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How to pull off a high stakes project in a different cultural context

For this HR professional, understanding cultural differences and listening to the workforce in the right way allowed her to succeed.

Michelle Greenhalgh has some simple advice for finding one’s footing on the edge of an open-pit copper mine 4000 metres above sea level in the Peruvian Andes. “You just have to learn how to breathe,” she says. “And not talk too much when walking up hills.”

For a self-described exercise junkie, this sounds manageable. But to help, Greenhalgh kicks off the acclimatisation process at 3000m with a 24-hour stopover in Cuzco, an hour’s flight from Lima. Then it’s an eight-hour bus ride to the Las Bambas copper mine. “Or if you’re lucky, it’s 30 minutes on the most beautiful chopper ride in the world,” she says.

It’s a trek Greenhalgh regularly takes as mining company MMG’s general manager, people and benefits, overseeing a global HR function of 94 and a direct line of 20. As well as Peru, MMG has mining operations in Laos and the Democratic Republic of Congo. MMG’s  headquarters are in Melbourne, but it is 70 per cent Chinese owned.

“Our value proposition has always been around melding the east and the west together and getting the synergy from that.”

MMG bought Las Bambas from Glencore Plc for around $US7 billion in 2014. Greenhalgh used the acquisition’s HR and integration strategy as the case study for her Senior Leaders Pathway to AHRI certification. The mine was half built at the time of acquisition, so the strategy was to go in with a light touch rather than sweeping changes. The priority was to listen, understand the existing set-up and avoid delays to construction.

Las Bambas was completed in early 2016. It has about 2000 employees and 6500 contractors, mostly from the mine’s Apurímac region and some from Lima. There’s a further 100 people at MMG’s Lima office.

Cultural challenges

Managing Peru’s hierarchical culture is an ongoing challenge. “It plays out in many ways – bureaucracy, people not feeling empowered to speak up, communication getting caught in too many layers… down to silly things like people delegating their printing,” says Greenhalgh.

Her team has been removing management layers and encouraging employees to feel comfortable speaking to leaders so they can do their job well. Greenhalgh says senior managers know they must tailor the way they listen to employees to fit the culture of the country.

For example, Melbourne staff give candid feedback to CEO Jerry Jiao during listening sessions. Greenhalgh says this wouldn’t work in Laos, where it’s preferable to discuss an issue as a group, then nominate a spokesperson to give their view.

On a recent visit to Las Bambas, a conversation between Greenhalgh and the operations manager showed how employees were becoming more emboldened. “He proudly told me one of his supervisors asked the executive general manager if he could have a ‘career conversation’, which was unheard of previously.”

Greenhalgh recalls the launch of MMG’s video about company values at Las Bambas. The values were displayed on a screen amid images of big hearts, while Andean music played and employees cheered. “The miners were doing this amazing funky dance on stage complete with a light show,” she says.

Many might consider Greenhalgh’s role daunting, but she says, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. She had this in mind in 1988 when she landed in Australia from Manchester as a backpacking graduate. “I had no intention of going back,” she says.

Giving back

Fast-forwarding 30 years, Greenhalgh reflected on her career when considering certification. She was initially sceptical about how it would benefit her, given her proven experience and various academic and professional qualifications – including being a registered psychologist.

“My initial response was ‘Why on earth would I undertake certification?’”

She was persuaded by the realisation that it would benefit the profession and therefore give her more credibility. “You look at HR, and everyone thinks they can hang up their shingle and be an expert in people,” she says.

Being a good role model for her company and those coming through the ranks was a big factor. “I’ve spent my career head down and bum up, working hard,” she says. “You get to a point where you think, ‘I’m still working hard, but I can take a step back and help other people to learn from what I’ve been through.’”

Are you a senior or executive HR practitioner? Take the lead by becoming a Certified HR Practitioner via the Senior Leaders Pathway.

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