What I've learned transitioning into a Leadership Role

What I've learned transitioning into a Leadership Role

Throughout the last 10 years of my career, I have had many people who have influenced my decision-making process. At each step along the way, I have learned something whereby my change in perspective has ultimately altered how I would react in different operational situations and how I interact with different personality types. Transitioning into a leadership role allowed me to take the lessons I had learned over the years and apply them to my unique management style.

If there is time to learn, there is time to clean

This is perhaps one of the earliest and most basic lessons many people will encounter in their first jobs if they’ve worked in retail or hospitality - but it holds true across every role I’ve ever been in. Although it may not mean literally clean, it does imply a strong message towards being proactive in looking for tasks that can be done; even if they aren’t always obvious. It could be anything that adds future value i.e. forward planning and prioritising your work schedule, completing future tasks ahead of schedule, or generating new work. Otherwise, it could be something a little more mundane i.e. unpacking a dishwasher, writing a procedure, or conducting an audit. If you look hard enough, there is always something that can be done that will either add value to you, your clients, or your colleagues.

80:20 Rule

When I first started as an engineer, I had a very strong eye for detail and was a perfectionist to the point where I was developing narcissistic traits about the work I was doing relative to my colleagues. I was applying the “time to lean, time to clean methodology” to everything I was doing. The more I looked into the fine detail of my designs, the more I would identify minor adjustments – which was great, or so I thought. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, that level of perfection isn’t actually required; nor was my effort being recognised by those around me. The advice I received was to apply the 80:20 rule to my work. For those who don’t know it, the 80:20 rule helps to avoid diving too deep into the detail. Your goal is to get 80% of your work done in 20% of the time and move on. Once you start looking into the fine detail, you can very easily end up spending 80% of your time on the remaining 20% of the work. This step change allowed me to start churning through my work much quicker (obviously you need to keep things error-free and maintain a high-quality output). With the increase in volume, heads started to turn and the recognition I was hoping for started to flow. It also freed up a lot more time for me to look for more tasks to do during my day – “time to learn, time to clean!”

Know your customers’ needs

Time and time again I come across teams who are producing an outstanding quality of work. With each one of these teams, there is generally a consistent complaint that they are overworked or consistently working back late to get things done in time. Almost all of the time, the work they are producing is not being 100% utilised by the operational team or downstream process. I’m sure everyone reading this has spent hours producing a report which you don’t believe anyone is actually reading – 90% of the time, you’re probably right! The problem is people are naturally innovative and like to improve the quality of their work – but never want to decrease it. It pays to do a review now and then to truly understand if what you are doing is: A) being used; and, B) adding value. I once commenced in a new role and was taught the ropes by one of the existing engineers. We produced and uploaded a design export file for our drills for 6 months before I questioned why we were still doing it. The system we were uploading the files to was a fleet management system that had been made redundant when we changed suppliers. Sometimes, you can save yourself time, sometimes you can save someone else time. I once worked with a shot firer who would manually count the holes on the drill map that were greater than 60m deep so he could get the correct number of initiating accessories out of the magazine – he didn’t know we could have produced that same summary with the click of a button. You never know what you’ll find, so have the conversation and never assume everything you are doing is right.

Expect the unexpected

Anyone who has worked on a mine site knows that things never go 100% to plan. Whether it be a drill bench not being prepped in time, a blast being delayed, flooded access, or an excavator breaking down, there’s always something that can go wrong. So, it pays to always have a backup plan in place – something that can minimise the impact on the operation and continue to add as much value as possible. This could be a backup drill pattern, a priority order for diggers, or a short and long dump option to help absorb the trucks. Where you can, you should always have a contingency plan in place.

Understand the value chain

For a long time, I didn’t truly understand the mining value chain, how it worked, and what processes were value-adding or value-depreciating. Outside of the corporate world, the truth on a mine site is that pretty much everything is value-depreciating - apart from the ore processing and blending which allows the company to increase the saleable product yield or quality and generate revenue. Therefore, the KPI focus on a mine site is normally centralised around how to achieve more throughput tonnes or higher grades – because this is what adds value. On the adverse, to improve operating margin, the KPI focus of the value-depreciating services will tend to focus on reducing either the cost per unit rate ($/t) or overall operating cost ($). In the corporate world, there are a few more value-adding processes. For example, the marketing team can promote a premium product price, bond investments can be made, currency exchange rate fluctuations, tax can be minimised and environmental liabilities can be released. If you don’t yet understand what adds value to your business, you should put some effort into finding out. It may change your outlook on the operational priorities.

You’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar

This is one of my favourite sayings and it rings true in your personal and professional life. When I first started as an engineer, I was on a mission to prove myself and assert dominance in my field. This usually came in the form of me being straight to the point and unempathetically giving orders to people. When I moved into my first people management role, one of my peers challenged me on this behaviour and instilled the very clear message of “you’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar”. Meaning: you are more likely to influence someone to do what you want if they like you. In addition to getting things done more productively, it also reduces the level of conflict in your workplace. This makes for a much nicer working environment when everyone is working together and enjoy working with you.

Theory of Constraints

I wish I was taught the theory of constraints earlier in my life. This was a game changer in how I viewed the mining operation and in assisting me to visualise the mining value chain more effectively. If you haven’t heard of it, the theory of constraints is a very effective way of streamlining the process flow by identifying operational bottlenecks and applying methodologies to help shift the bottleneck to a different process in the most cost-effective manner. In many places, the planned bottleneck is the processing plant. In reality, the actual bottleneck can change – particularly during the wet season, when machines break down or when schedule congestion delays the inventory in front of the mining fleet.

Context is King

One of the common mistakes I used to make was to tell people to do something without giving any context as to why. These days, I try to give context wherever I can and for multiple reasons. Giving context:

  1. Allows the person to better remember the task.
  2. Allows the person to learn why they are doing something.
  3. Allows the person to prioritise other tasks around this task.
  4. Allows the person to teach others.
  5. Allows the person to raise concerns or suggest improvements.
  6. Makes the person feel involved in the decision-making process
  7. Reduces conflict and confusion.

If you don’t do this already, you should give it a try. I guarantee it will make your job and life much easier and may resolve any hidden tensions.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

Just because you know how to do something, doesn’t mean it has to always be done that way. In fact, sometimes it may be better to do it another way. Unless you allow people to show you their process, you may never learn something new. Forcing people to do things your way is good for consistency; but if consistency isn’t required, it will more than likely just be annoying for the other person – push it too far and it will cause a conflict. Remember there are a million ways to skin a cat, try to let people follow their path and only step in when you need to.

Empower the people

As you climb the organisational ladder, it’s impossible to hold on to all of the detail. You can’t be there to make every decision for every person, every time. Empowering people to make decisions for themselves is the best form of delegation in my opinion. There is nothing worse than becoming a bottleneck or a roadblock as a manager; it frustrates the team and as an employee, it can be very belittling not being able to make simple decisions. Understand that people may not always do things the way you want them done, and they may occasionally make mistakes - but always remember “there’s more than one way to skin a cat”. In some cases, they may surprise you and get a better outcome. In any case, it will help to streamline your working environment and will reduce conflict between employees and bosses.

Service the servers

As people climb the corporate ladder they tend to forget where they started and how they felt under different leadership styles. At the end of the day, the frontline workers are often the ones that are in the trenches day in and day out and are driving the processes which are generating revenue. I often like to apply the value chain process to the organisational structure. In this case, the frontline employees are the people generating revenue and the bosses are typically a value depreciator. So, improving the frontline performance will gain the best net benefit for the business. With this as my mindset, I always focus on how I can simplify their jobs so they can perform more effectively. Whether it be by simplifying processes, removing or re-allocating tasks, or forward loading their work pipeline. They are my client, I am a service provider, and my mission is to keep them operating as efficiently as possible on tasks that are generating value for the business.

Be Human

Being human is not a hard task – though some people certainly make it look like one. It’s important to treat people as you wish to be treated. Early in my career, I made the mistake of expecting people would not bring emotion into the workplace – I was wrong. Everyone is human, there is more to life than work. So, expect people to show emotions in the workplace and you need to adjust and deal with it empathetically. There are certainly boundaries, but as professionals, we should all know where those lie. People like working with leaders whom they respect. Helping people, showing vulnerability, and being friendly and approachable will set you up for success.


Author: Andrew Dittmann