Real Life. Real Leadership.

We live in a turbulent world.  More than ever before, people are looking to their leaders to provide clarity and purpose.  In this series of interviews, we pose 5 questions to respected leaders.  These leaders lead anywhere from the front line to the corner office, but they have one thing in common – they are highly effective and well regarded.  Put aside the theory and read on for an insight into the stories of some outstanding leaders.

Soo Carney is the Regional Environment Manager for Alcoa’s mining, refining and smelting operations in Australia, providing leadership and guidance on required environmental standards and performance to manage material environmental risks, while sustaining and growing the business. She is also a member of Alcoa’s global environment leadership team which delivers Alcoa’s EHS Strategy. Previously Soo held senior leadership roles at BHP and Woodside Energy including HSE Manager in BHP’s iron ore division in Western Australia and Sustainability and Corporate Affairs Manager on Woodsides’ Pluto LNG Project. So, what does leadership mean to Soo Carney?

Red Emu: Tell us your leadership story – how has your leadership evolved over the years and what has shaped your approach to leadership?

Soo: I’ve been really fortunate in the sense that I was placed in formal leadership roles early in my career. I was appointed as the Environment Manager on a large infrastructure project in my early thirties, and as part of that joined a business unit leadership team. Looking back, it was very early in someone’s career and I think also early in terms of life experience to be appointed to such a senior role. And it was daunting! I was fortunate to have a lot of support – mentoring, functional and peer support as well as formal development. Nevertheless, I was thrown into the deep end and invariably when thrown into the deep end you make mistakes. So despite all the support I had, I made some of the obvious mistakes.

Early on, I was not so much focused on the concept of ‘team’ and delivery through a team. I think I was very process driven and I drove people to a specific outcome. Inevitably you have the challenges that come with this approach – people not feeling adequately supported, issues with overall clarity and understanding relative accountabilities across team members. It was at this point in my career, and as part of a formal development initiative, where I received specific feedback on my leadership impact. I was shocked and maybe even a little horrified that the impact I was having was very different to what my intentions were. However I was lucky this happened early in my leadership career, as I was able to take the feedback on board and become more focused on engaging with my team – providing a sense of purpose for the work they were doing and supporting them to do their best work. It was at this point in my career that I began to really understand the difference between management and leadership, and how central people and culture are to leadership.

Red Emu: You have responsibility for a significant, complex business unit – how do you create clarity for your team and the broader organisation?

Soo: Providing the overarching business context comes first. Where does the business find itself, what are its objectives and where does it want to get to in the near-term and medium-term horizon. I then articulate how our roles directly link to this:- What is our purpose; what is our contribution to achieving the business objectives? We have our team plan and individual goals and I am constantly touching base with the team. Every month I meet with every member of the team to discuss their contributing goals, checking-in on progress, recalibrating where necessary, and most critically asking ‘What can I do to support you to achieve your goals?’ Whilst my role has a very broad span of accountability, at the end of the day I always see my key priority as being the team, and the people in my team. I have a rule – I don’t move the monthly meetings with members of my team, however if it is absolutely necessary to do so, I explain clearly why and then they are rescheduled within 24 hours at the most.

Red Emu:  What is the biggest sacrifice or trade-off you have had to make in your leadership journey?

Soo: Good question.

I don’t know that it’s a sacrifice. Maybe it’s something akin to a trade-off, or balance, between your individual pursuits from a career perspective (such as personal profile and recognition for delivering great work) versus ensuring your team is getting what they need. Supporting the team to enable them to perform, which means investing time and effort in supporting them to reach their potential. This includes looking for opportunities for special projects, opportunities to profile themselves, exposure to different stakeholders and different parts of the business.

I veer away from the word sacrifice because of my own perceptions of what it means. For me, it conveys some sense of deficit. I think as a mindset that is not constructive. It’s not constructive whether you are thinking about how you lead or how you work with others in your organisation – I think you need to come from a position of abundance.

Red Emu:  As you reflect on your career to date, what advice would have been helpful to you when you started out?

Soo: Building a network of peers and a network of relationships that are not just about work delivery but about peer-support and having opportunities to seek counsel from these people is really important. At the end of the day we are humans and it all comes down to relationships.

From a leadership perspective, I know this probably sounds crazy, but early on I didn’t appreciate how essential the ‘people’ part of the role is. I didn’t understand the distinction between management and leadership. The early part of my career was about managing work scopes, managing outcomes to a high level of performance. It really wasn’t about leadership. Leadership is about creating change through people in really positive ways and it took me a while to really appreciate this. I’m sure it would have been more rewarding for those people under my leadership in the early days if I realised this sooner.

Red Emu: How do you continue to develop your leadership and the leadership capability within your business?

Soo: There are some routines as a leader you need to make time for. You need to make time to reflect. You need to make time to take stock – this could be as simple as blocking time out in your calendar to consider: what didn’t work well; what did work well; what didn’t feel good; how is the team going. I believe discipline and routine around this is important.

Networks are really important – trusted peers who you can talk to, bounce ideas off and having mentors (not necessarily of a formal nature). But a network inside and outside of your organisation to help with perspective.

Be very deliberate about seeking feedback from the people who work with you and for you.  That is where the greatest insights into your development as a leader will come from, as ultimately you are serving those people. If you are not listening to what they tell you, you are never going to hit the mark in becoming increasingly effective.