Diversity a Source of Competitive Advantage for BHP Billiton

Published: 26/04/2015

22 April 2015

Women in Energy and Resources Leadership Summit
Vanessa Torres – Head of Group Investments and Value Management, BHP Billiton

Ms Torres delivered a speech at the Women in Energy and Resources Leadership Summit in Perth today, alongside female colleagues from the resources and energy industries, who celebrated the strong contribution female leaders make to their workplaces.

“Good Morning, it is a pleasure to be here talking to you.

I was once described as an “engineer of dreams” and, upon reflection, this is pretty much what I do. Today, I lead BHP Billiton’s strategic planning processes – and isn’t strategy a bit about “engineering our way into a future we want to create”?

It has been a long journey from the small town where I was born in Brazil, to here. And it all started about four decades ago with a child’s dream, the dream of becoming an engineer who would travel around the World.  Literally, and, well, in a spacecraft.

That dream inspired me to be curious and learn.  I was first fascinated about space, and then the Earth, then the minerals that came from the Earth and, finally, how people on Earth were able to create what our Society is today.

Back then everything was possible in my mind, and I was lucky enough to be raised in a family environment that gave me the confidence that I could be whatever I chose if I put sufficient effort into it.

As I was practically born around the mining and steel industry in Brazil, I studied chemical engineering and started my career in a mining company as a graduate. First, I’ve worked for 16 years around South and North America in operations, projects, business development and strategy. Then, I’ve decided to explore new frontiers and chose Australia and BHP Billiton as a destination almost eight years ago.  I first started working at Nickel West, here in Perth, and over the last four years, I have been working at BHP Billiton’s headquarters in Melbourne.

The first lesson I learned in life, and so far the most valuable one, is to take personal accountability in order to pursue my objectives and overcome challenges.

The second lesson is that confidence is fundamental – if you don’t believe in yourself, who will? However, resilience is what keeps you going in tough times. The combination of both is a very powerful “two stroke engine”– confidence moves you forward and resilience prevents you to move backwards.

Finally, the “we” is way more important than the “I”. The best ideas always come from teams and it is important as a colleague, as a leader and as a human being to really value the people whom you work with.  Being humble to recognise others is a powerful enabler. And giving back to society is the best way to pass along the gifts and advice we received from people for free.

I have been fortunate to experience the many facets of the mining business throughout the last two decades as well as a few commodity price cycles.  When you look at the industry, business performance and strategy is what distinguishes companies like BHP Billiton, an industry leader founded 130 years ago, from companies which are born in one cycle and cease to exist in the next.

Today, it is even more important to have the right business strategy – we live in an interconnected world full of uncertainties and opportunities. And the interesting thing is that, in this technologically driven environment, what makes the difference is not labour intensity, but the best ideas and talented people.

The best ideas come from people who think differently and work collaboratively. Diversity of thought is the ultimate objective which can only be achieved in an inclusive environment where diverse people feel their ideas are valued and can speak up.

And diversity of thought results in higher performance.  For instance, a global study published by McKinsey back in April 2012, indicated that companies that have a diverse executive team in relation to nationality and gender have 14% higher average Earnings before Interest and Tax – or EBIT – when compared to less diverse companies.  And the Return on Equity of companies with higher executive diversity was superior by 53%. This means companies with higher diversity deliver materially more shareholder value.  This is compelling!

And this is where inclusion and diversity becomes a source of competitive advantage.  Why? Because, simply put, the concept that “different is good” is a relatively new to our Society, and, as a consequence, the industry of today still has a long way to go in terms of becoming fully diverse. This allows us to infer that the companies able to leap forward in this aspect will likely achieve superior levels of performance and value creation relative to mainstream competition through a virtuous cycle of generating better ideas because of a more diverse pool which in turn will boost further diversity, creativity and, ultimately, productivity.

At BHP Billiton, we are working very seriously in order to reduce the time we need to achieve an inclusive environment and an optimal diversity balance which will make our organisation not only better in terms of our workforce satisfaction, but also more and more productive through time.

And, at BHP Billiton, it starts with our CEO, Andrew Mackenzie, who named diversity and inclusion as one of the strategic priorities in his message that informs business planning for the whole organisation. As one of our business priorities, this focus translates in initiatives such as:

  • Assessment of our own data to support the business case, as our 2013 Employee Perception Survey showed that increased inclusion correlates with increased performance;
  • Establishment of Inclusion and Diversity councils throughout our organisation;
  • Deployment of unconscious bias training in large-scale, which has already started with our Group Management Committee and will be ultimately delivered to all our leaders and employees;
  • Indigenous representation targets throughout our businesses;
  • Identifying qualified women in succession plans for key leadership roles as well as piloting senior executive female sponsorship program;
  • Company-wide female retention and recruitment targets for each financial year, including a focus on recruiting female Graduates;
  • And, finally, by establishing inclusion and diversity as KPIs in the scorecards of all leaders across the company.

Importantly, inclusion is one of the themes of our Leadership Development Program which will ultimately reach 10,000 leaders in BHP Billiton. By investing in our leadership, we will be creating more inclusive environments where our employees feel valued and heard.

So, at the end of the day, this is about leadership. Inclusion and diversity starts with good leadership, and results in good leadership.

It starts with leaders challenging their own paradigms and understanding the biases we all have as human beings to make the right decisions to hire and promote individuals based uniquely on their potential, performance and experience.  We make these decisions despite their background, gender, age, race, religion, style, affiliation or their so-called “fit”. Good leaders value differences and, as a result, they are able to translate the business case into a “personal case” for inclusion and diversity within their teams.  The “personal case” is when people – on an individual basis – feel motivated and enabled to create a more a diverse environment.  And the experience of a diverse environment where everyone feels included is, in my view, the best antidote to all biases and the catalyst that can accelerate the progress of organisations into truly diverse workplaces.

So, what is our role in this? Every time I ask myself this question, I recall the advice I was given by the man who gave me my first formal leadership opportunity.  It was a big challenge: to manage the activities of a mineral development project in a remote area, leading a team that was mostly male and older than me.  His advice was, “don’t worry, just be a good leader.”  He told me to do the right thing, care about people and in less than a month, it would make no difference to my team whether I was young, old, woman, or man, black or white.” I took his advice and have never regretted it.

I do believe being a good leader is the most impactful thing we can do, one by one, to change hearts and minds in the workplace and help our own organisations to become more inclusive in a daily basis.  It is also a way to become an active agent of change rather than waiting for change to happen.

Too often over my career I found myself as “the diversity” in a meeting room.  But that never prevented me to keep going and speaking up.  Last week I was on a site visit on the other side of the globe with other BHP Billiton colleagues and I looked around the table: we were three women and three men, and with five nationalities among us.  Everyone was now “the diversity” in the room – and, I must say, it was a great meeting!

In closing, change does happen when we play our role in translating the strategic business case for diversity into a personal case for inclusion – and vice versa.  It happens faster when we ask others, women and men, to work together with us.

Thank you for your attention.”

Media coverage: Mining Australia & Yahoo
International Women in Mining Community interviewed Vanessa in December last year: Vanessa Torres, “Mining Can Make a Difference”