The SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium General Manager

Interview with Sarah-Jane Tilbury

We want to be innovators when it comes to creating a diverse, tolerant and inclusive workplace. Companies that don’t embrace this will be left behind and struggle to attract and keep staff, particularly Gen Z to whom culture fit is so important.

Sarah-Jane Tilbury, SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium General Manager.

 

On International Women’s Day this year I had the pleasure of meeting the dynamic women who work behind the scenes at Melbourne’s wonderful Aquarium.

It quickly became apparent this team walks its talk on diversity and inclusion.

Culture trickles from the leadership down, which is why it was so great to chat with Sarah-Jane Tilbury, Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager about her ideas and journey so far…

 

Martine Harte: Sarah-Jane, first things first how did a Brit born in ‘Born’ outside Slough in England end up General Manager of SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

 

I am not an expert in aquaria nor do I have a degree. I am a street kid from just outside Slough, England with a slight cockney accent and a face that portrays my every emotion, whether I like it or not.

My mother left when I was 6-years-old and my father worked two jobs to support my brother, sister and I. My childhood shape me to become an independent, self-motivated and determined individual with a knack for making massive organisational changes for the better with minimal investment.

I am now a proud Australian citizen and an even prouder Melburnian. I’m a Brit by birth but an Aussie by choice (although I still can’t do Vegemite)!. I arrived in Australia in 2009 and held several operations roles in the vehicle rental industry before I was approached by Merlin Entertainments’ Talent Acquisition Manager about 2 years ago.

It certainly wasn’t my relevant aquaria experience put me on their radar but I was thrilled to be approached as I absolutely love the ocean!

 

Martine Harte: You have more than 20 years experience in a variety of sectors. To what do you best attribute your rise in management?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

 

I have worked extremely hard and smart throughout my career. I instinctively find the most logical and straight forward way to complete a task, which makes me a natural leader in operations. I started at the very bottom — on the car rental desk at Heathrow Airport – and very quickly found that a sense of humour and an ability to enact changes that streamline processes and make tasks more efficient will get you noticed!

What does the aquarium mean to you personally?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

 

I simply adore SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium. I was a bit emotional when I landed the role as I grew up visiting Merlin Entertainments’ iconic attractions in the UK. Thorpe Park was a massive part of my life – I went there on family outings, first dates and team building days. As a child, a visit to SEA LIFE Brighton was an absolute treat so to be heading up its sister aquarium in Melbourne is quite special. I am incredibly proud of the team at SEA LIFE Melbourne and am always delighted to tell people where I work.

 

What’s your vision for its future?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

Not only do I want SEA LIFE Melbourne to continue to be a “must visit” attraction in Melbourne with high customer satisfaction, I want to continuously innovate and evolve every aspect of the business, whether it be interactive new experiences, conservation work, new sea creatures or education programs.

We have a massive new project launching later this year, which I’m very excited about, but it’s still top secret!

 

Celebrating diversity is evidently an important part of the culture at SEA LIFE, why does this align with your leadership style?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

To me, diversity simply means ensuring everyone feels safe and important regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality and ability. This reminds me of a picture I saw recently of three eggs, which all looked extremely different on the outside but were exactly the same once they were cracked into a pan. Inside we are all the same and everyone has the right to be comfortable in their skin.

So far this year SEA LIFE Melbourne has celebrated Cultural Diversity Week, Mardi Gras and International Women’s Day and I look forward to celebrating more inclusive initiatives throughout the year.

 

What do you see as the business benefits of propelling diversity and gender equality?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

When our staff are happy and comfortable they provide a superior customer experience, which in turn leads to positive reviews of SEA LIFE Melbourne and repeat visitation.

 

What do you see as the dangers if we ignore diversity, tolerance and inclusion?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

Ignorance breeds hatred. We want to be innovators when it comes to creating a diverse, tolerant and inclusive workplace. Companies that don’t embrace this will be left behind and struggle to attract and keep staff, particularly Gen Z to whom culture fit is so important.

 

There are many women working at the aquarium, what kind of roles do they have?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

The team at SEA LIFE Melbourne is 62% female and 38% male. Those who identify as female do every single job at the aquarium including aquarist, keeper, guest service, guest experience, Shark Dive Xtreme, events, retail, café, design, HR, PR. Our senior management team has a 50/50 split.

 

What is an interesting chapter of its history we may not know about?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

Melbourne Aquarium was originally built as a unique events space with an aquarium inside it!

 

Can you share your favourite yarn from your time at the aquarium?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

In celebration of the legalisation of same sex marriage, we ran a competition to give away a free wedding at the aquarium. Any engaged couples could apply and we received such amazing entries that we ended up giving away two weddings!

One of the winning couples were Tay and Tam, who founded the cutest animal rescue charity, The Urban Pouch, and are dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing indigenous wildlife, mainly possums and birds.

The second wedding went to Joel and Elisa. Joel is a former army rifleman and quadriplegic, who married his long-term partner Elisa is undertaking a nine-month spinal rehabilitation program.

They were two beautiful events for two very deserving couples!

 

Best advice for students or women who may dream of one day working in the space?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

Apply for the job you want, whether you think you will get it or not. Believe in yourself – most men are born believing they can do anything and I would love to see more women growing up with the same belief.

 

How do you respond to concerns from environmentalists about the viability of aquariums?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

Our vision is for a world where the global community respects, conserves, and sustainably manages our precious aquatic habitats, wildlife and natural resources.

The SEA LIFE brand began as a small seal sanctuary on the beautiful banks of Loch Creran in Oban, Scotland.

Almost 40 years, 50 aquariums and nearly 150,000 creatures later we’re now the largest aquarium organisation in the world – but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost our roots. Since we began back in 1979 we’ve held firm to the belief that cetaceans – marine mammals like whales and dolphins – should not be kept in captivity.

Our aim is to inspire guests to fall in love with the oceans and its creatures through fun, up-close and hands-on experiences. Our passionate staff are some of the top marine experts in the world and all of our aquariums are committed to helping conserve marine life through SEA LIFE’s global Breed, Rescue, Protect program.

 

You and your team have a respectful relationship with Melbourne’s beautiful bay, can you tell us about that?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

Our conservation arm SEA LIFE Trust is dedicated to taking action to conserve aquatic habitats and protecting marine wildlife through global, regional and local campaigns, innovative research and inspiring education. Our vision is of a world where our oceans are healthy, properly protected and full of diverse life.

On a local level, this involves our turtle rescue, rehabilitate and release projects, beach and river clean-ups, and involvement with organisations such as Keep Victoria Beautiful and Plastic Free July,

Through inspirational experiences and science based education the SEA LIFE Trust is empowering tomorrow’s leaders to drive positive change to respect, conserve, and sustainably manage our precious aquatic habitats, wildlife and natural resources. Core Values – collaborative, respectful, transparent, sustainable, science-based.

 

Who inspires you and why?

 

Sarah-Jane Tilbury Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium General Manager:

I admire Rosie Batty for her work as a passionate advocate for those affected by family violence, which captured the attention of the whole country.

I also admire that she has acknowledged how hard she’s worked and how difficult it’s been, which has led to her decision to step away from public life and take time for herself.

 

 

Work with us

Martine Harte is founder of Engaging Women, a platform for social good.
She is a dedicated voice in the advancement of women & girls. Contact martine@engagingwomen.com.au.

Learn more about her here and connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.


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