Driven to succeed

Petrina Coventry

Having carved an impressive corporate career in a range of global companies, for Singapore-based Petrina Coventry, good leadership is all about giving back.

"Education is the ticket out of poverty – if I can help buy that ticket for someone worthy, it's worth buying."

After more than 20 years working in senior executive roles for some of the world's biggest companies, Petrina Coventry says her first university degree – a Bachelor of Education from UTS – still helps her every day. The psychology component in particular, has been invaluable in helping Coventry manage Asian expansion projects for Coca Cola, General Electric and Procter & Gamble.

"It gives you the ability to be able to articulate stories, to take people on a bit of a journey and drive teams towards change," says Coventry, who is the chief human resources officer of leading Australian oil and gas producer Santos Ltd and a director of its Singaporean subsidiary, Santos International Pty Ltd.

Coventry's decision to study education was never about being a classroom teacher. She was looking for a broad qualification to launch a global career in business, the public sector or social enterprise. Her focus and determination, even at that young age, came, she says, from growing up in rural regions of New South Wales. She and her older sister were the first in the family to go to university and Coventry realised she wanted more applied skills than her sister was gaining from an arts/law degree.

"I think UTS was a perfect fit for my background," Coventry says, adding that she felt she had to be smarter, better and drive harder than perhaps those from an establishment, urban upbringing. "UTS has this feel or vibe that's all about the desire to succeed, to be recognised and to be there on the map, despite its humble origins."

Then and now

Coventry's first job, while she was studying part-time at university, was at Coles Myer, which offered a broad-based management trainee program. The retail giant was rolling out Coles and Kmart megastores – 12 in 18 months – and Coventry relished the opportunity to learn about retail, industrial relations, scheduling, balance sheets, cash flow and shopping centre dynamics.

"It was fabulous, I was thrown in at the deep end," says Coventry, who ended up running the training programs across Coles' Liquorland division. "I was given heaps of responsibility, probably way too young."

Her next role gave her international experience and launched her into the world of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). Coventry joined German haircare company Wella, and spent a fair bit of time at the company's headquarters in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, working through a translator to help prepare the company for sale (Wella was eventually acquired by US multi-national Procter & Gamble in 2003).

Another FMCG job followed, this time at Coca-Cola's US head office in Atlanta, Georgia. There, says Coventry, she learned about global expansion, massive restructuring programs, supply chain management, mergers and acquisitions and global branding.

"Every time there was something no one else wanted to cover – manufacturing, R&D, quality assurance, supply chain management – I'd always put my hand up," she says. "I had about one-third of the company, from a HR perspective, before I was 30. I got really great experience."

That experience was invaluable when she moved to another US giant, General Electric – although the GE brand at that stage had very little recognition in Asia, where Coventry was to help set up GE Energy.

"Nobody knew who it was, there was no footprint, no operations," says Coventry, who spent four years with GE Energy in Hong Kong, then another four years with GE Capital in Japan.

That time gave her exposure to a company that had decades of experience in developing leaders and management processes and systems. After moving to Singapore for a one-year stint with a private equity group, Coventry joined Santos in 2009 for what she thought was a 12-month assignment advising the leadership team. Four years later, she's still there, but based out of Singapore where she lives with her husband. Coventry, who has not lived in Australia for 20 years, says Singapore is now home, although she doesn't miss Australia because she is frequently back for work.

Making a social impact

At Santos, she manages teams responsible for people, communities and corporate ethics. She also spearheads the company's volunteering efforts, including raising $250,000 last year for cancer research and Queensland flood relief and sponsoring various arts, education and sports initiatives. The week-long Santos Tour Down Under, for example, is the biggest cycling race in the southern hemisphere, drawing professional cyclists from around the world to Adelaide and regional South Australia each January to race for UCI World Tour points.

"Santos has a real social tilt," says Coventry. "Partly because it is still the biggest brand in South Australia (its name was originally an acronym for South Australia Northern Territory Oil Search), the company has a deep financial and emotional commitment to South Australia."

While Coventry's career has been forged across companies in vastly different industries – retail, financial services, energy, education, haircare and softdrinks – she says her "main tilt" has always been human resources, training and development. That tilt has fostered a strong interest in business ethics; not corporate governance in a narrow sense, but a broader passion for the philosophically-based notion of what is the right thing to do?

"It's about that moral virtue – giving back, doing the right thing, being a good citizen," she says.

Coventry also donates to UTS' Students Facing Financial Hardships Scholarships Fund. She says she gives, and will continue to give, to education because:

"I'm only here because others helped me (in my case my parents). Education is the ticket out of poverty – if I can help buy that ticket for someone worthy, it's worth buying."

Lead and achieve

In her various roles advising senior executives at large corporates, Coventry believes it's important for her to be able to guide their rational and critical thinking, with a moral perspective.

"In those senior executive roles, it is about storytelling and argument – in a positive sense, not a negative sense," she says, adding that good business equals good ethics and good ethics equals good business.

In the mid-90s, Coventry enrolled in one of the first ethics programs with a business and philosophical focus, at the University of New South Wales, in the very early days of online. Despite often fruitless searches through the Atlanta Library for business ethics books, Coventry emerged with a Masters of Ethics, adding breadth to her undergraduate psychology studies.

Now, after completing an MBA, Coventry is continuing her further education, undertaking a PhD with the University of Melbourne's Centre for Ethics and Leadership. Her focus is on gender and equity, and what factors influence female senior executives to remain at organisations and to rise to leadership roles.

Although Coventry works long hours in her "day job" at Santos, on her university research and as a board member of the Australian Human Resources Institute – leaving very little time for another passion, yoga – she says she's very content with her balance.

"Work/life balance is what you make of it," she says. "I figure I've got the perfect work/life balance, but it may not suit other people."

As to why she herself has been able to rise to senior leadership positions in the corporate world, Coventry says her main drive and inspiration comes from within – helped by a "great husband".

"I'm constantly wanting to do better, be better, do more," she says. "I have a determination to be seen as credible and successful, despite my background. If you come from nowhere, come from nothing, you have to prove yourself."

Words: Lucinda Schmidt