Salt of the Earth
– Denise Goldsworthy is somewhat of a trailblazer, starting her career in the male dominated mining industry and building a very successful career with BHP and Rio Tinto before starting her own consultancy, Alternate Futures to help people think outside t
When Denise Goldsworthy began her working career in 1982 with BHP Steel, she could have been mistaken for the raw prawn. At 17, Denise had moved away from home, out of Sydney to Newcastle and was making the transition from school culture to having to know what to do in the employ of a mining giant. However, if you ever have the pleasure of speaking with Denise, you quickly learn that it would be quite difficult to come the raw prawn with her. She is a quick adopter, a quicker adapter and is constantly learning.
The other advantage enjoyed when she began with BHP was the small, surprisingly supportive environment she found herself in.
“They were very supportive and gave me additional training – that was a constant for all of my time there. During the time I spent at BHP, I did something like 14 jobs in 16 years. I was just continually learning.”
Denise wasn’t just learning on the job, she was also putting herself through university.
“The part-time arrangement where you can make some connections between why you’re learning the stuff at University with what you’re doing at work, helps support the idea of continuing to learn and ask questions and finding out why something makes sense. I think that is lacking with some students today.”
She learnt that working for BHP was all about deliverables and committing to the task at hand.
“If you took on something, you were committed to do it. Moving through the company and having a presence is about asking the right questions. I was constantly trying to stretch myself and looking for the next opportunities, which was part of why I finished up doing so many different roles in the time that I was there. If I was in a technical role, I wanted to know if I could I do a live supervisory role.”
Denise was constantly asking to do more and more challenging tasks. She was a part of BHP’s standard rotation policy, but after 12 months they took her off that rotation and gave her more useful things to do.
By the time Denise found herself at Rio, she was already a senior manager. At BHP she had undertaken various iron-making and technical roles as well as steelmaking operational and technical leadership positions. She left BHP as a superintendent and joined Rio Tinto as a manager for technical marketing at the Hammersley Iron division in Perth.
She learnt a lot about her management style as well as leadership capabilities during these years.
“At BHP we would regularly make presentations to the line management about what we’d been doing over the last three to six months. I went into this session with this whole vision about how senior managers are able to walk on water and that they know everything. The most senior person in the room asked me a question about some of the tasks that I was doing and I thought why doesn’t he know this stuff. So, it then made me start to look at the knowledge and capabilities of the people that are actually making decisions. Then I thought well if I make the effort to go and ask questions and understand what’s going on, I could be a really good manager and show these people how good a manager could be. That became my philosophy to any work that I was doing. It was a matter of how could this be done differently, how could it be done better.”
Denise says this approach has helped her build trust and respect. Her willingness to continue to learn is one of the tenets Alternate Futures is based on. She sees herself as a puzzle master, dealing with risk management and area planning and everything else an MD has to deal with and then seeing how the pieces fit together.
“You need to know enough to be able to ask the right questions of your experts and be comfortable taking advice from them. You need to recognise if there is an issue that needs to be explored further. I applied those principles through BHP and Rio and I suppose in a way that ultimately lead to why I’m now running my own company. I become frustrated with big business in Australia because a lot of people are not asking questions, especially when there are huge opportunities to improve business, including those two very large and successful companies.”
Denise seems to lament the idea that few people are striving for excellence anymore. She says fear is a major factor.
“I’ve been exploring this question, because it’s an important question for me. And a lot of it is around personal fears, which are being aggravated by high governance and the high legislative environment that business is working in at the moment. There is an awful lot of pain and punishment if you try something and it goes wrong. So it is just a lot safer for middle to senior managers to maintain the status quo. If
something out of the ordinary occurs, then those managers have a scapegoat.”
Alternate Futures is about helping people change the status quo; encouraging people to step away from their comfort zones and face their fears. To do this you have to get your culture and systems right.
“You need to have systems change around risk management processes to allow you to make the best decision that you can with the information that’s available at the time. And while you may not be able to create a 100% guaranteed system, you can use risk type processes to make them as strong as possible.”
Organisational psychologists work with Denise as well as some extremely competent, very specialised technical people. They go into companies to understand where the organisations need to make change and guide them so that they are comfortable managing that change themselves.
“We’re not about going in and making the decisions for them. We are about helping them learn how to be different. And, we work from both the industry and the research side. It’s interesting at the moment that most of our work is actually within the research side. The only work that we’re currently doing with industry is with start-ups, where they’ve been a smart entrepreneur with a great idea but are wondering what the next step is.”
Alternate Futures is investing in some very good research. They are finding that there are not only cultural and systems gaps, but there is actually a huge language barrier. The ‘techno-boffins’ running the research labs are failing to communicate properly with business and vice versa.
“They’re all using English, but they haven’t got the faintest idea what each other is saying,” Denise says. “So they are not getting the point or understanding whether their problem and a particular solution works together. They’re not building trust.”
Alternate Futures facilitates the trust. They are working on systems to help business and technical experts understand each other.
“There is some brilliant research happening right across this country, but industry is still scared to engage with it even though some of them are going broke. They’re actually less scared of their companies going broke, than having to personally change and engage with a new technology that they don’t understand.”
Most executives have a track record of success and are reluctant to go down different paths. Denise’s job is to help them understand that just because they may have been successful with one tool in their kit, doesn’t mean that they’re going to be successful for the next 10 years. She comes from her own successful place to do this. There was a point in time with Rio where she was looking after 3,000 people and several billion dollars worth of capital. She spent two years as vice president operations of Asia Pacific, as managing director of Dampier Salt and HIS melt, and as the chief commercial officer of Autonomous Haul Trucks. She learnt a lot at Rio Tinto just heading up these divisions.
Does she feel she needs to be mentored?
“Not mentored, but I do think I need to continuously learn. So that whole philosophy that I’ve talked about where every person that I meet, I assume that there’s something I can learn off them. I see that today.”
It is a philosophy that has stood Denise well. It has won her a Telstra Business Woman of the Year award. She admits to entering the award to gain publicity for some of the things Rio Tinto was doing. However it became fantastic recognition around what she had been doing in terms of best practice. The award opened doors for public speaking and gave her the confidence to start Alternate Futures.
The aim for Alternate futures is to grow enough of a client base and respect across the research institutions, that they trust Denise to create win-win successes. As she has stated previously, part of taking research in Australia to the next level is going to be around more collaboration.
“The only way Australian Industry, manufacturing and mining in particular are going to survive, is if they do things differently. There are some major changes that need to happen to accept that, so one line of vision for my company is to make Australia a better place. And, I’m doing whatever I can to facilitate this with a bunch of very enthusiastic, very smart people who also have the same vision.”