Mining has been in Chantae Lessard’s family for generations; four generations to be exact. Growing up, Chantae says a career in mining was never considered but as fate would have it she landed a role as a paralegal/health, safety, environment executive assistant at Kennecott Utah Copper in Salt Lake City, Utah, and that role changed her life and her career. She’s now Manager Corporate Social Responsibility at Lundin Mining Corp, Canada. It’s not the mining itself that excites her but being a change agent, the interface between the company and a community. She sees Corporate Social Responsibility as being where safety was 30 years ago and environment was 15 years ago. “I feel that the social side of business is on the cusp and it’s at the tipping point.” By Camila Reed
How did you choose mining as a career?
My career path to mining was indirect and contained many diversions, obstacles, and opportunities. When I began my career I was 30 years old with two young children. To be honest, at that time, it wasn’t a career in mining I was searching for, it was a pay check from a reputable organization that I grew up with. The career part came after encouragement from my first mentor – Bill Williams, then VP Health, Safety & Environment.
Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?
Yes and here’s my first piece of advice to anyone seeking to further their career, find a mentor and when opportunities are presented grab them. Your mentor can open the door but you need to walk through it.
Kennecott had a 100% tuition reimbursement policy for full time employees, so I enrolled. Within two years I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and gave birth to my third child. I remember Bill asking me what I wanted to do with my career. I was unsure so he suggested I do a bit of job shadowing. My first experience was with a project manager who was working on the tailings pipeline. It was interesting and I learned a lot but …. It wasn’t until I went back to school for a second time and earned a master’s degree in communication that I really found my true calling.
Enter my second mentor, Louie Cononelos, VP Government and Community Affairs. I was able to work with Louie in a cross disciplinary role and eventually join his team. Louie was known all over Salt Lake County as “Mr. Kennecott.” Louie taught me that relationships aren’t built over night. And you don’t start a relationship with an “ask.”
A great example of this was at Kennecott where several properties were proposed for listing on the EPAs superfund site. It was the largest community petition (I am aware of) where a community asked the federal government not to list the properties. The community said that Kennecott could remediate and reclaim the sites better and more cost effectively than the government. It was because of the relationships built over years of engagement that the community had enough trust to say let the company take care of it.
My last mentor who really helped propel me to where I am today was Mike Welch, GM Eagle Mine. He believed in Corporate Social Responsibility and in my ability to deliver. Mike highlighted the work I was doing at Eagle and provided the opportunity for me to work with Lundin corporate on developing their Responsible Mining Framework and Policy.
My decision to move to Toronto and take the corporate role was influenced by two factors, first, formalizing the social side of the business with standards and procedures was important to Lundin and second, Lundin finds value in promoting women to senior positions and 36% of managers, directors, and the executive team are women.
What are you passionate about in your work?
Passion for my work comes from a strong desire to learn and to find solutions. My curiosity for why things are the way they are and why people behave the way they do and what I can do to make a difference drives me. My biggest challenge is keeping that passion in check and working hard to understand the communication styles and preferences of those around me.
The social side is what I’m really passionate about. Companies need to be more socially astute in their business. Honest, transparent dialogue will get you so much farther ahead than drawing a line in the sand and litigation, plus litigation is extremely expensive and only benefits the lawyers (jokingly). Being able to talk and listen to both sides of the story. Looking at ways I think we can move forward — Just being a change agent is what I’m interested in.
I view my role today as being where safety was 30 years ago and environment was 15 years ago.
The mining industry started to pay attention to safety and made it central to the organization and made it everyone’s responsibility. This approach has made a difference.
Fifty years ago the US Environmental Protection Agency didn’t exist. The regulations and the technology to improve the environment did not exist and all of that evolved over time.
The industry has learned a lot from past environmental transgressions and technology has provided better options but companies are just now acknowledging the social side of business and this work is at the tipping point.
It’s important to educate top management through hard data and show that companies who do well with corporate social responsibility (CSR) come out ahead financially.
Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career around CSR and how you overcame them?
At Eagle Mine we changed hands and had five different GMs in seven years. It was small and not typical of a major mining company. They usually go for large, long-life operations. This was a small nickel deposit of 2,000 tpd, with a 7-year mine life at the time.
Eagle created an opportunity to demonstrate that a mining company could open, operate and close a mine in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
But when you have five different GMs it’s difficult to make a lot of progress especially in the CSR space. Eventually the communities’ team was able to take a new approach to transparency and community engagement. But it took a management team that supported innovation to make the difference that allowed us to positively influence community perceptions. We did things that other mining companies were not really comfortable with.
One of those things was an environmental community monitoring programme. We turned our environmental data and control over to a local NGO. They conducted verification monitoring and communicated the results to the community.
We have been running that program for three years and it’s in renegotiation now but the intent was to run it through the life of mine.
The other thing we did was create a scorecard. We wanted to be completely transparent with the community and report on what they were interested in. The unique thing about our scorecard process was that we provided participants with electronic clickers so they could vote anonymously on our performance. Our forums were held every six months and the scorecard information evolved overtime with feedback from the community.
We also initiated a programme to assist in developing the local economy in Marquette. Accelerate UP is a program funded by the mine but managed by community volunteers. The intent is to remove road blocks for entrepreneurs and assist them in navigating existing resources that could help them succeed. Ultimately we wanted to mitigate the boom and bust associated with mining and create just as many jobs outside of the mine as inside.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector?
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the obvious that only 19% of women make up the industry in Canada and even fewer, 13.2% in the US and this presents challenges. There were definitely times when I wanted to walk away. My personal motto became, “I can do anything for a year (or two).”
What would you love to do next?
Before I took this role, I would have said, be in a corporate role where I’m educating and influencing the executive management team to take a more holistic approach to business decisions. It’s not just about compliance and mitigating risk. Although those are some of the benefits. I am where I want to be right now. I think it’s too early really to have further ambitions.
If there’s a wish or desire it would be that companies recognize that corporate social responsibility is not something you can do on the side. CSR considerations should be embedded in every business decision. So, in an ideal world, this role would be part of the executive management team.
Do you sit on a board? If not would you like to?
I do not sit on any boards but I would like to one day. Right now I am focused on my career and getting my son through high school.
What is your opinion in the women on boards debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?
I think there are better ways to handle the issue. Do I think there’s a problem? Yes I do.
Being a ‘protocol’ sets one up for challenges right out of the gate. As a society we need to really look at the root of the issue and work to make changes there. There are several studies that suggest businesses are more successful if they have a balance of men and women at the executive and board level. I believe this is where Women in Mining can have the greatest impact – through education and hard data. Women need to be comfortable being themselves, after all, gender is one of the many things we bring to the table that make us so effective.
Boards are at a disadvantage when they don’t have a balance. When you have the diversity that women bring you get better ideas and results. And I would say the same about an all-woman board.
I hesitate to support quotas because it sets women up. It sets a negative tone but I am completely supportive of creating a pipeline and educating companies and continually pointing out how having women on boards makes a difference to the bottom line. I think we need to continue the conversation. I do think it will change. Preparing women for board positions and pipelines is a way to address it.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?
If you don’t ask it will never happen and sometimes you need to ask more than once! I knew that even though I had support from various individuals throughout my career it was really up to me. I was the only one who could determine my success or failure by the way I responded to factors that were out of my control.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?
Find a mentor.
If you are a young woman starting out pick up the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Her perspective is useful to both women and men and she has some great advice on being a successful woman in the workplace.
My final piece of advice if you are struggling is to consider a professional coach. I believe the key to personal and professional success is being self-aware. Be open to constructive criticism and know that you always have more to learn.
I have had two coaches throughout my career and have learned invaluable things from both of them.