As part of our Interviews with Mining Greats series, Will Coetzer interviews Maryse Belanger.
Maryse Belanger became Chief Operating Officer at Atlantic Gold in the Summer of 2016. It seems that after 30 years in mining, very little fazes this multilingual French Canadian. When we spoke Maryse had only recently completed her turnaround of Mirabela Nickel, described by Bloomberg as ‘remarkable’. She attributes some of her success to her decision to return to operational roles from time to time in her career to ensure she never loses sight of the needs of her colleagues on site. Listed by Women in Mining UK as one of the top 100 most inspiring women in mining, Maryse’s entry into a mining career was inspired by a spirit of adventure that continues to this day.
Stratum: What first got you into mining?
It’s all down to the influence of my father. He worked for Honeywell, installing control systems at the iron ore mines in northern Quebec and Labrador and that’s where my interest came from. Plus, I like adventures; the opening up of the world, the travelling and being away from home and Canada. I always had that strong desire to travel and explore the world.
Stratum: Looking back to when you started in mining, what would you say was your big break?
My first big break was with Echo Bay Mines. That’s a long time ago and the reason it made such a difference in my career is that there was somebody who was my mentor, George Woollett. He taught me everything about what I call being a professional; whether it was presentation, explaining things to senior executives… these behaviours that nobody tells you about.
When you go to university nobody defines for you what being professional is and with Echo Bay Mines, in the late 1980s, I learned the key aspects. I was in my mid-20s and it opened my eyes to not only the technical aspects, because George was a technical person, but also the more corporate side of things and what I call that standard of professional behaviour.
That’s now my definition of professional behaviour; you must be willing to defend your work in front of a panel of your peers.
Stratum: One of the striking similarities between the people we’ve spoken to is that they’ve all had a very influential mentor. Did you seek out a mentor or was it luck?
It was more that I was working very hard and wanted to learn everything. It was a combination of hard work, being defined as somebody who really wanted to learn, but some of it was luck as well.
You have to be open to people who want to give you advice. Sometimes, for young people, it is not easy to take advice. It takes a bit of humility.
Everybody needs some guidance; everybody needs to grow as a professional and then develop some leadership qualities as well.
So, it was a stroke of luck and a lot of hard work.
Stratum: Have you had a mentor throughout your career?
Absolutely, yes. I always did. Even at the senior vice president level, I have had a mentor and a coach as well; somebody to talk to, somebody to help reflect on things as well.
An important part of leadership is asking yourself questions and reflecting on things. It’s not always easy to do that on your own. You need somebody to discuss ideas and concepts.
Stratum: And when you’re reflecting on things what do you see as your biggest mistakes?
Lots of them! I think most people would tell you that. Some of them were on the technical side but many of them were related to people. More related to not listening or maybe thinking I was listening but not hearing or understanding what was said.
I tended to have a pretty bad temper. It was about learning to manage as opposed to trying to run away from difficult situations, slamming doors and getting angry. I had to learn that very powerful tool called negotiating over the years.
In my younger days, building consensus was not something I was good at. From the time you’re in your mid-20s through to your 50s, it is a learning process and you evolve as a person.
That’s the great pleasure of getting older and having more experience. When you’re younger you’re more selfish, more self-centred and you tend to lack in a little bit of perspective in the sense of seeing the bigger picture.
Stratum: What other advice would you give to your 30-year-old self?
That’s a good question. I would say learning earlier about organisations and the corporate world and what motivates other people.
It took me a very long time to understand others and organisations and the way they are created. I think I had a very strong focus on the technical things but less about other aspects of working in organisations.
That’s when I decided to go from the corporate world to actual operation and then follow that back to the corporate world. There’s been a clear pattern over the last 30 years to go between the corporate base, technical services for example, back to operations after a few years. To me, it’s about not losing touch and understanding what drives people at the ground level in the mining industry.
From the time I was 30 to now, I’ve had this clear pattern in my career of the corporate world and then switching to more hands-on roles and closer to operations, for example. It is something I would strongly recommend to young professionals in the mining industry.
Stratum: When it comes to understanding what drives people and creating or investing in future leaders, what do you look out for in leaders you engage with now?
I’m looking for people who are not afraid to use their voice. A funny mix of technical skills, personality also. Not followers, but asking questions, being creative and understanding the big picture.
People should feel free to ask questions. Any question is a good question if it means we get better and improve.
I like young leaders to have a voice and be quite open about not only the ideas but the doubts they have or the values they want to promote into an organisation.
Stratum: Everything you’ve described relates to behavioural tendencies. Very little involves technical skill when you get to a leadership position. How do you assess that side of things?
I believe in personal leadership. I believe in being very open and exposing myself a little bit.
You have to be generous with your time. You have to share your experience. But it’s also being at the ground level and having an open-door policy so that people can come and talk to you.
I like to hear people saying “Maryse, I really think we should be doing this this way.” Being approachable, an open-door policy, having younger people come to me with ideas and showing leadership skills is key.
I try to give people access. It’s difficult because it takes a lot of time and energy but I think it’s worth it because we need to develop that young leadership in the industry. I really believe you have to trust the younger generation. We have to be open and spend the time and energy developing them.
So, it’s through personal contact, being at the operations level and talking to people and letting people come to you, that I do most of my assessment.
Stratum: We did a study recently on why people leave their work and 80 per cent of people, on average, leave their job, not because of a behavioural issue rather than a skill issue. Yet 80 per cent of people get hired because of their skill or because of people’s gut feel around them. There’s little assessment or thought about behaviour, which at leadership level is the most important aspect.
It is the single most important aspect, because on a strictly technical level you get some really, really good people out there, but in terms of organisations and maturing organisations and developing leadership, it takes a concerted effort to develop that.
We all must recognise that a company full of people like ourselves would be chaos. We do not want to hire operating leadership exactly like us.
I think some people do that but I think it’s a mistake. You want a mix of different styles and you also want a different mix of styles in terms of people learning, solving problems, and so on.
We need left brain and right brain thinkers in leadership. We need that basic engineering skill but we also need the more creative concepts, people who can be developing new ideas and concepts.
Making a team is about finding that balance between your team members. So when I assess people or decide if I want them in the team, I try to be conscious of that fine balance and make sure that my first rule is applied: not to hire people like myself.
Stratum: Thank you Maryse. My final question is whether you’ve read any interesting books recently?
I do not tend to read a lot of management books, although I think we’ve all read Good to Great! I’m more interested in the world at large; I’m an absolute fanatic of The Economist, for example.
When it comes to fiction, I am a big fan of Mario Vargas Llosa. I just read The Way to Paradise. It’s a fantastic book connecting Paul Gauguin and his grandmother, whom he never met. It is a double portrait where their travels and obsessions intersect; their passion and ambition and pursuit of greatness. A fascinating story.
Maryse Belanger has over 30 years of experience in the mining industry with strengths in studies, technical services and operational excellence and efficiency. She was the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Mirabela Nickel Ltd where she was responsible for the remarkable turnaround of the company and the reestablishment of the Santa Rita mine as one of the world’s premier nickel copper sulphide open pit operations.
From 2012 to 2014, Ms. Belanger was Senior Vice President, Technical Services at Goldcorp where she oversaw the global geology, mine planning and design, metallurgy, hydrology, tailings dam and geotechnical engineering functions. During her career, Ms. Belanger has also gained considerable expertise providing oversight and project management support for some of the mining industry’s key strategic acquisitions.
Prior to joining Goldcorp, Ms. Belanger was Director, Technical Services for Kinross Gold Corporation for Brazil and Chile. Ms. Belanger holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology and a graduate certificate in Geostatistics. She is also fluent in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. She has been an active board member at Mirabela, True Gold, Newmarket Gold (Kirkland Lake Gold) and Plateau Uranium.