Women in leadership in mining
If you put Gina Rinehart aside, women and mining are words we don’t normally associate with one another. Stef Loader is the General Manager of Northparkes Mine, a copper and gold mine situated near the Central West NSW city of Parkes. She has had a career of well over 20 years in mining as a woman and was “even promoted while on maternity leave”.
Stef is also an Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence awardee in the Board/Managemnet category.
Until recently, Northparkes Mine was part of the Rio Tinto portfolio but was sold to China Molybdenum Co (CMOC) in late 2013. Stef, who’s been GM at the mine since 2012, is negotiating the change along with the more than 500 employees and contractors she leads.
“I had worked for Rio Tinto since I started my career in mining, as had a number of my colleagues at Northparkes. We came to the mine as part of our career path with the Rio Tinto group. The sale has changed that and there was understandably some concern that things would be very different. Of course it has been different but in ways that are not dramatic,” explains Stef, pointing out the gradual nature of the change is one of the things they will continue to manage for the next few years.
“We’re a standalone business without a major mining group behind us, now, although CMOC [the company which now owns Northparkes] has sizable operations in China and hopes to be a large global player in the future. Northparkes is CMOC’s first international acquisition. What that means is we have to be clever about how we manage talent. In the past we could rely on the pool of people and opportunities that was Rio Tinto. Those numbers are now considerably smaller and within the boundaries of Northparkes,” explains Stef.
In her role as GM and leader of the business Stef believes there are three things she must do.
Support everybody to be successful; ensure each person knows what their commitments are to the business and how they can deliver on them, and be the guardian of the values that underpin the organisation’s culture.
“At the end of the day if we don’t have a vision toward which we are heading long term, and we don’t have a strategy around how we are going to get there, then how do we know what success looks like?” asks Stef.
“We work in the sort of place that embraces the new. If you want to make something new work in the mining industry bring it to Northparkes and we’ll have a red hot go at it,” says Stef.
“We look for better ways of doing things. It’s really important to protect this particular value because I think for some people the magic of working at Northparkes would disappear if that value was lost.
“One way in which we are doing this is by embracing diversity. At Northparkes we are working really hard to attract more women and indigenous people to join our team and, to do this, we need to challenge ourselves to look at roles differently. This is what I mean about looking for alternative ways of doing things.”
Safety is another value, and it’s something with which Stef is obsessed.
“Through my experience here I’ve developed an almost unhealthy passion about achieving one full year of leading a team without a single injury.
“2013 was a better year for us than the previous 12 months, but it’s still not good enough.
“There is no silver bullet,” Stef acknowledges, “but I challenge myself to think about how else we can attack this in a way that will make a difference. How do I move people from being a victim of their circumstances to being in control?”
One effective strategy, she believes, is to get the business’s own leaders to run leadership training activities, particularly those focussed on safety. It’s also very important to look at simplifying the way things are done.
“Over the past 20 years we’ve amassed more and more complicated ways of doing things in mining. The more complications the more things can go wrong,” notes Stef, who sees simplification as important to success.
Born in Germany and raised in New Zealand and Australia, Stef did most of her growing up in Western Australia. Studying geology at UWA, she was a women-in-mining scholarship holder, a program begun by CRA, now part of Rio Tinto.
“That scholarship gave me the opportunity to experience working at various different mining or mining related business operations. It was really helpful because I knew nothing about the industry when I began but it set me on my career path.”
Following graduation and work in Australia, Stef moved overseas to pursue her career in Laos, Chile, Peru, Canada, London and India. It would be 17 years before she returned home, together with two children and her husband, who also works in the mining industry.
“That was tremendous experience - from personal life experiences to work and career. I spent 10 years as an exploration geologist and then I worked on a mine for two years as an analyst. That role gave me the opportunity to do everything from describing the ore body all the way through to evaluating the production and almost through to marketing,” explains Stef.
It was in this position at Diavik Diamond Mine in Canada’s North West Territories that she first began to notice and feel the value of mentors and champions in the business.
“I had been very technically focused and hadn’t considered myself as a leader,” says Stef, going onto explain how the President of the diamond mine at the time thought, “it was time I broadened my skills base and experience”.
“He could see my need for business exposure,” says Stef, “and wanted me to interview for a position working in the office of Rio Tinto’s CEO at the time, Leigh Clifford.
“That’s the sort of opportunity you don’t pass up,” says Stef, who was successful in the interview and went on to work for Clifford in London for 12 months.
Stef then spent a further year in London working with the head of exploration, examining exploration strategy and helping re-establish the ‘head of exploration’ function before moving into her first formal leadership role leading a diamond project in India.
“I’ve been very fortunate. The last three leaders I’ve had were excellent coaches while I was in the role and have subsequently transformed into mentors. I’ve definitely benefited from people who have taken an interest in my career and have been happy to talk to me - and to others about me - over my entire career.”
Stef admits she has been guilty of thinking she didn’t have the qualifications to do the leadership roles, but that with hindsight she can see that what her champions were saying was, ‘we are here to support you to do it’.
Her advice for anyone entering the profession is to give everything a go and amass a broad range of experience.
“Join the emergency response and rescue team. Give as many things a chance as you possibly can and don’t take no for an answer. People may be cautious with you but tell them you are a quick learner and with their support and guidance it can be done.
“Get involved with the community and broader networks, including industry bodies. Broad networks are so important,” she finishes.
And what does Stef, as a 100 Women of Influnece awardee, recommend for women?
“Find the people you trust and can talk to in those networks and when you run into an obstacle or need advice, call on them for support. Also, remember to follow your own path and be true to who you are and what you believe in. While mentors are invaluable, the best voice you can follow is your own.”