If I knew then what I know now: reflections on a career in resources

  • By Gabriela Love MAusIMM(CP), Manager – Performance, Newcrest

An examination of personal growth and leadership

This article is based on a keynote address I gave at the AusIMM New Leaders’ Conference last year. In preparation for my keynote, I went back to the paper I presented at the inaugural Young Professionals Conference (hosted by the AusIMM North West Queensland Branch) in October 1995. The theme that year was ‘Developing the Future’, and as a young professional myself, I presented a paper called ‘Women in the Workplace at Northparkes’ about the human resource strategy adopted at Northparkes and the integration of women into the mine. The paper discussed the challenges faced by women in the decade preceding 1995, the status of the industry and at Northparkes at the time, and I presented my view on what lay ahead for the next decade for women in mining.

In my paper I outlined the Northparkes philosophy for achieving business success, which included:

  • equal opportunity employment and recruitment selection processes
  • career development for all
  • training and development for a multi-skilled workforce
  • reward systems recognising personal achievement, innovation and teamwork
  • encouraging innovative work practices and processes
  • effective communication systems.

It is worth noting that my experience at Northparkes was quite different to the experiences of women working in mining at the time.

Looking back, it’s my opinion that the Northparkes leadership teams’ approach to consider women for every role (without exception) at the recruitment stage has been an important factor in achieving the sustainable success that the mine continues to enjoy today. At the time I presented the paper, Northparkes boasted a 23 per cent gender diverse workforce across operational, technical and management roles.

My experience at Northparkes certainly gave me (personally) a great deal of confidence and I feel that it was and still is an excellent example of best practice, and one that many others would do well to follow.

But there is a postscript to my Northparkes experience. While there, I was the Open Cut Mines Superintendent and I had been empowered to shape the culture of the mine. I was given that power by the leaders of the business. At the time, I didn’t know how fragile that power was.

When I left Northparkes in 2002, I discovered a world with promotions driven by the ‘old-boys club’, particularly in the coal industry. While more professional women were entering the industry in the early 2000s, stereotypes and unconscious biases persisted, leaving women with limited career growth opportunities. Ultimately, this resulted in disillusionment and many women dropped out of the industry. In mining today, 30 per cent of university graduates are female, but this percentage drops to just ten per cent at middle management level. Much has been written and said about the business case for diversity and I won’t repeat that here, except to say that unless the industry embraces diversity it will continue to leave value on the table.

For more than a decade after Northparkes, I searched for a workplace where I could again thrive and be a leader. I did not find it easily. While there were many roles that I threw myself into and worked with some terrific individuals, not one single organisation came close to capturing the essence of the successful implementation of non-gender specific teamwork that I had experienced at Northparkes.

I’ve now learned that stewardship of my personal growth, my career and my leadership style is up to me to manage. While I may have mentors and sponsors, it’s the effort that I put into knowing myself that will allow me to be the leader (leader without title) that I aspire to be and seek to be remembered for.

My three key messages for those looking to grow professionally are:

  • Believe in yourself – if it’s to be, it’s up to me.
  • Develop yourself – change starts with you.
  • Find your voice – seek out opportunities.

1. Believe in yourself

I graduated as a mining engineer in 1985 during an industry downturn, and having completed the necessary vacation work at a coal mine in Singleton I was eager to get into the workforce. I sent out hundreds of applications promoting myself, but I heard nothing except a small number of carefully worded replies informing me that I was unsuccessful. Up until that time, I truly had not appreciated the reality of prejudice and discrimination that I was to face over the years.

When I graduated, women could not work in an underground mine. The legislation stated that only men could work underground. I could visit the mine, but not undertake any manual work there.

After months of sitting in Sydney, waiting for job offers that weren’t forthcoming, I purchased a one-way ticket to Kalgoorlie.

If it’s to be, it’s up to me

I went to every mine operation in Kalgoorlie, both open cut and underground looking for work, and had many doors slammed in my face. On one occasion, I had an Underground Mine Manger tell me that ‘as long as his arse pointed to the ground, there would be no women working in the mine’, so I thanked him for his time and walked out of his office, even more determined to prove him wrong.

I was applying for any work remotely connected to mining. I applied for hundreds of jobs and knocked on a lot of doors, before finally getting a labouring job pulling sticks out of leach dams in Southern Cross. After that, I worked in an assay lab washing bottles and mixing chemicals, and then as a sampler alongside an RC rig. Eventually I got my big break when I landed a job as a dump truck driver and I was ecstatic.

Operating a dump truck on a 12-hour shift basis for over 18 months gave me the experience I needed. I observed the pit operations, I watched the other equipment and the supervisors going about their work and I would discuss the mine plan with my fellow truck drivers as I tried to educate myself in the running of a mine site. Many of the principles that I refer to today in my planning work are founded on the learnings I gained from working as a dump truck operator.

The mine was in a remote region of Western Australia and women were scarce. I was the butt of many jokes and I ignored most of them, but it was difficult at times.

I recall one night, in the early stages of my driver training, when the excavator operator was particularly aggressive and would hit the side of my truck with the bucket of his excavator. Apparently he wasn’t happy with the way I was backing in for loading. I later learned that this would have been making his job harder, but I didn’t know it at the time. Truck efficiency can make or break an operation. But his behaviour made me more nervous and my reversing got worse, not better.

Extremely frustrated and angry, he got out of his cab and came down to the truck to swear at me. He was abusive and unrelenting. As you can imagine, I felt threatened and incredibly incompetent; nonetheless, I finished the shift and approached my supervisor for some additional training, and soon mastered the backing-in technique.

Having not given up, and believing in myself, I achieved the required level of competency and became accepted by the crew. I tell you this story not to cast negativity on the individuals, but rather to illustrate the importance of self-belief. Believing that I could do it, even when others were making it difficult for me, allowed me to break through the obstacles and achieve my goal. This was an invaluable experience that I could not have learned any other way.

I now know that nothing will change unless I take personal accountability for my actions and believe in my ability to control the outcome. I’ve adopted the mantra ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me’, which has allowed me to take charge of my actions.

2. Develop yourself

I believe that we all have the ability to shape the future of the industry. However, to change the external environment, we must start by knowing ourselves. Do you have a clear vision and plan for your career? What is your professional legacy going to be? What is your leadership style?

Who you are today is not who you will become, and who you become will depend (to a large extent) on the ownership you take of your personal development. Take time to invest in planning your career by setting clear goals and reviewing them regularly, and by learning to understand who you are and what drives your behaviour. Self-reflection and developing a deep understanding of yourself will make you a formidable leader.

When I first graduated, I thought my learning was over and if there was further learning it would be in the technical areas of understanding how to operate, design and manage a mine. Never did I consider that learning about myself would take such a prominent role.

Find your passion

What I’ve come to realise is that in order for me to be the best practitioner that I can be, I must understand who I am and what motivates me. In recent years, I’ve spent time reflecting on finding and understanding my passion. It’s because of this investment that I am now clear on the value that I can bring to my work. As a gender diversity champion, I have found it easy to spend discretionary effort on advocating for women in the industry.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that innovation has also always been a key characteristic of my work. In many of the roles I’d held over the years, I had introduced and been involved in innovative technology, without giving it a second thought.

Pace of change

In the last decade the rate of adoption of new technologies has accelerated at dizzying speeds. If we’re to manage this pace, then we must become self-aware and know our personal strengths, and be willing to work with diverse groups of people. No one individual can keep abreast of all this technology, so we must learn to rely on one another.

For me, there is a strong link between increased diversity in the workplace and innovation. Discovering that these two things are passions of mine has allowed me to deliver better outcomes in my work.

When you know your passions, you will be prepared to do more and work smarter by utilising the strengths of yourself and of others.

3. Find your voice

It’s often said that women are ‘wired’ differently to men, that women are less likely to take risks and venture outside the boundaries of what is expected of them or what ‘acceptable behaviour’ is for them. However, throughout history there have been many great women who have put themselves out of their comfort zones, seized opportunities and challenged the norms – women such as Amelia Earhart.

You may not know that Amelia’s interest in flying did not begin until she was 23. In 1928, she was asked if she wanted be a passenger in a flight across the Atlantic with two male pilots. By accepting the challenge, she became the first woman to make the harrowing flight, the same year that three other female pilots died trying to be the first. Later, in 1932, she flew solo non-stop across the Atlantic, which was a significant achievement in itself, but also significant for being achieved in a male-dominated field. Amelia was a woman of strong convictions who lived during challenging times and her ambitions were met with disapproval and doubt.

In a letter, she wrote – just in case her dangerous flight proved to be her last – ‘I want to do this because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.’ Earhart challenged the status quo and looked for ways of testing her abilities as a pilot, time and time again. Quite fittingly she is remembered for her courage, vision and groundbreaking achievements.

Seek out opportunities

Rather than let the opinion of her peers confine her, Earhart was prepared to take a risk, seek out opportunities and dismissed failure as ‘a challenge’. One of the key characteristics she brought to the fore was her ability to voice her views.

I stand on the shoulders of giants like Amelia, like Sandra Bailey and the many other women that have forged a career within the mining industry.

It’s taken me a long time to realise this, but simply having a talent is not enough – you have to tell people about it.

I urge all of you to speak up, ask questions and talk about your goals, aspirations and passions with your colleagues, mentors and managers. By telling others what you hope to achieve, new doors will open and exciting opportunities will present themselves. Like Amelia, as individuals, we must learn to self-advocate and take opportunities when they arise.

You’re in the driver’s seat

Business frameworks, strategic imperatives and positional power can prop up leaders, but what I now know is if you develop a leadership style based on your values, it will set you apart. It will outlast your detractors, it will allow you to build your career in the direction that best suits your strengths and it will help you create a legacy  you’ll be proud of.

To shape the future, we must start by knowing ourselves and being prepared to change our behaviours, to reflect on what we value and what’s important to us as individuals.

When I started out, I found whatever work I could to prove to myself. I believed in myself and I persevered. My actions demonstrated my commitment and with that came acceptance within the workplace. Show your commitment – tough times don’t last, but tough people do.

I encourage you to speak up and self-advocate; take a leap of faith and back your judgement. Voice your goals and interests whenever you can.

Take accountability for your self-development and when you look in the mirror each morning say to yourself: if it’s to be, it’s up to me.

By seeing yourself as a leader, you will behave as leader in every situation, and in doing so you’ll begin to influence others.

As a resources professional of today, you have the freedom to excel and the power to shape tomorrow.

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