We are in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the mining sector. As someone who has been working in the sector for over 15 years I have been watching its rollercoaster ride of manic highs and depressive lows with irregular heart palpitations. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a notoriously tough operating environment where it is usually only the strong, the brave and the resilient leaders that stay the course and benefit from this ride of opportunity.

What’s been interesting as an executive coach is to watch the different leadership and organisational responses during this period of economic challenge. What I’ve noticed is that most miners will firstly look immediately to cut costs as a “knee jerk” reaction to market survival. This battle usually begins with staff layoffs, followed by delaying of capital projects, divestiture of non-core assets and operational improvements. The rationale for these strategies is that they will help to create more resilience in both up and down cycles in future. Here’s what I have seen. The reality is that while aggressive cost cutting will help with overall short-term profitability and temporarily boost stakeholder confidence, less attention is paid to the overall impact of these measures on people and mining leaders are generally ill equipped with the necessary people skills to deliver tough messages effectively without collateral damage.

The expedient way in which many have been dealt with is now creating significant challenges for leaders in the mining sector with staff morale low, trust and loyalty in the pits which is affecting organisational productivity, safety outcomes and ultimately bottom-line results. What is required is a different kind of leadership that veers away from the traditional operationally focussed hierarchical command and control model to one that is real, holistic and engaging.

I’d like to share a real example with you of an organisation I worked closely with that really screwed up and share with you how they turned their “botch up” into an opportunity to shine. I’m going to call it “operation mineset”.

The organisation was an Australian nickel operation with 2000 employees and contractors. Operating at best the mine produced about 90,000 tonnes of nickel per annum. I was called in by the executive to assist after a botched up handling of staff layoffs saw the entire staff one site corralled into the dry mess in a mass “your fired” exercise. Staff were asked to stand in lines as organisational representatives walked to each staff member calling out their names from a clip board as to who would stay and who would go. Planes that had landed with crew were turned around and staff onboard told en masse that they had lost their jobs, would not be returning to site and were flown back to the city. People that were let go on site were told to pack their things as they would be on the next planes out never to return. 300 people lost their jobs that day.

My brief was to help the mine return to full productivity with the remaining leaders and survivors. Here’s my question. How can I possibly turn around the mindsets of people who have been disrespected in many instances, lost their comrades, watched their comrades get sent home, deal with the fact that they still have their jobs and trust the leaders of the organisation who carried out the orders from the top? In the same way, how could the remaining leaders get through the guilt of their actions and rebuild the trust of their followers to return the mine to full productivity. Given that most of the remaining workforce were in a state of shock it was naïve of the executive to believe that the mine would be fully operational the next day and that people could just move on and get back to work. Here’s what we did:

Built the foundation. Before any intervention could take place with the remaining workforce the leaders of the mine site had to first be coached through what had happened. They needed to work through their own emotions before they could lead others through theirs and get back to work. For many of the leaders following the orders of the executive team at HQ had been a complete values disconnect and they were struggling to stay put. Many just wanted to get on the plane with those that had been sent back. It felt like total ANARCHY!

In a team coaching session we talked through the brutal facts of what had occurred and courageously discussed the behaviours that they has shown to their employees and its impact. For many the way they had behaved was not going to sustain the mine going forward in terms of engaging the hearts and minds of their people to stay and work hard. The type of leadership that would be required to re-engage their people had to be authentic, one that engendered trust and inspiring without feeding people bullshit or making promises they couldn’t deliver upon.

The truth was that no one knew whether this would be the last round of layoffs or not. So, it was up to the leadership team to model the right behaviours that would inspire loyalty, commitment and professionalism for as long as the mine was in operation.

What else did we do?

1.    We coached individual leaders one-on-one. Helping them to identify the shifts that would need to occur in the way they led to better rally the troops, rebuild trust and one day return the mine to respectable production levels.

2.    Shadow coaching leaders in real time proved extremely valuable as leaders were able to receive feedback from me in the moment and modify unhelpful behaviours or, recreate their moments of greatness.

The reality of the changes in leadership style that had to occur was too much for some and by the time the team was ready to confront their troops we had lost 30% of the leadership team. The team was now ready.

What about the rest of the workforce?

We worked with all the leaders and superintendents of the mine to re-engage the remaining workforce of 600 people. We co-designed a reintegration workshop which consisted of the President of the asset, the General Manager of the mine and myself working over a period of 6 weeks to personally talk with all staff.

The program had the following key highlights – present a no holes barred rendition of the botch up and plainly discuss the brutal facts of why what happened happened. We opened up the forum to allow all staff to ask questions and share how they really felt about the situation. This meant that the mine leaders had to deal with intense criticism, anger and sometimes aggressive abuse of those that stayed. We then worked with the staff through a process of understand how to transition through the changes and helped them to realise the benefits of what had happened e.g. the ramping up of the operation had meant that many contractors had been hired with lousy skills and poor attitudes just to put bums in seats. Their departure actually meant that much of the ‘dead wood’ had been cleared and most of those that remained were “good value”. It also meant less queues in the wet mess!

We coached the management team to be non-defensive, honest and compassionate listeners and facilitators of the workshops. Those that didn’t co-facilitate with me, sat amongst employees and took the heat from their questions, anger and tried to rebuild the trust.

What happened on the coaching & leadership development fronts?

–       Ongoing coaching with entire leadership team one on one. We were focussed on leveraging strengths drawing on the collective wisdom of the team and harnessing collective potential

–       We trained management group to become coaches. They had to work to cascade their learnings and stories of personal evolution to next level down.

–       We continued to work with individuals and their teams to iron out the wrinkles and increase their potency and efficacy.

What did we achieve?

Within 7 months we were able to:

–       Re-set the business

–       Ramp up operations

–       Achieve stable operations

–       Re-engage leaders and remaining survivors

In short we were able to help save the business and protect remaining jobs for a while…

Also you may be interested to know that

–       the Head of the operation became President of entire asset.

–       After 4 years the operation was deemed a non-core asset after a failure to sell it off but is still functioning today

–       50% of team stayed intact and joined competitor to run their mine

And lastly, the former General Manager of Mining who is still our client, now has a similar role with another operation.

What did we learn?

Leading through these uncertain times requires a very specific set of skills and capabilities which have been referred to by leading researchers as “seismic”. Seismic because of the mindset changes required to be able to make the required shifts. Although coaching is very individualistic, most of our coaching with senior leaders and teams tends to focus around the following key themes:

•       Strategic anticipation – moving from functional to strategic leader. Technical skills often necessary but not sufficient. Need to be more holistic and balanced. More of a generalist and less of a specialist.

•       Strong navigational leadership – guiding and developing versus telling with the goals of engagement, loyalty, unleashing discretionary effort

•       Agility – adaptive and nimble, comfortable with ambiguity

•       Resilience – good bounce back, effective no matter what the circumstances, positive mindset, optimistic, capitalises on opportunities

•       Works in collaborative partnership – able to create co-opetition, stakeholder relations, diplomat not a warrior

•       Predictive learning – learning from mistakes, requires a certain amount of humility. Being open and a global leadership mindset – cross-culturally aware.

Want to know more? Find out about our People Transition and Integration support solutions. Please contact us at Reinvention Consulting to have a chat with us – hello@reinventionconsulting.com.au

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