me personally and how it would benefit my family versus what they were offering. I was fortunate that my husband has always been a big contributor and he was always supportive. The company itself was fantastic as well. It was the right position at the right time. What criteria do you base a career opportunity on? First it has to match my skills. Sure I might want to be a rock star, but it's not going to happen! And how interesting the job is. The map to my skills, the map to my values are important specifically how people are treated, attitude toward clients, compensation...all of it.
Did any one person stand out as a mentor?
I would say I benefitted from so many great leaders. Everywhere I worked there have been giving, smart, strategic people both men and women. But I've also been exposed to some "lemons" as well and learned a lot from them as well.
How do you manage work and your personal life?
The balance is over the years versus over the days. And I believe you live the life that you create. If you work a lot of hours, it's because you choose to.
I've also always had great bosses who understood that as long as the work was getting done it didn't matter if I was in the office at all times.
1. "You live the life that you create"
2. My dad was a big supporter, he always said "if you want to succeed, sometimes you have to swim against the current."
3. I'd like to be able to sing like a rockstar
What do you do outside of work?
We are involved with competitive ski racing; both my kids raced and we volunteer at race events. My husband and I worked at the Olympics in Vancouver and every year we go to Lake Louise for a ski race and make a holiday of it. The Olympics was a great experience.
How did your kids manage competitive sports and school?
We had a philosophy around exposing our kids to as much as we could. We did take them out of school to travel and go to ski competitions. Although unconventional , we felt that this would set them up well for whatever they wanted to do in life. I wasn't in a huge rush for them to go through high school, then University and then career. In the scheme of your lifetime no one notices if you miss a year before starting your career. Don't rush your way through; take the time to learn along the way. This all depends on the kids of course, it won't work for everyone.
What is your parenting style?
I would say I am the disciplinarian. It's about setting the expectation and then seeing that expectation through.
What's next for Mary?
I am now experiencing the empty nest syndrome for the first time and am looking forward to personally trying new things. I don't know what they are yet, but I look forward to finding out. My role as a mother has brought me so much joy, and it has been fascinating at every stage. It's my role as a mother to raise independent, capable children and now I've done that.