How BHP’s Mike Henry tackled his own biases and raised female representation

Gender Equality

Written By: Joanne Gray – Financial Review

Mike Henry was head of marketing for BHP Billiton in Singapore when he realised he had made a mistake. Henry, who now runs BHP Coal was under pressure to cut costs and raise efficiency. A staff member returning from maternity leave had asked to return to her previous role part time and work some of the week from home.

Henry thought “it wasn’t going to be workable” because she wouldn’t be able to attend the scheduled meetings involving joint venture partners. He sees himself as “very values based”, but also “rational and analytical”. “I went back and said no.”

The woman found another position inside BHP. But Henry realised he could have tried harder to suit her by engaging with the joint venture partners and reorganising schedules to fit her availability. “I recognised that I had an alternative choice – to show leadership and make it work. The fact that I didn’t do it stuck with me in that period,” he says.

It’s unusual to hear this kind of mea culpa from a senior executive but, according to a report commissioned by Chartered Accountants Australia and written by Deloitte human capital partner Juliet Bourke and director Bernadette Dillon, such self-awareness is a capability inclusive leaders need to develop.

The report, Fast Forward: Leading in a Brave New World of Diversity, identifies three global megatrends: the flow of economic power to Asia, demographic shifts and the impact of technology. These megatrends, the report says, have started to create far greater diversity in markets, ideas and talent.

To succeed companies will need more than just diverse workforces – they will depend on leaders who build inclusive cultures to take advantage of group intelligence. “Identifying new opportunities, making robust predictions and solving complex problems will only be possible if leaders embrace diverse points of view,” the report says.

Deloitte pinpoints six defining traits of an inclusive leader: a personal commitment to diversity; the courage to challenge the status quo; an awareness of their own biases and how their culture frames their perspective; a hunger for other people’s points of view and experience; an understanding of how culture affects an individual’s world view; and a strong work ethic applied to creating conditions for diverse teams to collaborate effectively.

Chartered Accountants Australia chief executive Lee White, who commissioned the report, says local companies have been slow to diversify. And he thinks old strengths could evaporate in this newly diverse world. “If leaders don’t get it right, the consequences could be fatal for an organisation,” he says.

Mike Henry says inclusiveness is now regarded as the twin of productivity at BHP. “It’s the main game; it’s strategically important. Andrew [Mackenzie, BHP Billiton CEO] made it clear it’s part of his leadership agenda.”

The diversity report argues that the leaders who will be successful in the age of diversity will be those who recognise the value of group intelligence and who lead from the middle of the circle, rather than the top of the pyramid.

“This is a journey for me and I am in no way good at displaying each of these six traits,” Henry says.

The marketing division was performing well when Henry took over, but he knew there was greater potential. Gender and ethnic diversity were low, even though diversity and inclusion had been on BHP’s agenda for 10 years.

“The lack of progress was coming from unconscious bias, lack of capability and a lack of real commitment,” Henry says. “I needed to enrol leaders.

“I acknowledged my own failings. I called out my own unconscious biases, using the Harvard Implicit Assumptions test. I brought in expert help and created a new role – head of diversity and inclusion – when other roles were being reduced.

“If I was going to call out one of the traits, it would probably be that the translation from good intent to effective outcomes is going to come from commitment. You need to make it a priority – you need to lead from the front – to overcome barriers. You need to make yourself vulnerable in the interests of the cause.

“You need to ensure that the leaders you cultivate are equally committed to the cause of leading in that way and your ability to rally people to the cause ensures that nothing is able to withstand the momentum you create. Once other people are equally passionate about it and committed, my experience is that they will amaze you in how they step up.”

It’s taken some years but, aided by the culture and processes he put in place, Henry says, female representation in BHP’s executive marketing team has grown to 40 per cent. He is sure the team performs better with a more inclusive culture than it would have otherwise.

Since moving to his new role, Henry has also boosted representation of women and of workers from different cultural backgrounds within BHP’s coal business.

Source: Financial Review –



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