When BHP Billiton CEO Andrew Mackenzie phoned Athalie Williams late last year to offer her the mining giant’s top HR job, she was shocked. She had moved to Singapore with BHP 15 months earlier and loved her role as head of HR for marketing. But landing her dream job as chief people officer, plus a seat on the group management committee was a strong incentive to return to Melbourne.
“It was always the role I wanted one day, but I wasn’t thinking one day was now,” says Williams, 45, who had once vowed never to leave consulting and join a corporate HR team. “But I couldn’t say to Andrew, ‘Sorry, I’ll do the job in two years’ time’. It was worth coming home for.”
BHP, which Williams joined in 2007, is more male-dominated than her previous roles at Accenture and NAB. Since July, Williams has been the sole female on the 10-member group management committee, and only two of 13 board members are women. But Williams says she’s not lonely being a female leader at one of the world’s biggest miners.
“I work with a great team. There have been many times when I’ve been the only female in a meeting, the only female around an executive team table, and I don’t notice it. I don’t think about it. You just have to work with the boys.”
The gender imbalance is something BHP is determined to change, however. Over the past five years, the number of women in senior leadership and executive roles has risen from 8 per cent to 17 per cent.
“That’s 2 times what we were in 2010, but it’s not enough,” says Williams. “We are very conscious that we have a lot more work to do to build female representation across our workforce.”
At graduate level, 45 per cent of BHP’s 2015 intake is female, compared with 36 per cent last year, thanks to a targeted effort to profile women and work with universities to attract female candidates.
Inclusion has also been a key focus to foster an environment that welcomes diversity and to educate leaders about its value. Williams says it’s about the little experiences every day, often at a practical, operational level. For women, it might mean having female toilets underground at mining sites or personal protective equipment that fits them. Or it may mean being aware of unconscious bias, such as assuming that a female executive wouldn’t take an international posting because she has young children.
Williams says she hasn’t encountered bias personally and believes her career success has been partly because of her willingness to grab opportunities and relocate with her husband and now 12-year-old twin daughters.
“I never said no to leaving. It was always about taking the option that would give me the next set of skills, the next exposure, and being willing and understanding the impact that has on your family,” she says. She points to her move to BHP’s Adelaide-based uranium business that was a way for her to gain operational experience away from the comfort of the head office.
When Williams started as chief people officer in January, BHP’s workforce comprised 46,000 employees and 77,000 contractors in 130 locations across 21 countries. Even after its de-merger in June, hiving off assets and employees into a separate ASX-listed company called South32, BHP Billiton remains a huge global business with 12 core assets in eight countries.
Williams says the key to ‘getting your arms around the entire organisation’ is BHP’s charter values, which include integrity, respect and sustainability.
“They are very real inside our organisation and guide how we work day to day, how we make decisions, the behaviours we expect of everyone whether you’re in HR, drive a truck or in corporate affairs. They’re central to how we create a common bond.”
Another important factor has been work over the past eight years on reshaping HR to have standard global systems and processes, rather than each business unit doing a lot of things in its own way.
“So an HR business partner at our Escondida mine in northern Chile has the same role and accountabilities as an HR business partner at our potash project in Saskatoon, Canada, or the Pilbara in our WA iron ore business.”
Managing reporting and accountability across a large organisation can be challenging, but Williams says BHP is very clear on that.
“I don’t have all of the HR function report to me. I have the corporate centre and the specialist HR functions report to me. The HR vice-presidents who sit in each of our businesses have a hard line to their presidents and a functional line to me,” she says, adding that, of the company’s 850 HR employees, only about 10 per cent are in the corporate centre.
Core values aside, BHP doesn’t want a single dominant culture across the organisation, says Williams. “We have people from many different backgrounds, we operate mines in a variety of geographical locations, we have offshore oil platforms, we have our shale gas fields, and we’re aware of the diversity those cultures bring, and we value that. We don’t see it as a hindrance. We see those different cultures and perspectives bringing more richness to our organisation.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the September 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘It’s a (wo)man’s world’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.