“My greatest achievement was in helping my teams understand that we are better off working together than divided.”
A graduate mining engineer by training, Makutloano Tlali has worked in the mining industry in Lesotho, a tiny mountainous kingdom in southern Africa, for the past decade. Having worked her way up from her first appointment as an engineer-in-training, she currently fulfils the role of assistant manager of the contract mining company at Lětseng Diamonds.
By Kathy Sole
Why did you choose mining as a career? How did mining come to you?
One of my brothers (second born) had, at some point, visited a cousin of ours who worked in Rustenburg, in the platinum mines of South Africa. He came back convinced that mining would suit me. He was my closest sibling and he knew my countenance. He tried to convince me to further my studies in Mining Engineering or Geology. On the contrary, I was determined to study at the University of Cape Town, and I was not going to budge.
While applying to UCT I wrote the wrong code and, as fate would have it, I received an admission letter for something I had no idea about – Biotechnology. I had no option but to accept the opportunity presented in front of me. However, I received a call to report to my former school and a handful of us were asked to write a two-page essay motivating why we would want to study Mining Engineering. This was requested by Letšeng Diamonds and I wrote like my life depended on it. I was called for an interview at Letšeng Diamonds, unbeknown to me that this was an interview. Although I was not dressed for the occasion, I sold myself with poise, grace, and charisma as best as I could, and I was awarded the scholarship. I pursued a BEng – Mining Degree at the University of Pretoria.
Please describe your current role and the company that you work for.
I currently work as an Assistant Contract Manager. This role encompasses overseeing of operations within the contract of MGC – Mining (Matekane Group of Companies – Mining) and its client Letšeng Diamond Mine. This role encompasses overseeing drilling, loading, and hauling operations, dewatering, and maintenance support. In essence, I lead and coach a team of managers and foremen to ensure that drilling targets of over 2700 m per day as well as load and haul operations (targets over 80 000 tons/day) are met in a safe manner.
What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector?
I believe that, as a female, the challenges I faced in mining were not peculiar to those faced by my male counterparts. When I first joined MGC in 2012, my colleague and I were the first appointed Production Manager Trainees and additionally I was the first woman at supervision level in the pit. The operators were more welcoming compared to their then supervisors. The supervisors somewhat believed that we would be the ones to steal their jobs. They were not keen to help us in our training and development. I remember one individual saying in my presence that they would never train anyone on machinery operation because they learned by fending for themselves in the past. This was said after I had disclosed my training program, which included training on equipment.
Another example is when my boss at the time called me in to counsel me that I was too careful and did not make any mistakes. For the life of me I could not understand why that would be a problem. At every meeting my former boss would put me on the spot. He did not want anyone driving in the pit with me, as a supervisor he wanted me to be by myself, driving and directing the job. When he thought I was comfortable with one shift, he would move me to another. Anything new, I would be first on his list. If there was a project or anything he needed done, he would ask me to do it. It usually felt like he always wanted to throw me in at the deep end.
I later learned that he was a good judge of character and he had discovered that I would naturally shy away from all of these activities. Over the years, I understood he wanted to help me build my confidence and help me become a well-rounded manager and I can confidently say it worked. His experience has also allowed me to grow as a woman, work and walk in confidence, hone in on my strengths, and improve on my weaknesses. I have found the statement “the greater the challenge, the greater the reward” to be true in this regard.
What are you passionate about in your work?
My biggest passion in my work is problem-solving and initiating changes. I believe the best definition of success is impacting everything and everyone around me with the investment of my personality, with the purpose of leaving all in a better condition than I found it/them. I like sharing knowledge and skills. With the diversity in our operations, there is never a dull moment: there is always something to solve.
Have you had mentors or sponsors that helped you on the way?
Absolutely. I have had sponsors both within our company and outside and I am grateful for their impact and contribution towards my growth. I express this gratitude in paying it forward.
What challenges have you experienced by virtue of working in an industry that is predominantly male? Do you feel you have had to adapt to ‘fit’ the industry?
The greatest challenge I had was at the beginning of my career, while playing an oversight role as Production Supervisor. Being the first lady in the team and having assumed the supervisory role was not widely accepted by the team, mainly due to resistance to change, I perceive. In our African culture, women are mostly deemed weaker vessels and to belong in the household. I appreciate it could not have been easy for males of older age to be taking instructions from a young lady who is as old as their children for some. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I realised I had to adapt, work on my liberal nature, and become more assertive and influential. My greatest achievement was neutralising the negative influencers within the teams and helping them understand that we are better off working together than divided.
What would you love to do next?
I want to be seen as an expert in my field. This is not just about status, but about bringing value to my role that is recognised by my peers and the industry at large.
I plan to do so by obtaining accreditation, staying informed – through networking, reading, and being endlessly inquisitive – about what is going on in our sector and elsewhere.
What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now.
Life is a journey, a marathon not a sprint. And so is your career. There are so many things that I wished I should have been doing at the beginning of my career, not fully knowing what it took to do them. As much as I knew I wanted to grow and I worked at it, I don’t think I understood fully where my journey was headed. I wish I had someone tell me about vision. When one has a vision, they are fulfilled at every stage life.
What is the biggest “mistake” that you’re really happy you made?
Leaving the “client” to join the “contractor”. The wealth of experience I have gained is immeasurable. I know what is means to serve a client and work tirelessly to deliver objectives and targets to the client. I believe I am a well-rounded manager because of the decision I took.
Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?
Absolutely. I think mining is less desirable to some women because they believe it is hard labour and the physical environment is less appealing to the eye. However, when you fully comprehend the operations and the business, it is quite interesting. There is also a general misconception that it is more cut-throat environment compared to the corporate. The support I have had over the years has made me think otherwise.
Any advice to young women starting out in their careers? What do you wish you’d know when you were 25?
Seek for opportunities and not a fat cheque. Instant gratification is the order of the day in our modern society. Many want to accumulate wealth immediately after graduating, buy a big house and a fancy car. While wealth accumulation and material possession dreams are valid, many ignore investing time and effort in their personal development and growth. Many have violated their values in the process. I wish I had learned more about personal finance and financial literacy at 25. Today I know better.
What books are you currently reading? Do you have any books that you can recommend for professional development?
I am currently reading Overcoming Emotions That Destroy by Chip Ingram. A few books that I can recommend for professional development are:
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
- The Spirit of Leadership by Dr Myles Munro
- Think and Grow Rich – Napoleon Hill
- Change your Life before Breakfast by Robert T. Kiyosaki
- The Power of Your Mind by Chris Oyakhilome
Have you any hobbies, pastimes, or secret talents that you would like to tell us about?
My secret talent is cooking. My hobbies are reading and travelling.