February 2019

Profile: Melanie McCarthy – investing in frontline management

  • By Liz Swanton

Melanie McCarthy understands the benefits of investing in people for the prosperity of both the business and the community 

Eight years ago, Mandalay Resources invested in executive coaching for its Costerfield leadership team – Melanie McCarthy was one of the decision makers and one of the beneficiaries.

Named 2018’s Exceptional Woman in Australian Resources at the Women in Resources National Awards, Melanie is general manager for Mandalay’s gold–antimony mine near Heathcote, 126 km north of Melbourne. Her role makes her the head of the multinational company’s Australian operations.

The investment boosted the problem-solving potential of a team working in a technically difficult environment. Costerfield is an underground operation utilising narrow mining techniques to extract vertical veins and Melanie believes there is no other Australian site mining as narrow as Costerfield. Looking back, she says the investment was the turning point for the business.

’It was $100 000 over 12 months, to invest in eight to ten key leaders in the company, at a time when we didn’t have any money. We all thought it was crazy, but it turned out to be the best thing we ever did. It broke down the barriers between departments and meant we could collectively solve each other’s problems.

‘People come to our site and can’t believe how friendly and helpful everyone is, and happy to share knowledge. We get comments like “at most mine sites people are really tired but nobody is tired here”,’ she laughs.

‘We say ”it’s because we care”, and that’s at the heart of it. That’s the result of that investment. Our culture is not just about the work, it’s about the whole person.’

Melanie says all the positive aspects of Costerfield’s culture stem from that decision. It provided a basis for a safe, caring environment for everyone. On a personal level, it was a continuation of her own journey. She had already invested time and money in herself, for herself, but this gave her an organisational context.

‘I know you can change the culture and direction of a business by doing this stuff. You cannot measure the dividend it brings for the business and the people. I grew as a person and it really strengthened my relationships with the core team.’

Melanie McCarthy.

Many companies invest in their executives but Melanie suggests that pays fewer dividends than investing in frontline management, a move that flows through to the general workforce.

‘To get vulnerable and really honest with each other, you have to be in a team. You can’t send your CEO to Harvard and have them get vulnerable and expect to have that effect on the rest of the organisation. And that’s been a revelation for me, that investing in the front line has a massive impact on the success of your company.’

That revelation had personal ramifications too. Melanie was so empowered by the coaching she was determined to provide similar opportunities for others – not just within her own company but further afield.

‘A lot of engineers do MBAs and think they will automatically get a leadership role, but it’s not doing more study that makes that happen,’ she says. ‘It’s about challenging who you are as a person and your impact on the world and what you are passionate about. And that’s what I love to work on with people.’

The return on that initial investment has a more widespread impact too, with one of the best outcomes being Costerfield’s approach to its social licence to operate.

‘We employ local people. We train them. Whatever we can do to help the success of the region, we do.’

Costerfield helped set up a local childcare centre, with the understanding that creating a service that makes the region more attractive to people to live there creates more prosperity.

Melanie remembers the mileage she covered with her children: 30 minutes to childcare, then 40 minutes to work. At that stage, the nearest town – Heathcote – didn’t have any childcare. Now there’s a brand-new 70-place facility.

‘Before, both parents couldn’t work if they had kids. Things like this are game-changers. If we can play a role in something that will have a massive flow-on benefit to the community and increase the region’s prosperity, they’re the things we like to do. If the region is successful, we’re successful because we will attract people who want to live and work here.’

After an itinerant life early in her career, working in remote areas around Australia, Melanie took the job at Costerfield because she wanted to buy her first home. Then she met her partner, who planned to start a farming business.

Because she wanted to be involved in that, and loved her job, there was no reason to even think of moving on.

‘I was lucky enough to have a mine where I could work and contribute, and the culture fitted with me. Mandalay really cares about its people, and being in a small organisation you get exposure to all aspects of the business. I trained as a chemical engineer and I’ve run the plant, and the underground mine, and acted as the GM. Then, ultimately, I got the GM role.

‘All our leaders have the opportunity to move around, to get amazing exposure to different roles that you would not get in a big organisation. That’s how we keep people, because we move them around so they have the skills and the versatility. We can keep the business going and have our own lives, because everyone can do everything.’

There seems little doubt Melanie was destined for a career in mining. Born in Broken Hill, her family includes several generations of miners. While there was no pressure, she idolised her father, who was a mining engineer, and knew early on she wanted to do some type of engineering.

‘Another thing that helped shape my future was that we moved to Ballarat when I was four. Dad took a pay cut to be in a more family-friendly environment and he got the job as manager at Sovereign Hill.

‘That meant we played underground a lot and, as he also loved mining history, we spent time in the bush finding old mining relics. It gave us a real appreciation of the history of the industry, and its impact on society.’

The family later moved on to Melbourne. Melanie finished her schooling and headed for Melbourne University to study chemical engineering and arts. She chose the unusual combination because she wanted a balance between technical and creative.

She found chemical engineering tough, but while she had not yet framed the decision to leave the city and work in the mining sector, her first work experience job, two years before she graduated, decided her on both points.

‘As a chemical engineer I could have done anything but I did this three-month stint in the Victorian high country, working in the mine plant and doing lots of testing – and I found I just loved being in the bush.’

As a woman – and a mum – Melanie believes the sector can do more to increase female employment. She’s also uniquely placed to advise on how that could be done.

‘When people think about mines, they think of the remote ones where you have to fly in and out. For a woman, the immediate thought is how can you have a family and still work?

‘Because there aren’t many women, the people who are, are often working crazy hours. Many women see that and think “I don’t want to do that”, so I think that is an impediment to attracting more women to the industry, and then for them to want to take the step up.’

Melanie acknowledges that major companies are working hard to improve their employment offers, including job share opportunities on FIFO sites. She says anything that makes a mining career more attractive to women is good. Childcare is part of that but the approach could be broader.

‘I think my kids benefitted from not being in childcare for the first few years, because we had a nanny. That support at home was just fantastic. I paid a lot of money but it worked for us.

‘I think one issue for women is when they stop to have a family, they don’t pick up where they left off. Once you lose momentum, it’s almost impossible to get going again at the level where you were.

‘So there’s something more needed. If they’re passionate about what they do, and they’re supported to come back to work, and their children are being looked after in the home environment, so they don’t have to worry, it’s wonderful!’

Melanie says knowing everything was fine at home helped her focus more on her job, rather than trying to split her thinking between family and work. She believes companies could consider subsidising nanny services for an employee they value.

‘Part of the issue is that the industry is run by men, and they don’t always understand this – particularly if they have a stay-at-home partner who takes care of everything.

‘I’m at work and I have work responsibilities, but I still have to worry if the school calls and my kid is sick, or what I am cooking for tea, or being on time to pick the kids up from the bus, and all those other things about everyday life. If you have a partner who works too, that mental burden is with you all day.

Many women, Melanie says, would feel they must take the opportunity, because they’ve worked hard for it, but they might be a shining star for a while and then fall in a heap because there’s no back-up support. She believes if companies look more closely at how best to meet staff needs, they will be rewarded with loyal, happy staff working harder and more efficiently.

Obviously she would like to see more women in the mix, given the fulfilment she has experienced, but she is keen to encourage all young people to consider the sector.

‘We need to get students to look outside the square. There’s every chance their chosen career offers them opportunities in the resources sector but they might not have thought about it.

‘It is such a fantastic industry to be part of. Fast-paced adventure, amazing technology and really awesome people – which is a major part of the appeal for me – and then there’s the travel aspect. Being able to see the world as part of an exciting career is what the industry provides.

‘Making a contribution, too. People these days are more likely to want a job that makes a difference and that is what we do. We help make the changes that make a place more liveable, more prosperous.

‘Society just wouldn’t function properly without us,’ she says with a laugh, ‘and it’s also heaps of fun. I’m still having fun and that’s why I am still involved.’

And for anyone coming into the industry, she has one major piece of advice: join an association!

‘When you’re a young professional, doing big hours and probably somewhere remote, you don’t have a chance to get out and about. If you don’t have a social connection, or you’re not socially inclined – and a lot of technical people aren’t – AusIMM is a fantastic resource.

‘There are great events that allow people to get out and talk amongst their peers, and have that social connection. And the opportunity to present at conferences, to talk to people about what you are passionate about, those were key for me.

‘Through AusIMM, we learn from each other and contribute to a better industry that creates immense prosperity for our country. The challenge now, as a general manager, is how I encourage my people to contribute to the industry.

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