Stressing Safety in South Africa’s Platinum Mines
Gautam Mukunda discusses why and how he teaches a case study about Cynthia Carroll, the first woman and non-South African to serve as chief executive of mining giant Anglo American.
One morning last fall, Gautam Mukunda told the MBA students in his first-year Leadership and Organizational Behavior class to crawl under their desks and stay there. He wanted them to experience a sense of how it feels to work in a platinum mine, where the distance from ceiling to floor can be less than a meter.
"The students wanted to get out right away," recalls Mukunda, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School. "But I said, no! (Luckily I have a loud voice.) And I told them to imagine being like this for 12 hours. Except it's dark, it's dusty, and over your head is a mile of solid rock. Oh, and you are doing heavy physical labor for 12 hours. That's being in the mines."
"You had white supervisors who grew up under apartheid overseeing black mine workers."
The class was discussing "Cynthia Carroll at Anglo American," a case study authored by Mukunda with Lisa Mazzanti and Aldo Sesia (both case researchers at HBS). The case follows several key events in the career of Cynthia Carroll (HBS MBA 1989), who from 2007 to 2013 served as chief executive of the mining giant Anglo American plc, a London-based multinational that employs more than 150,000 people and produces 40 percent of the world's platinum. She was the first woman and first non-South African to head the company.
Addressing how to change the culture of a large and diverse organization using safety as a key lever, it's an apt teaching case for the required Leadership and Organizational Behavior course (commonly known as LEAD), which focuses on how managers become effective leaders by addressing the human side of the enterprise.
The elements of the case
The authors' research for the case study comprised more than 50 hours of interviews on three continents, not to mention some applied experience; Mukunda flew to South Africa and spent a day in Anglo American's Rustenburg mines. "Before the first class I posted a slide show of pictures, and several of them were of me working a steam drill," Mukunda says. "I was buried under so much gear that, as I discovered weeks later, the students had no idea that was me."
While Mukunda initially pursued Carroll's story simply because it intrigued him, he and his research team ended up with enough material for a three-part case.
Part A opens in June 2007, when the newly appointed Carroll faced a spate of fatalities at the Rustenburg mines. (Anglo American Platinum, which runs the mine, is majority-owned by Anglo American plc.) While the company boasted the nation's best safety record at the time, it still averaged 46 deaths per year. Four months into her tenure, Carroll learned of a fatality that occurred during her first visit to Rustenburg. "This organization is out of control," she told the head of Anglo American Platinum. "I will not support operations that are killing people."
As with most teaching cases at HBS, Part A focuses on a key dilemma: What should Carroll have done? In short, should she have ordered the company to close the mine, to shut it down temporarily, or to leave it open? "This decision dropped straight to the bottom line," Mukunda says. "Mining is a fixed-cost industry."
The situation made international headlines, and a quick web search will reveal what Carroll actually decided to do. But when he assigns the case in class, Mukunda asks students to resist the urge to Google. "If you know what happened then you lose the wonderful tension of the situation," he says. "And it's important for the students to feel that tension because someday they may have to face this kind of decision."
Part B of the case, taught later in the course, tackles a question that confronts CEOs in many industries: How do you change the culture of an organization, let alone an industry? No easy feat, especially in this case.
"This was postapartheid South Africa," Mukunda says. "You had white supervisors who grew up under apartheid overseeing black mine workers. And there's a culture of command and control—some people would have said a culture of bullying. Not because Anglo was especially bad, but because that was the culture of mining."
The culture problem was partly linguistic. South Africa has 11 official languages: Xitsonga, Tshivenda, siSwati, Setswana, Sesotho, Sesotho sa Leboa, IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, IsiNdebele, English, and Afrikaans. (The national anthem incorporates 5 of them.) Among the miners, 9 of the languages are spoken natively; the supervisors speak the other 2. To bridge the gap, the mining industry long ago adopted the use of Fanagalo, a pidgin language developed in the nineteenth century so colonists could communicate with their servants.
"How do you create a culture of collaboration and communication when the language has made that impossible?"
The glitch with Fanagalo: "Because of the way it has evolved, it can only be used to give orders," Mukunda explains. "It's not really possible to have a dialogue in Fanagalo. So, how do you create a culture of collaboration and communication when the language has made that impossible?"
Carroll told the executives to figure it out.
As the case explains, Anglo hired an industrial theater group to act out various safety-related interactions between miners and supervisors, using large visuals to illustrate safety points—along with the idea that it was OK for workers to bring concerns to their supervisors. In addition, Carroll mandated that Anglo executives fly to Rustenburg and meet with every one of some 30,000 miners, encouraging them, sometimes through translators, to speak up about safety problems.
The case's Part C looks at the challenge of sustaining a culture change in the years leading up to Carroll's resignation in 2013. "They've addressed the safety issue and taken major steps to change the culture," Mukunda says. "And the next question is, are they done? And the answer, of course, is that no, they're not done. They've hardly begun."
Mukunda says the case illustrates what HBS Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes as "bold strokes" and "long marches." As Kanter explained in a Harvard Business Review blog post, "Bold strokes are decisions that can be made at the top, implemented pretty quickly by command—acquisitions, divestitures, real estate purchases, layoffs. Long marches take time and the involvement of many people who must produce new elements and coordinate their actions before the change can be successful."
A case about valor
While Carroll made a point of making sure her gender would not be the focus of the case, Mukunda certainly considered the fact that she was the first woman to take the helm at Anglo American—and took note of the singular challenges therein. Even before they started conducting interviews, the case writers' research uncovered blatant sexism directed toward Carroll during her tenure as chief executive. (Take for example the 2012 article Against the Current on the Boat of an Old Mining Boss, in which Business Day's Michael Bleby profiles Graham Boustred, a former deputy chairman of Anglo American whose vitriolic statements about Carroll spoke volumes.)
Mukunda says he and his students were primarily struck by Carroll's valor. When she visited the class, Carroll received a standing ovation. Several of the students were moved to tears. Many of them sent Mukunda thank-you notes for teaching the case.
"My research is in particular about leaders who do things that nobody else would have done," Mukunda says. "Great leadership requires courage, and Cynthia was courageous. Every single lever you could pull to change an organization, she pulled it. From a learning perspective, that's what makes this story so remarkable."
For Mukunda, the case changed his perspective on the world of business. When he first began teaching at HBS, he thought business schools sometimes valorized business leaders too much. Doctors and veterans were real heroes, he'd tell his students. Nobody dies in business, he'd say.
"Well, every time I told them that, I was wrong," Mukunda reflects. "This case taught me that. In the past, 50 people a year were dying working for this company."
Last year was the company's best in terms of safety performance, with the lowest injury frequency rates ever recorded, according to Anglo American Platinum's annual report, which was released on February 3. The number of fatalities was halved from 25 miners in 2007 to 12 in 2011, and then halved again in 2013. The goal is still zero harm.
"The people working in the mines are some of the poorest people on the planet," Mukunda says. "And now they're paid better, they're treated with more respect and dignity, their lives are better, and many of them are alive, all because of Cynthia Carroll. That's heroism. And that's a great story."