February 2008

Leading through people at Elk Valley Coal

By A. Smith

In early 2003, the Elk Valley Coal Partnership (EVCP) was formed, bringing together the Fording Canadian Coal Trust and Teck Cominco Limited, to create a global leader in the production and sale of hard coking coal. With the newly created merger of three organizations, Elk Valley Coal needed to implement a standardization of people management practices across the organization and throughout their six open pit mines in Western Canada. Before the merger, EVCP’s mines ran independently and each was managed as a separate business unit with different management practices. These differences in management practices rose to become a larger concern after the organization grew to 3,000 employees as a result of the merger. EVCP needed to define themselves as a new organization, while providing the best management skills to engage their workforce. EVCP’s senior management recognized the need to provide standardization of human resource management practices throughout different mine sites. An internal needs analysis study by EVCP confirmed that training in leadership skills was viewed as a top priority by their managers and supervisors.

Drawing on the data that had been gathered, EVCP partnered with Development Dimensions International (DDI), a global human resource consulting firm, to create a customized program of 10 courses that developed the leadership skills front-line leaders needed to succeed, to be given over a six-month period The experience combines classroom instruction, hands-on skill practices and a comprehensive overview of their EVCP strategic priorities and values. The courses cover topics such as change management, coaching for success, delegating results and interpersonal communication skills. DDI worked with EVCP to tailor the training materials, exercises, and skill practice situations, to encompass EVCP-specific language, the organization’s culture, and its business environment.

“DDI was the partner of choice; they offered the best people managerial skills needed,” said Ian Anderson, manager of human resources at EVCP. DDI delivered courses at a location close to the site, where people from other units and parts of the organization were able to meet. The location offered many opportunities for people to cross-learn and gain a sense of what other sites were experiencing. It was an opportunity to share best practices and to build relationships among colleagues. “I loved the involvement in this session. I received a lot of opinions from others within our own organization,” replied one participant.

Getting the support from all corners of the organization was not an easy task. “Initially, it was not easy to convince the supervisors that training was needed, but they soon realized the importance,” Anderson said. In order to ensure a successful implementation, all levels of management at EVCP were made aware of the initiative, so that they could contribute to its success.

Part of the success also resulted from the internal communications strategy and high-level executive involvement, both reinforcing the company’s value and commitment to developing its own leaders. “I introduced each of the sessions and stressed their importance in defining the organization through good management practices,” said Doug Stokes, vice president, operations, EVCP.

EVCP, like many other organizations today, is faced with the rising rates of retirement as baby boomers exit the workforce and are replaced with younger talent. EVCP’s voluntary turnover and retirement rates are lower than the industry average, but nevertheless significant. Therefore, it is increasingly important to build a new set of skills and tools for all new leaders, in order to expand the base of resources and talents available to address the issues that happen daily.

A major culture change in leadership style is currently underway. In the past, leadership or management was defined more as a top-down approach, and today’s leadership style is more focused on coaching and feedback from its own team members. EVCP clearly understands what is needed in today’s competitive workforce and in recruitment in the coal industry. Their goals are to make EVCP the best place to work, to increase safety and quality, as well as crew-based efficiencies, while continuously attracting new talent and retaining the best employees. Anderson simply stated, “we lead through our own people.”

The Elk Valley Coal sponsors of this initiative continue to demonstrate commitment and a strong desire to further the development of their leaders. This approach will ensure they realize great outcomes for their investment.

Allan Smith is the Canadian western operations manager at Development Dimensions International.

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