Rebecca McGrath FAICD will remember 2020 for the months she spent unable to meet her colleagues or see the company’s assets in real time. “Before it happened, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to continue doing the job under those conditions,” she says.
The job in question is chairing an international copper-focused organisation based in South Australia. Positioned as a modern mining company, Oz Minerals has a devolved business model with a culture of innovation, collaboration and adaptability rarely seen in such a capital-intensive industry.
“Traditionally, this kind of culture has been built around personal interaction,” says McGrath. “You can feel very isolated from the role... when all of your connections are through a screen. In uncertain times like these, the board and particularly the CEO would also demonstrate leadership by being visible, available and connected. We’ve had to be very innovative in finding ways to do that virtually.”
The company’s purpose statement, “Going beyond what’s possible to make lives better”, could have been written for the pandemic. “We worked hard to find a way of communicating our commitment to using technology and different ways of working to challenge preconceived ideas of what’s possible,” she adds.
“In terms of making lives better, copper is critical to renewables along with the batteries needed for electric vehicles, so we’re delivering a product that enables innovation in clean energy. Both Andrew Cole [CEO] and I have also been very outspoken about the fact that investing in Oz Minerals is about creating value for employees, communities, government and suppliers, as well as shareholders.”
Doing things differently
Formed in 2008 by the merger of Australian non-ferrous metals miners Oxiana and Zinifex, Oz Minerals has always regarded innovation as the way forward. Since McGrath joined the board in 2010 and then took over as chair in 2017, challenging the status quo has become a core part of the culture.
“The board has become more focused on appointing directors who are passionate about innovation and prepared to role-model those values in the way we behave as well as the way we govern,” she says. “We provide space to not only try new things, but also to express views, make suggestions and do things differently.”
Project Beyond, for example, called for people at all levels of the organisation to come up with ways of helping it accelerate out of COVID-19. They identified 450 opportunities now being embedded in a set of statements of strategic intent.
“We’re also considering how we can be much bolder in acting on our aspirations about water usage, being carbon neutral and creating less waste,” she says. “We’re using this era to challenge some of our objectives and respond with rapid innovation.”
McGrath has no qualms about leveraging all available knowledge and experience. The 2018 Explorer Challenge, for instance, may have raised eyebrows because it meant sharing the company’s intellectual property. Geologists and data scientists around the world were offered a share in a $1m prize pool if they could draw new insights from existing exploration data.
“Some organisations see putting proprietary data in the public domain as the equivalent of displaying the crown jewels on the street,” she says. “We saw it as an opportunity to see whether people inside and outside the industry could find something we had missed.”
25% say working from home during COVID-19 has made us enjoy work more
50% of women and 33% of men find working from home easier
90% are benefiting from a reduced need to commute for work — a third gain nearly a productive day back per week, leaving more time for work and other activities
45% say greater flexibility to manage our day is improving our lifestyles
Source: Deloitte Digital Consumer Trends 2020
One of her most heartening surprises of 2020 was how many organisations put caring for people first. “There’s been a great deal of generosity and trust, and I think stakeholders and customers are recognising this,” she says. “It will be interesting to see how this trust plays out in the future.”
McGrath has also been pleased by the mature attitude to raising capital during the year. “There has been some appropriate debate around that, but I think the market has been understanding about the need to shore up balance sheets — even where companies aren’t in crisis — in order to create more opportunity to pursue growth as the environment improves.”
However, she remains concerned that the churning uncertainty will continue into 2021. “We can only cope with uncertainty for a while before it starts to take a toll on our confidence and resilience,” she says. “And economically, continuing uncertainty around COVID-19, particularly in the rest of the world, is bound to flatten demand for Australian products. We’ve already seen an impact on education, which is one of our largest service-based exports.”
She is also apprehensive about Australia’s deteriorating relationship with China. “Forty per cent of Australia’s exports go to China [at the time of writing] and I’m worried that our relationship at the highest levels is not as mature and strategic as it needs to be,” she says. “That’s going to be top of mind for a lot of boards in 2021.”
What McGrath would most like to see is collaboration between government, non-government agencies and business in support of post-COVID recovery. “Businesses, particularly small businesses, have shown an extraordinary ability to adapt and pivot at high speed,” she says.
“I hope the achievements driven by necessity will inspire us to stay more excited and driven by new ideas. I also hope we can use this opportunity to accelerate towards a clean energy future. Gas will play a role in the transition, but I think we can and should go faster on renewables. Australia has the potential to become a major player in this field and the benefits in terms of jobs, emissions reduction and innovation would be tremendous.”
Double the time
The pandemic is placing an unprecedented burden of work on business leaders. “I would say that, in the first six months, I spent at least twice as much time as I normally do on board business, such as chairing more frequent board meetings and having discussions with Andrew,” says McGrath. “This has also taken up a lot more headspace in terms of thinking, preparing, considering and researching.
I also find collaborative technology more tiring than attending physical meetings, and I’ve heard many other people say the same thing.”
She’s been reading fewer business books, but continues to keep up with publications such as The Economist and Fast Company, along with reports from economists, analysts and consultants. “The idea of setting a strategy and reviewing it 12 months later is out the window,” she says. “So it’s more important than ever to stay abreast of the trends and macro factors that will require us to adjust our tactics and response in a much more active way.”
McGrath stays physically and mentally fit by making time to do something completely different. “I live in Macedon Ranges just outside Melbourne — fortunately, not in the lockdown area — so I’ve been walking in the hills for an hour or two a day,” she says.
“Walking helps to clear my head and it can also be a time when I think creatively about solving problems. I love being in nature and find it the perfect balance to the demands of making sure I’m in the best possible position to provide advice and guidance to Andrew and to lead the board in these turbulent times.”