Helena Rodriguez is a bilingual senior Commercial Engineer with over sixteen years of experience in large multinational organizations, such as Lafarge and BHP. Originally from Chile, Helena started her career in Human Resources, then successfully transitioned into Project Management. She has led diverse and inclusive teams (in the US and globally) and has a deep understanding of end-to-end business processes and procedures in Major Projects (> USD 1Bn) and Human Resources. She has a successful track record of achieving personal career and organizational goals, adding value, and meeting performance standards in safety, cost, and schedule management. Helena has mentored many professionals throughout her career and achieves much personal satisfaction with their development and career progression.
By Kathy Sole
Your background is in business and human resource management. Please tell us why you chose to work in the mining industry?
I am from Chile, where the mining industry, especially the mining of copper, is an important driver of the country’s economy. I decided to work for the mining industry because I wanted to contribute to the development of my country to enable the growth and well-being of the Chilean people.
Please describe your career progression and how you reached your current senior position within your organisation.
I always wanted to do something that involves people and/or projects. Therefore, I started my career in Human Resources, which gave me a unique view of the critical work HR Professionals do, and how it enables the culture and productivity of an organization. While in HR, I had several roles that led me to senior positions, where I had the opportunity to support capital project teams and, in doing so, discovered my passion for taking something from scratch into providing a business solution.
Finally, I decided to make a formal career change into Capital Projects. I had outstanding mentors and senior leaders that enabled that big step to occur. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity, as it wasn’t common for an HR professional to move into technical areas.
After a period of time in Projects, I requested a career break to pursue a Master’s degree in project management in New York City. Once I graduated with my Master’s, I decided to stay in the US and started looking for a job. I moved to North Carolina due to personal reasons and then activated my network. Given my experience in Projects in Chile and Arizona, I joined the Resources Leadership Team at Albemarle where we have a lot of incredible challenges. Albemarle’s forward-thinking vision, as well as being part of a team directly involved in developing clean energy solutions, is what primarily attracted me to come work for the organization.
You have worked for both large multinational corporations and for much smaller companies operating in the mining space. How would you compare the challenges and rewards of these different types of companies?
Both types of organizations have given me unique learning experiences. In small companies, the challenge is related to growth and efficiency in businesses with little structure; in multinational organizations, it is all about processes and systems. I have found rewards in all my roles; all those steps and mentors brought me to the position I am in today, and every single experience has added value.
Human Resources was traditionally seen as a “soft” option as a career choice. Today, this field has evolved to become highly scientific, goal- and project-driven, and is key to the successful technical and financial performance of any company. Please can you comment on how this industry has changed during your career and the professional traits that are today required.
I agree, HR used to be the Payroll department and then the “soft skills” team, usually reporting to Finance. Now, HR is a crucial enabler for productivity. The business case for employee satisfaction has come to the forefront, and I think corporations now understand the link. Happier people are more productive: it’s a win-win situation, and HR now plays an important part in an organization’s success.
One of the more unusual items on your CV is a qualification in Organizational Happiness Management. Please tell us a bit more about this – what contributes to happiness in the workplace and why is it important?
I obtained a certificate that focused on proving the link between happiness and productivity. I believe in people and I think in numbers, and I knew the business case for Happiness was real—and it is. After I graduated from that program, I led the Flex-Work Initiative at my former company. It was my way of contributing to a better life for thousands of employees. It was a very challenging project to lead. Most leaders did not engage with the many forms of flexible working, and this was before the pandemic: to work remotely for a mining company was unheard of! However, after an extensive Stakeholders Management Strategy was developed, the project was approved. Two years later, Covid19 came into the picture, and the company was prepared like no other competitor to face this new way of working.
Please describe your personal and professional attributes that you consider have been most influential in your success.
I believe that nobody is perfect, and nobody has all the answers. I ask for help and ask all the questions I can think of, and I’m transparent about not knowing a process or a system, which gives me credibility. In all my job interviews, I have said, “I don’t know everything, but trust me, I’ll try to figure it out”.
And I love to work with people, get to know them, understand why they work the way they do, and how their personal experience has much to do with who they are.
At the end of the day, it is a combination of Proactivity, Results-driven, and honest Care for people. I want to contribute to a better world, and if someone goes home feeling happy or feeling part of something, I think the world is a better place already.
What has been the most rewarding professional experience or project of your career? What are you most proud of having achieved in your career so far?
I have faced many challenges throughout my life, but the most rewarding was graduating from New York University. I was living in New York, about to start a Master of Science in Project Management, when the pandemic hit. I was living with my daughter and son, just the three of us. Completing the Master’s seemed impossible. I knew the most straightforward way out was going back to Chile and giving up on the Masters, but once again, I talked to friends, family, and mentors, and their encouraging words were exactly what I needed to hear. So, I stayed and made it work. It was not easy, but when I look back, I feel so proud of giving this fight.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector? What challenges have you experienced working in an industry that is predominantly male?
I think I joined the mining industry right before the whole “women in mining” movement took off. The company I worked for established an ambitious goal of female representation, which was crucial to my development. I was in the right place at the right time. I know it was much more challenging for those women from previous generations, and I appreciate all they did to open the way for us.
I know it’s been hard for men to adjust, and managing those biases is still challenging, but I see a lot of progress, and I’m sure we are on the right path.
Have you had/do you have any mentors or sponsors who have supported or enhanced your career development? How do you see the role of such professionals, and do we need more focus on such opportunities for young people?
Absolutely! This is what I share with all the young professionals I know: Mentors and Sponsors are key to development. Achieving challenging goals or taking on more organizational responsibilities is almost impossible without them.
I’ve been blessed with the mentors and sponsors I have had. I can think of at least five that have been instrumental in many professional decisions that have had a vast impact on my personal life as well.
As a leader in this industry, working with a wide range of stakeholders, please share your leadership philosophy and how you manage diversity in the workplace.
It is all about inclusion, but in a broader sense. My main stakeholders will agree that the one thing I do well is to include everybody: making people part of the solution, asking for their feedback, and informing them is vital to any progress. The diversity business case only flies if we consider every person’s opinion and point of view. I always tell my team to make sure they hire people different from them who can bring another perspective to the table; it is the only way to find the best solution.
Do you believe that the presence of women in significant management, operational, and support roles influences the ultimate success of a company? Does a more diverse operating team lead to better or different decisions?
It is not only about women: it’s about different backgrounds, generations, cultures, etc. I’ve seen the numbers, and organizations with more diversity and inclusion perform better.
Do you have any advice to young women starting out in their careers? What do you wish you’d known when you first entered the workplace?
I wish I had known that nobody knows everything, even those with many years of experience. My advice is: “Challenge all that feels odd: that feeling is there for a reason, and your fresh eyes are needed; your voice needs to come out.”
Have you any hobbies, pastimes, or secret talents that you would like to tell us about?
I used to have many! Since my kids were born, I have continued to practice yoga with my kids, and now that my daughter is playing soccer, I have returned to soccer as well.
I also have my nerdy side. I’m a Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fan.