Interviews with Mining Greats: Ian Pearce


Interview about leadership in mining with Ian Pearce. Part of our interview series with the Mining Greats.

With more than three decades of experience working at the most senior levels in mining, few people can rival Ian Pearce’s level of insight and experience. Ian famously worked with Sir Mick Davis at Xstrata plc, helping to create a culture where young talent was encouraged, given responsibility and rewarded exceptionally well for good performance. I knew long before I met Ian that providing mentorship to future leaders was a core part of his personal philosophy, making him an ideal person to interview for this series of blogs.

As a former director of Xstrata, no one would question Ian’s business resolve or his ability to make tough decisions. But he wears this lightly and my lasting impression from our conversation was a man who cares deeply for the industry and for the people he works with.



Stratum: So, Ian, how did you first became involved in mining?

Believe it or not, I wanted to be a veterinary surgeon! I always had an interest in animals, but when that didn’t pan out I turned to other areas of interest and that was geography; rocks and geology. I came out of school not knowing what I wanted to do and the mining industry at the time was quite progressive by providing bursaries to students who wanted to study in the various fields associated with mining. My father’s career was connected to mining and so he pointed me towards these bursary-sponsored studies, saying “Why don’t you think about this?”

Here was this vehicle and an opportunity to get my studies paid for by someone else; I gave it a go. Initially I wasn’t that keen because I came out of the city, and was through and through a city boy. It was tough getting used to the remoteness of mines but the bursary locked you in. You either had to pay them out to exit or stick with it.

Those four years were important as it allowed me the time to see the opportunities and excitement that the mining industry could offer.


Stratum: Looking back, what was your first big break in the industry?

I think the programmes that the mines had put together were great and something that’s missing in the industry right now. When you came out of university they put you into a two-year postgraduate programme and they trained you.

The training was well designed. It was a tax break for the company, it gave you all the qualifications to register as a professional engineer, and it gave you a great perspective on the industry.

After going through this training, I was placed at a gold mine, West Driefontein, which at that time was the richest gold mine in the world. I was given a chance to be a technical assistant and then technical manager. The retrofit capital program gave me exposure to automation and controls (I co-authored a technical paper on cyanide addition and control which was published), to elements around project scope, cost and execution, plus it gave me a chance to travel overseas and work with the company designing the control system platform.

That whole programme set me on my career. I’ve got to say that I give Goldfields credit for that.


Stratum: Were there any individuals who helped you advance?

There were several individuals who coached and mentored me during my career, always helping me decide on those tough assignments which were career builders. One person early on in my career was Noel Peverett, one of the Consulting Metallurgists in head office. He was a very smart, matter-of-fact kind of guy.

I remember having a conversation with him about the Goldfields bursary scheme, saying they’re crazy to pay me all this money, and because I was a ‘city boy’, when I finished paying back my bursary I was out of there. He gave me great counselling and said “Well, we’re okay with that because we’re building capacity for the industry, so if you leave this company or this mine or whatever the case is, I’m okay with that, as long as you stay associated with the industry”, and here I am some 35-plus years later.

So, his thinking, his mentoring, and his nurturing of young talent was just fantastic. He tolerated our frustrations and was very good at understanding our potential and knew how to guide us.

If I think back on my career I had some lucky breaks too. But Gary Player, the golfer, used to say “The more I practise the luckier I get.” And I say in the business, the harder you work the luckier you get. Hard work and dedication gets recognised and then you get those lucky breaks. For me it’s about putting a shoulder to the wheel and driving hard, doing the very best you can, and then you’ll get lucky.


Stratum: So, if you were to meet your 30-year-old self now, what advice would you give him?

There are parts of your work life that form the foundations of a great career. Early career jobs, like shift work, labour-intensive jobs, and living in remote locations were not a highlight for me and it seemed at the time to be going on forever. However, later in your career, as a CEO, you visit people who are doing these jobs and because you spent time doing these jobs you can relate to the challenges they face.

So for me, it would be to take the time to absorb the experiences, not be too hasty to move up the ladder too quickly and build a solid foundation of experiences that are aligned with your career. They become invaluable later in life. The higher you go, the lonelier it becomes and you call upon your experience base to guide you then.

I also tell people that there are ‘leaders’ and there are ‘administrators’. You need to find the leaders and find a way to connect with them so you can have enlightening conversations.

True leaders are not frightened of talent; administrators are threatened by people smarter than them. You’ve got to look at organisations and understand how that works and get to grips with that very quickly.


Stratum: And what do you look back on as your biggest mistakes?

I suppose the bigger mistakes are the ones you make in the more senior positions of your career. Certainly, the acquisition of Jubilee as CEO of Xstrata Nickel was not our finest moment.

Massive amounts of learning come from mistakes. I would say it’s probably the most difficult thing to do but for me it’s the most important decision management must make. If you don’t admit there is something wrong, and you believe in a list of excuses then you never take on the challenge of fixing it. The longer you take to come to that conclusion, the more likely it will be more damaging, as time in these situations is not your friend.


Stratum: What do you look for in a leader now?

One of the more important aspects of a leader is to recognise leadership within people and recognise talent. I always say to people “You get hired for what you can do, not what you’ve done” and the job of a leader is to recognise the potential in people.

A leader needs to recognise the ‘potential energy’ in an individual and convert that into ‘kinetic energy’, which has them executing to their full potential confidently.

Leadership is not just for managers but it’s a role that everybody can play. Whether you’re a cleaner, receptionist, an engineer, or a manager, everybody has, I believe, a leadership role they can play in their job.

If you get an entire organisation to act with a leaderful way and you give them the ability to lead, you enable them to show their leadership capabilities and it makes the job so much more rewarding.

Every organisation has ‘growers’ and ‘keepers’. Growers are those individuals who will take on management roles in the organisation, also referred a lot of times as talent. I firmly believe organisations need ‘keepers’. They’re not going to become the next CEO, they’re not going to become the next Vice President, but they’re playing an important part in the company and they need to be recognised for this.

So, it’s about recognising that full spectrum of the team, as so many companies only focus on talent and they leave behind the rest of the organisation, who end up feeling marginalised.


Stratum: How do you implement that? Do you use assessment or gut feel or….?

There are some great tools out there that can help you define what you are looking for and then help you establish how people stack up against those criteria. There is a lot of unconscious bias that goes on in hiring and promoting, so these tools and well-defined processes takes away a lot of that subjectivity and gives you great insight, allows you to focus on questioning, and ultimately, one then does overlay all of this with sound judgement.

I got introduced to psychometric testing back in the early Nineties when I attended Henley Management College just outside London. It blew me away in that here was a tool being used to successfully hire and retain staff. Still today many companies are not aware, or have no experience, in using these tools.

As a CEO, I used these kinds of tools in the hiring process and to help the existing management teams understand themselves and their peers. Recognising strengths and blind spots is important, thus helping teams move into a performing phase.


Stratum: Most companies don’t use assessment, yet it’s obvious that most people get fired on behaviour. 

Totally agree. Unconscious bias and poor cultural fit are big impediments to successful hiring and retaining of people.

A lot of companies focus on capabilities around the what, and not so much on the how. Plus they generally assess what the person did in the past and not what they can do for the future.


Stratum: Xstrata always stood out as being willing to test younger or less experienced people in big jobs.

The devolved and highly accountable model required Xstrata to have a sense of the capabilities of the individuals within the organisation. The lean approach made talent very visible which afforded them a chance at opportunities, and it was a growing not stagnant organisation, which again propelled people’s careers.

None of us were afraid of surrounding ourselves with people who were smarter than us. Again, the leadership team understood how to assess the potential in people and the management style was to allow you to realise your full potential which was very energising. I must say it also did not allow the ‘administrators’ a place to hide and invariably they would leave on their own accord.

It was a company on the move and there was no place for politics either, which again generally created a great work environment. For instance, age and years of service was not a criterion used for selection, which allowed for quite a diverse management team.


Stratum: Are there any particular people in mining that stand out to you as great leaders or potential leaders?

There are a few memorable people that stand out for me. I have already mentioned Noel Peverett. Then there was a shift supervisor at Libanon Gold Mine who was assigned to train me to be a shift supervisor. Because we were called shift supervisors he insisted we wear a tie with a white lab coat at all times, because we were now supervisors and not operators. He was meticulous in the way he went about his business and he taught me how to be a supervisor, and pay attention to detail as we walked around the plant. He was a great guy, and taught me to be observant. He said “You need to learn to walk with your eyes open.”

Then I joined Fluor and I realised that there was a whole new world of mega-projects out there, requiring a whole new set of skills to execute these large capital programmes. There were some amazing leaders like Hugh Coble and Vince Kontny. It was interesting to see how they behaved. One time I had to go to Irvine, California to meet with several of the company senior leaders. And people like Vince and Hugh would come to reception and collect you personally while less charismatic leaders would send their assistants and invariably leave you waiting in a reception area. That was never the case with guys like Hugh and Vince. They always showed everyone the utmost respect and never took a stance that they were somehow above others. This type of personal leadership brings out the very best in people.

My last ten years of my career brought me back to the operational side of the mining business and leaders such as Derek Pannell at Noranda/Falconbridge and Mick Davis at Xstrata stand out

I am a firm believer of what I call now the ‘X way’ of running a mining company. The business is underpinned by a set of values, with a highly accountable small management team and devolved corporate structure driven by looking for value.


Stratum: Thank you. And finally, are you reading anything interesting right now?

The book that I always have close to me is Good to Great by Jim Collins. It’s an easy read and for me one of the most important but seemingly difficult things to do is get a great team together before you try to do anything. The other profound thing Jim states is that good is the enemy of greatness and I have found that to be so true in my career.




Ian has worked for over 35 years at the most senior levels in the field of mining and metallurgy. He served as Chief Executive at Xstrata Nickel, a subsidiary of Xstrata plc, from August 2006 to May 2013. He was also Director of Xstrata Nickel Australasia Pty Ltd from February 2008. As CEO, he was responsible for global nickel and ferro-nickel operations and projects in North and South America, Europe, Africa and the South Pacific. With an attractive portfolio of Greenfield and Brownfield projects, his focus was on the continuing growth of the nickel commodity business. He helld the position of Chief Operating Officer at Falconbridge Corporation, and joined Falconbridge in 2003 where he spearheaded the advancement of major growth initiatives as Senior Vice-President of Projects and Engineering.

Prior to joining Falconbridge, Mr Pearce worked on Canadian oil sands projects as well as metallurgical and mining projects for Fluor in Canada, Indonesia, Chile and South Africa. He also served as Executive Project Director at Fluor Corporation. Also, Chair and Non-Executive Director at MineSense, Non-Executive Director and on the Audit and Risk Committee at Outotec, and Non-Executive Director and on the Health, Safety, Environment & CSR and Governance Committees at Newgold. He has recently become the Non-Executive Chairman of New Gold Inc and a Non-Executive Director at Nevsun Resources.

Ian served as Chair of the Mining Association of Canada and Chair and Director of the Nickel Institute. He served on the Advisory Board of Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100.

Mr Pearce holds an Engineering HND in Mineral Processing and a BSc degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He also attended the Management Advancement Program at the University of the Witwatersrand and received strategic and general management training at Henley College in the United Kingdom.