In this interview, former NSW Minerals Council Chair Stefanie Loader GAICD reviews her career in the resources sector and regional NSW's 'sweet spot' for opportunity.
Can you describe your executive/director journey? When and why did you decide to pursue directorship?
I worked in the field for 10 years in technical roles across the world and almost overnight found myself in London in the Rio Tinto CEO’s office. I had a front row seat to the executive committee and a ‘restricted-viewing’ seat to the company board for a year. After a few years in India, I moved back to Australia to lead the Northparkes copper-gold mine in Central West NSW. I joined the executive committee and then the board of the NSW Minerals Council. With a slightly naive and optimistic view of a future beyond Northparkes as a company director, I completed the AICD Company Directors Course in 2014 under an AICD-Australian Government scholarship. In 2015, I was elected Chair of the NSW Minerals Council and had the opportunity experience leadership as a director - and put my Company Directors Course into action.
The transition between executive and board careers is like switching from playing a high energy team sport to focus on an endurance individual sport. The final whistle blew and I exited the executive field - happily exhausted and proud of my team. Then the ‘patient training’ begins i.e. patiently seeking a small portfolio of director roles. I have found it helpful to have an overall aim which is to contribute to the economic development and diversification in regional NSW. The reward as a director is the opportunity to really contribute to more than one or two organisations. I often wonder how I did not get frustrated being restricted to one executive role, with all its day-to-day work. I do miss the day-to-day interaction with people - that for me was consistently energising.
What are regional NSW’s key opportunities and what role can directors play in supporting the region?
Regional NSW, particularly Central West NSW, is in a sweet spot. There has been investment in ‘connecting’ infrastructure and there is more on the way with the inland rail. We are and will be more connected (air, road, rail, the National Broadband Network, mobile) than ever before. With several new and upgraded hospitals, health services are good, if not great, and we have excellent schools, and a highly regarded university. Housing and commercial real estate is comparatively affordable, and to top it all off we have fabulous food and wine industries.
Our economy is diverse and continues to diversify as organisations from logistics, IT, agriculture and mining, government choose to have significant operations and even head offices in the Central West.
As a regional director, I tell the rest of Australia about our comparative advantages and encourage businesses and governments to see our region as a hub for operations and a source of good value skills, good and services. “Move to the regions, and contribute to our economic development - it just makes economic sense!”
I also encourage businesses to consider remote and flexible workers from regional areas, perhaps a stepping stone to establishing a regional base.
What attracted you to the resources sector? What advice would you give aspiring executives in regional areas or primary industries?
Quite simply, I wanted to work outside as well as use my brain. I had mining-related vacation roles in university and decided that the physical work mixed with the mental detective work required to find mineral deposits in the bush was for me, so exploration for a mining company was a good place to start.
One piece of advice: dive deep into one discipline. Get really hands-on and stretch your mind, and then broaden out and actively explore other disciplines. Depth is important, and will set you up well to transfer knowledge and ideas between disciplines.
Why is a strong relationship with local community and industry integral to resource sector operations? How did you cement productive relationships with these stakeholders?
Natural resources are largely immovable. Resource sector operations are enormous economic and social contributors to a community, so an open, respectful and productive relationship with local government, local businesses, neighbours, regulators and the broader local community is essential. Trust between these groups is the basis for the productive relationships. In some cases it is given at the outset and in others is built up over time. It all takes effort - lots of listening, understanding of purpose and priorities and, sometimes, just simply being part of activities that matter. I aim for strong institutional trust; a trust that extends beyond the individuals that represent an organisation. With the support of their host community, an operation can be established, get through the tough economic conditions as well as grow in good times. Without it, the operation will stagnate and stumble.
Trust is fragile and boards need to be clear who is responsible for maintaining productive local relationships, and that the threats are well understood and managed. On the ground, a bunch of informal, open conversations can tell a board a lot about community trust, and so can local social media.
What challenges have you faced as a female in a male-dominated industry? What, if anything has changed in your time there? What, if anything, would you have done differently in retrospect?
Kristy Christensen, the 2018 Exceptional Young Woman in NSW Mining award recipient, summed up the challenge for me recently: Women are too often excluded by design in mining. I wore baggy male shirts and pants as uniform for years, I’ve endured social outings to target shooting and men’s clubs and I’ve used toilets and showers that double as office storage units.
As a leader, I did have some impact particularly in India and at Northparkes, but wish I had just done more for inclusion for women (and for non-macho men) by design - of social events, of amenities and of workplace culture. It was too easy to accept the status quo because of time or cost pressure and then assure yourself that you will do something about it next time. To paraphrase a well known cliché: design for a broader spectrum of people and they will come. I wish that I had stepped into the shoes of more frontline people and then made it easier for a diverse group of people to thrive in a broader range of roles.
Northparkes was the first ‘White Ribbon’ accredited mining operation in Australia. Why was this accreditation important for you to pursue as Managing Director? What role should boards play in regards to social issues?
Back in 2012 there were two social issues that were not being adequately addressed in mining workplaces: mental health and family violence. Through Elizabeth Broderick AO I was made aware of White Ribbon Accreditation which provided a framework to equip our business, and in particular our frontline leaders, to support our people and prevent and respond to family violence. The ‘toolkit’ provides leaders with confidence to support not just those impacted by family violence but also by mental illness or other life-impacting circumstances. A leader that is equipped to know their people, notice the little things, reach out and connect them with relevant support, is a leader who will bring out the best in their people and will achieve great results. The benefit of a framework like White Ribbon accreditation is that the actions and changes become ‘institutionalised’ and part of the long-term identity of the organisation.
Social issues are related to workplace culture, so matter to the board. Directors ‘set the tone’ of the workplace culture. If the values of the organisation are linked to a social issue then the board considers the symbolism of a public or internal position. The classic example is the clear importance of inclusion to Qantas and the resulting public position on marriage equality. That was an important symbol for employees as well as the wider community of the culture at Qantas.
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