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The hard metrics and the soft influence

Laura Tyler is Chief of Staff to the CEO, Head of Geoscience at BHP Billiton as well as a graduate of WLA’s Advanced Leadership Program (ALP). Below is an abridged version of the speech entitled ‘The hard metrics and the soft influence’ that she gave at our recent 2016 Australian Women’s Leadership Gala Dinner.

“As a scientist, I learned how to apply numbers and facts to problems throughout school and university. As a leader, I have learned how to change the numbers by engaging people, guiding employees through change and encouraging success. These skills are not about science and are arguably hard to attain. Programs like those run by WLA support the development of such skills.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about my experience in completing the program in 2011 and considering how much I have taken away from WLA and applied to my working life.

Three observations have particularly stuck with me:

  • How you show up, how you listen, how you speak and what you show interest in, including really asking myself, ‘who am I in this picture?’
  • Creating connections for people by how I frame the intervention
  • Expanding my influence to get the best result through utilising the balcony or enterprise view effectively.

As part of the ALP, we had to define a problem within our working life that we had to manage and required us to be better than we had ever been before. At the time, I was the President at the Cannington silver lead zinc mine in north-west Queensland. I was responsible for an underground hard rock mine and surface processing operation, a road-to-rail transfer, a concentrate handling and ship loading facility and of course, all the employees, contractors and suppliers plus community relationships.

BHP Billiton decided to divest a number of its assets, including Cannington, to create a new company, South32. As my ALP project, I selected leading the over 900 Carrington employees through this change into a future that felt uncertain and difficult. This was a project with strong deliverables plus a huge engagement piece fundamental to its success.

I had to consider how I showed up, how my team showed up and how I would create a vision of the future that was more attractive than staying within the safety net of ‘the Big Australian’. Many of the employees had been at BHP Billiton their entire working lives or could tell you tales of breaking first ground. I somehow had to guide them to leave the safety of the known and band together to step into the relative uncertainty of a new company. It was a real test of my leadership. However, I reflected on the ALP and knew this was an opportunity to make a difference.

When the announcement was due to go out, with only a handful of people in the know, I had options on how I showed up which would influence how people felt about the change. It would be easy to move into command and control. However, that would be hard on people and many would ask questions their line management could not answer.

Therefore, I thought about how I needed to show up and asked what the team really needed from me. Taking a leaf from the course, I engaged line management in a workshop to define the audience, craft the messages and design the roll out. It was effective. From the initial shock of being brought into the ‘tent’ 24 hours before the main announcement, our contractors and key local stakeholders took only 48 hours to get the messages to employees.

We then had to make sure the operation was ready for new leadership from South 32 with a new set of values and a different style. I considered all the stakeholders and how we could convince them that the change was positive. The work that we undertook during the ALP proved valuable. Framing the message for each stakeholder with integrity was important. I am data driven but I am aware that not everyone is like that. Thus, I spent time analysing the different types of audience so that I could connect my language to them using tools from the ALP.

The planning paid off. Not only did I feel prepared for the conversations which I had to have, but the people of Cannington were engaged and interested in the future rather than frightened of it! Thank you WLA!

My current role requires getting things done through influence and seeing the bigger picture to bring an enterprise view to conversations. Sometimes influence is the only tool at our disposal. It can be much more powerful than a command or a mandate. I would suggest that the more senior you become in an organisation, the more important this skill becomes. Showing up with influence is something that I try to incorporate into my leadership style because I know as a leader it is one of the most effective ways I can conduct myself.

The ALP course taught me new skills, reorganised some that I already had and showed me that to be a successful leader I also need to make personal connections with others. It reaffirmed that I need to be genuine and authentic in the way I show up and the way I conduct myself while owning my individuality as a person. There is only so far people will run for a leader who does not show up authentically, for an organisation they do not feel a connection to or for a person who is not their true self.”

More information about the ALP is available HERE. To discuss your personal situation and how one of our courses can help you in your career, simply send an email to Alistair Young at ayoung@wla.edu.au.


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