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.
by Carmen Nobel

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

Click on image to enlarge
Click to enlarge image.As part of his case research, Gautam Mukunda spent a day in a platinum mine. Photo: Gautam Mukunda

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."

Click on image to enlarge
Click to enlarge image.Anglo American produces 40 percent of the world's platinum. Photo: Gautam Mukunda

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."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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    • Lehlohonolo Moitoi
    • Business Development, Gilbarco AFS
    I am currently based in South Africa, I am a Business Development Manager and my primary market is mining. Even though,I know the challenges that mining houses and employees face, I was sceptical when Caroll was placed as the chief executive of Anglo. Apart from the business itself, she faced challenges from South Africa's labour unions, some have radical outlook and resentment towards Anglo due to 1) The minerals are in South Africa and they feel a south african should be at the helm and 2) Anglo was operational in the apartheid years, and to an extent some people felt it supported the apartheid regime. Therefore what she accomplished in regarding zero tolerance on safety was magnificent. I beleive she would have achieved greater heights if her management were taught ethnocentric fears, hopes and dreams, this would extend her safety focus beyond the actual mines, but into the communities in which they reside, which in turn would enable th
    e miners to dream bigger, acknowledge the fears and strive to achieve the hope of a better life
    • M R Jhalawad
    • Visiting Faculty for HRM & HRD, Indore School of Social Work, Indore, MP, India
    "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."
    I am 72-year old person. When I read this story, there were tears in my eyes also.
    I salute Madam Carroll for her courageous move and setting excellent example of front leadership with human perspective
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private limited
    The importance of courage is well emphasised in this article and how courageous leaders and workers go about inspite of inhospitable working environment. We have many - though not too many - examples where leaders, managers and others braved acute hardships without caring for their own convenience. They could reach high levels of achievement paving way for others to learn and possibly follow.
    Mukunda and Cynthia have shown how the problems in platinum mines can be faced and surmounted. Well done !
    • John Kelly
    • Managing Director, South American Tin Limited
    What a great article and story. Sadly there are too many mines in the world still without any sort of occupational health and safety, let alone a good OH&S programme.

    I've got a similar experience to Cynthia, but at the same time its radically different. I have a tiny company that's working at one of the world's largest historic tin mines trying to redevelop the mine. The mine is located in a very poor part of the world. There are over 3,000 people working in this mine in appallingly dangerous conditions and very sadly fatalities and serious accidents are all too common. I have an excellent relationship with the leaders of the various groups of miners working underground, and I'm trying to put in some sort of very basic OH&S programme, amongst doing a lot of other things. The leaders readily admit to me that they and their colleagues working in the mine know nothing about OH&S beyond needing a hard hat and a lamp.

    It's inspiring to know that Cynthia broke through and changed decades of an appalling culture at the Anglo mines. I've visited to a few mines in South Africa and have seen what she had to deal with.

    In my case I've got a very different challenge to try and achieve the same end as Cynthia. The people I'm working with just don't know anything about OH&S and accept that people will die or be seriously injured. Its part of life.

    The mine has a nickname - "The Mountain that Eats Men."

    Oh, and I read the article on Graham Boustred. He displays an attitude that belongs to the 19th Century. Its nothing to do with mining in the 21st Century.