Vive la difference: when creativity and leadership flourishes in the mining industry

Iluka Resources Ltd has, like most resource sector companies, struggled over the last few years. It has kicked many successful goals and had its setbacks as well.

As a consultant, I looked forward to any work I did with Iluka – I knew it would be a delight, something that would make an impact, deliver a result, and I knew it would be supported all the way down.

As a consultant I knew that, in many respects, Iluka was no different to other similar companies employing a range of personalities occupying sometimes anomalous role structures within a rational, analytic male culture with the strengths and limitations that attend to such. Yet it felt different, it felt alive, it felt compassionate, it felt supportive, it felt energetic, it felt effective, it had a “can do” sense about any strategic or operational issue it faced. Put simply, it worked – its culture worked: there was real alignment among the critical three of culture, external demand and corporate strategy.

Everyone contributed to this culture, this way of being, this feeling or ambience, particularly a range of senior line and support executives. Though very different in key respects from one another they nevertheless respected each other and together allowed difference, creativity, energy and innovation to flourish whilst delivering bottom line results.

Back then it was such a different experience to walk into Iluka compared to some other mining houses where rules and procedures combined with overly-rational analysis and logic, mostly by males in powerful positions, dominated and dampened respect, care, effectiveness and energy. When you walked through the door of Iluka you experienced a real tangible point of difference.

Much change has gone on in this company of late … a big overseas acquisition, a new CEO. Yet this culture continues.

How did this come to be? What was the formula? Can we write it down and replicate it elsewhere? The simple answer to the last question is no. It emerged, it grew, it was fostered by a leadership cohort and influenced deeply by a few key individuals.

I remember the very first time I walked into this company’s glass tower offices in Perth to meet the CEO. It was December 2009. Whilst waiting I bumped into the COO dressed up in Santa suit, playing with children on his knee and causing much hilarity among staff.  “This is different”, I thought. And so it was.

Another key individual was the Manager Human Resources, Kathy Bunce who went on to become General Manager People, Innovation and Information. I remember my first encounter with her was a discussion about a wedding she was organizing and the almost impish joy she was sharing at how different it was going to be. Then we got down to organizing the task I had been set by the company. I quickly observed the inclusiveness of her own staff into every decision and formulation of initiatives. Over the years, it was obvious that she saw her role as providing whatever support was needed to enable her own staff, indeed every Iluka employee to be successful. Her openness to going “far afield” to find ways to foster innovation and creativity in the organization knew no bounds, from dance companies to leading edge tech startups. There was not one Kathy at work and a different one at home. Everyone who interacted with her knew and experienced her as a WYSIWYG – there was only one Kathy, a smiling, energetic, focused and welcoming human being.

After leaving Iluka Resources Kathy took her energy, her way of being, her creativity and applied to them young entrepreneurs as a senior member of Unearthed. Sitting with her one evening by the banks of the Brisbane River it was clear the passion she had in Iluka was not going to end – it had been reformed in a new and stronger way. She was now committed to and supporting these entrepreneurs in realizing the dreams.

Kathy died on September 7 this year after a short encounter with cancer. She will continue to represent for me one of the best role models of truly effective leadership. She had a history of supporting initiatives to fight cancer and even after diagnosis was planning another initiative. You can access it here and the suggestion is that you support this as a way of acknowledging an extraordinary leader.

Tim Dalmau

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