March/April 2010

The dream team

Xstrata Nickel’s young leaders learn from Canada’s most powerful women

By H. Ednie

Front row, left to right: Janice Fernandes, Ian Pearce, Heather Sullivan, Rebecca Ng. Back row, left to right: Sharon Kelly, Danielle Kowal, Dominique Dionne, Anna Murray, Christine Petch, Claire Vivier

Today and into the near future, the demand for talented young leaders in the mining industry far outstrips supply. The imbalance is even more severe for prospective leaders who happen to be women. Mentorship programs are an excellent way to develop human resources, but for women in mining, access to female role models is often hard to come by. Executives at Xstrata Nickel recognized the obvious problem of developing a diverse workforce internally, so they reached out.

Leading the newly formed company created by the acquisition of Falconbridge by Xstrata plc in 2007, Xstrata Nickel CEO Ian Pearce sat down with Dominique Dionne, vice-president, corporate affairs, to identify programs to foster diversity, including the professional development of promising women employees. In the process, they discovered the Women’s Executive Network (WXN).

“We launched the Canada’s Most Powerful Women awards in 2003,” explains WXN president Pamela Jeffery, “but it bugged me that we were handing out awards to an amazing group of women, but didn’t have a method to take what they’ve learned and impart it.” So they created the mentorship initiative, WXNWisdom II.

The program matches between 100 and 150 protégées with mentors each year. They meet once every three months over a one-year period. In addition, protégées attend four classroom sessions and peer networking opportunities delivered by top business consultants, held in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The mentors share their wisdom with the next generation of Canadian women leaders. “It’s an opportunity for our award winners to keep in touch with the next generation, helping them to better understand the younger women’s needs, and apply that understanding in their own organization,” explains Jeffery.

Teaming up with the Top 100

In 2007, Xstrata Nickel worked with the WXN to develop a program to roll out to Xstrata Nickel sites in Canada. They outlined application criteria designed to indentify women in mid-level positions or with emerging talent who possess leadership traits, the potential to grow, and who are making a difference in their team. Essentially, the company is looking for women employees that, if lost to Xstrata Nickel, would pose a threat to future revenue and the company’s talent bench. In the first year, seven Xstrata Nickel employees applied, with the support of a team led by Dionne, and all were accepted.

The next year, 17 candidates were admitted into the WXN program, including four women from sites outside Canada. “Everyone wanted to be part of the program, and we wanted all to benefit,” Dionne explains. “The WXN were worried at first [about reaching beyond the borders], but working together, we found a way, such as maximizing possibilities with mentors who travelled and coaching from a distance.”

“We’ve had 31 women go through the program so far,” says Dionne. “We’re developing a nice roster of female role models at Xstrata Nickel — these protégées come back ready to make a difference.”

Leading by example

The WXNWisdom II program is open to women across the country and throughout industries. There is a $1,600 protégée fee, plus the cost of travel to the four classroom sessions throughout the year. For their employees, Xstrata Nickel pays the fees and covers the travel costs, while enabling the women to spend time on the program. “To make a program like this work, you need support from senior management,” Dionne adds.

Support it has. Pearce now sits on the WXN selection committee for the Top 100 awards, and says his involvement with the organization and attending their events has been inspirational. “There is fantastic talent in this country — it’s a matter of recognizing this talent and putting it on boards,” he says. “It’s something I’m very passionate about. It’s of utter importance that we get the message out there to women that they have an equal place in our workforce.”

Xstrata Nickel’s efforts are noted. Jeffery says the company is an outstanding organization. “They place high value on providing training and development opportunities to their employees. They stand out right across the economy for their commitment to mentoring.”

Breaking boundaries

Having had such success with the WXN mentoring program, Xstrata Nickel aims to create a more comprehensive program for its female employees working internationally as well as for young male employees.

“We want a program that is international in the true sense of the word,” Dionne explains. “It won’t be tapping into the Top 100 group, but instead we’ll identify women in the host countries to our operations that are making a difference and match them with women at our projects. We’re currently at the very beginning of piloting the program at our Tanzania operation.”

With Pearce leading the way, Xstrata Nickel promises to continue to develop the leadership skills of a diverse team. “I look at the world today and I see no reason that there shouldn’t be 50/50 representation in our industry — it should not be gender-biased at all,” Pearce says. “There are barriers — paradigms that exist in peoples’ minds, that need to break down. My job as CEO is to foster an environment, to open doors, unlock paradigms, so people can go further than they had ever thought possible.”


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