Today, meet Michelle Ash, Senior Vice President of Business Improvement at Barrick. In her role, Ash oversees the company’s Best-in-Class program, a key initiative aimed at driving a culture of business improvement and operational excellence. Ash, who joined Barrick in January, has more than 20 years of experience in the mining and manufacturing sectors. Most recently, she worked for Acacia Mining in Tanzania in several senior roles, including Chief Operating Officer. She was recently named to this year’s list of "100 Global Inspirational Women in Mining" by Women in Mining U.K, one of three Barrick employees on the list. She holds degrees in Civil Engineering and Psychology, as well as an Executive MBA from the Melbourne Business School.
Beyond Borders: Why did you choose a career in mining?
Michelle Ash: I studied engineering because I was good at mathematics and science. My first role was with Rio Tinto as a blasting engineer, after completing an honors thesis on methane extraction from coal beds. Once you begin to work in mining operations, you get kind of hooked!
Is there someone who served as a mentor to you and what was the most important thing that you learned from them?
I have been lucky enough to have many mentors over the years. One of my favorites was one of my first mine managers, David Sandy. He insisted that I get overseas and Australian supervisory experience before he promoted me to superintendent. He sent me to work at Palabora in South Africa, Rossing Uranium in Namibia, and then he made me work for a mine superintendent who he knew I did not get along with. I fought with that superintendent about all sorts of things, and I remember thinking that David must have really lost his mind to make me work for that guy! But after six months of working together, we began to have a much better appreciation for each other, and for our strengths and weaknesses. So there was method to David’s madness. He taught me a lot about people and how to build a team.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
Being General Manager of Bulyanhulu at Acacia Mining, especially when performing that role while also serving in other senior positions, like Chief Operating Officer. The turnaround effort at Acacia involved very complex planning and technical issues and was by far the most challenging role in my career.
How has the industry changed its approach and attitude towards diversity since you entered the field?
It certainly has changed. I entered the mining industry in 1992, which was only just after women were allowed to go underground in Australia, but we still had to wear white overalls so people could see us coming. When I started in the industry some sites didn’t even have washroom facilities for women, other than occasionally in the administration building. Now we have diverse people in the industry with diverse thinking styles from different ethnic backgrounds. It means the ideas generated are much more robust, but it can also lead to a greater need to manage the tensions created by diversity.
What can the industry do better to accommodate change and diversity in your particular area of endeavor?
As an industry, we need to provide people with better skills in managing diversity and also in managing differences of opinion to develop well-rounded solutions.
What are some things that have surprised you about being a woman in a male dominated field?
How very rarely it comes up as an issue.
What advice would you give to women considering a career in mining?
Do it! Mining is a great industry to work in. You get to see the world. You get to work with different cultures and add value to the world, and often to communities who would have so little without mining.