Chris Griffith, chief executive of Anglo American Platinum, the largest platinum producer in the world, started his career in that industry in 1990, at the most junior level and worked his way up the ranks to where he finds himself today. And where does he find himself? It is without a doubt his greatest leadership challenge ever, at the head of an organisation that has been troubled with countless obstacles, some of which include violent labour unrest on the back of the Marikana upheaval; a market that is over supplied; the price for platinum remaining flat with a demand that has still not recovered to pre-crises levels; difficulties in Europe; cost escalations that are between five and ten per cent above mining inflations; and they had their first loss in the history of the company last year.
This litany of industry challenges did not just emerge yesterday. A lot of what confronts the platinum industry stems partly from legacy issues that have festered in the background.
This past week Griffith reflected on his role as a leader during a leadership conversation with our leadership platform.
What emerges at first in our conversation is that, for Griffith, the first order of business seemed to have been to dive into the shape and form of Anglo Platinum, especially after the company set out to review its structure and formulate a response to the challenges at hand.
The purpose of the review, Griffith says, was to “completely review the status of the platinum industry and company, to understand what needed to be done in the business.”
He clearly has leadership instincts and ability. Within ten years of starting his career in 1990 he became the youngest General Manager in the group, overseeing ten thousand people at the organisations flagship operation. According to Griffith what prepared him most for the current leadership challenge is experience: “First of all I have done the hard work. I have come up through the ranks, which has prepared me not only in terms of knowledge about my industry, but I have done work at all levels of the organisation and have the ability to connect on all those levels.” He further acknowledges that leading it is a people’s business and his life experiences have taught him to work with people. Griffith believes his education, good mentorship and a healthy family support structure prepared him and, he adds: “I worked my backside off throughout my career. I worked harder than anyone else around me. I spent more time with the people than anyone else around me. It was my own personal desire to succeed and be better.”
He has seen the cycles of good and bad times and is familiar with challenges that the platinum industry poses, but by his own admission what he now faces falls in a different league: “I know the industry. I know the kind of challenges it throws up, I think none as big as we have now though.” According to Griffith, in the past, even during difficult times in the platinum industry “it was always around growth, the story was growth.” This time it is different.
And of course, before taking on the current and relatively new challenge, he was the successful CEO of Kumba, which was in and of itself a totally different leadership experience. While Kumba had its challenges it happened against the backdrop of positive movement – a positive mood, positive contribution to stakeholders, positive growth, positive financial results and much more. The Amplats leadership experience is and will be in total contrast because the agenda is driven by a need for contracting and downscaling before returning back to a more positive space of movement seen by growth and profitability. The platinum review was clear in its recommendations and this meant tough decisions had to and still have to be made. The market is over supplied and as the largest platinum producer Amplats must take volume out of the market.
Griffith explains more: “We had loss-making operations that were clearly the first operations that we needed to shut down or reconfigure, so that we make the remaining operations more profitable.” While this takes place proposals have been delivered to government, labour and other stakeholders, which is now at the centre of discussions and consultations on alternatives to contraction and ways to better offset necessary steps. In his own words he exclaims: “So that’s going to be the very difficult leadership journey that first needs to be taken before we can consolidate the company again and then reposition it for future growth. This is the phase we are going through now.” It is a very difficult process and period for every individual in the organisation, management, government, unions and in fact, for all stakeholders.
Such an uncertain environment is simply not conducive to positivity and motivated staff, which in today’s competitive and ever changing environment happens to be crucial for needed and expected performance. To add to this Griffith says: “It is part of human nature, business nature, to want to grow, contribute, employ, and share more with communities and society.” Supposing he is correct in this assertion it means they are employing 60 000 people that function in an environment where what currently happens and needs to happen is in fact contrary to human and business nature. Said differently, it can’t get much worse than this. Fortunately, from such ‘desperate’ situations arise the greatest opportunities and the development of invaluable attributes and character.
So how does one motivate ‘uncertain’ or ‘unsure’ people, one might ask? Because most leaders don’t realise and understand accurately the depth and magnitude of such a problem – a situation against human and business nature – they take so much longer to get through the difficult period. Griffith at least realises this. In instances like these, the best a leader can probably do is add to their already powerful and motivating vision the communication and application of clear process – how exactly we will deal with the situation. A vision must remain, but it will probably shift to the background; most employees will become somewhat blind and deaf to it and look for clarity and honesty of process, no matter how difficult. So, ‘motivation in process’ takes preference to ‘motivation in vision’. And note that motivation in process is not as powerful as motivation in vision, but this is the nature of an unnatural situation – you have to move through the negative space, mostly governed by process, with vision in the background, before you can authentically arrive in the positive space where vision governs, with process in the background. Griffith realises there is no room for pretending here. This is true for the company’s actual journey towards healthy return on investment as well as the attitudinal shift every individual needs to make.
The fact about a leadership challenge like this is that leaders all the way down the structure must be better than ever at managing and ‘moving’ attitudes of people. Unfortunately this happens to be one of the weakest skills of average leaders out there. The first step in shifting attitude is to understand the hard facts; second, openly, honestly and boldly identify and confront the negative perceptions of individuals; third, take individuals on a journey of exploring possible positives and even opportunities that the situation presents; fourth, help them see some bigger picture, a vision (organisational or personal) that gives context to the current situation; fifth, plot solutions, directions, actions; sixth, ensure relevant structures are there to make the directions work; seventh, ensure follow through, evaluation, assessment of decided actions in order to adjust and do the necessary to achieve plans. This sounds simple, and it is. However, it is also difficult and takes confidence to actually do. If every leader or at least key leaders can follow such a process confidently and effectively the period of uncertainty and resultant de-motivation will be shortened.
And this is what Griffith hopes to achieve. He suggests dealing with uncertainty requires the following: “First of all you have to try and limit the time that people are unsure. Do all the difficult things as quickly as possible. Then you have to be open with people (which play to several of the steps above). The worst possible thing is to not communicate. This is the time to talk to your people and to share the values. This is important, because people are not misinformed. They can read the signs and it does not have to be in newspapers.” He acknowledges in their case it is a slower and protracted process, so limiting the unsure period is difficult to do.
Not only top management but all leaders will need a mature attitude and advanced leadership skills if success is to be achieved. The leader of one of the Amplats operations that will probably be closed down sent this message to me, which illustrates a mature attitude: “My operation is affected. There is no certainty in terms of my future. No guarantees. We will see. But I will stay here and support the company to the last day of my operation’s winding down process into care and maintenance.” With such an attitude they can make it through deep waters.
Even though this is clearly a very difficult period Griffith says: “We are trying to send a message that, unlike the opinion by some that it is impossible to do business in South Africa, it is not impossible to do business here. South Africa is actually a good place to do business. There are processes.”
Is Griffith the man for the job? Has he been meticulously prepared to bring positive movement back to the shores of our platinum giant Amplats? Of course time will tell, but he seems to be the right man for the job. He will fall back on his personal leadership philosophy like never before (see Q&A), and be tested in his resolve to implement it. And he will learn even more about successful leadership during this period, as will all his leaders.
Q & A:
BR: Leaders work hard at creating values driven organisations, promoting a set of values, yet in some cases it seems at the drop of a hat employees still decide to strike, often violently. Do all these values and cultural improvement initiatives actually work?
Griffith: It is like me saying I should not teach my children values because one day they might fall out the bus, go for the wrong friends and do the wrong things. I think the more you engrain culture and learning, eventually that will prevail. Does that mean you will never have a setback? And that is why most people turn out okay and most people have setbacks along the road. I think learning values, culture and leadership from your parents and from society is important. So, is all this work a waste of time? I certainly don’t believe so. Does it prevent you from ever experiencing some of these setbacks? No it doesn’t because in this case it is not only our culture that’s prevailing. There are other cultures out there. Can we turn everything around at work? Heaven help us if we ever get to a position where we say this does not help. In doing this, does it mean a strike may be less violent, or that its duration will be shorter and less intense, or that after a strike you will get back quicker to where people do trust each other? I don’t know the answers, but I am absolutely convinced in my mind that you have to do the right things. Keep on doing them and eventually you get to a higher place. Look at the improvement of our safety record for example. It has improved vastly, because we are instilling a value of caring that people are starting to feel.
BR: You have been in a pressure cooker in your first six months on the job. What are some leadership lessons you have learned?
Griffith: I think when things go well you are pretty much left alone. Of course you buy your freedom. In this kind of environment I continue to learn that you need to engage more and more. Often we take too much of a legalistic approach to dealing with these kinds of issues when more engagement is what’s necessary. The changing face of business in South Africa and perhaps worldwide needs leaders to become comfortable with spending more time outside the business to engage other stakeholders. There are just so many more stakeholders nowadays that have an effect on your business.
BR: Where is the platinum industry going in the next year or two?
Griffith: I believe the platinum industry still has the fundamentals to once again be the leader in the mining industry in terms of employment creation, returns to shareholders, contribution to society etc. This however is a way off and the industry will need to weather the storm first in the next year or two. Some tough decisions will need to be made and action taken by us if we are to return our company to profitability. We have the talent and the resolve in the Company to do it.
BR: Are you enjoying this leadership challenge?
Griffith: I am relishing the challenge. Of course it is fraught with risk. I can sit by myself and think that this is so tough for me. But this is far tougher for people in the organisation that are worrying about their jobs. So I think we are in this together. I am enjoying the challenge of being back. This is a real leadership challenge. And of course the horrible thing in life is that you learn the most in the most difficult times. I think if you can stick to what you think your leadership values are, in these difficult times, you will be able to come out the other side and say that you really did believe in these leadership philosophies or approaches. It is easy to say these things when times are good.
BR: And what is your leadership philosophy?
Griffith: My leadership philosophy/approach is based on two main focus areas: 1) Delivery on your promise (this creates trust); and 2) ‘How you do it’ is as important as ‘what you achieve’. (Sustainability maximisation must have the same focus as profit maximisation). It is in the area of ‘how you do it’ that my leadership focus fits in. Firstly it’s about the team and creating the collective ability of the team to deliver. Allowing myself and encouraging others to be passionate, courageous and tenacious in the way they go about their work and to be caring and values driven in the manner in which they do this. Lastly, ‘make a difference’.
BR: What is not being said enough?
Griffith: Even in this difficult time when you look at our proposals and you look at the social plan that we propose should go with the restructuring, it hasn’t had a lot of airtime because people are focusing on the difficult messages. But there are some positive messages in that we want to support the Presidents call for substantial investment in housing in the mining areas where we are based, like Rustenburg. We want to put in place training programmes for people affected by restructuring so that if they have other opportunities they have skills to use during the intervening period before mining picks up again. We have set aside R800 million over two years to do exactly that. This demonstrates the values that the company talks about. We want to be given the opportunity to go and demonstrate and do this, so that people can see there are models that serve as examples when restructuring has to take place in other situations. It demonstrates our values of caring and respect.
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