Mhairi Cameron has always been fascinated by natural science, collecting rocks, feathers and bird eggs as a child. It’s this curiosity about nature that led her down a path of studying geology – and finding her calling in mining. 

“The mining industry is critical for the energy transition. And developing a deeper understanding of the critical metals we need to enable the transition to renewable energy and decarbonisation over the years has made my purpose clearer than ever to me.”

Today, as the Amrun Operations Manager at Rio Tinto in Weipa, Far North Queensland, Mhairi leads a team of over 400 people. She’s responsible for the safety and operational excellence of the mining giant’s local bauxite mine operations, processing plant, port operations and mobile equipment. 

The challenge for the industry, Mhairi says, is to supply the critical elements needed to drive this transition quickly – and sustainably. 

“Part of this is innovation: what mining techniques do we need to explore that have the lowest impact on our environment? What rehabilitation do we need to do, not just on closure, but along the way? How do we protect not just our surface resources, but things like water and our hydrogeological resources? And how do we bring relevant benefits to communities and stakeholders?”

People are the heart of solving these issues. And for Mhairi, building and retaining a diverse team that brings different perspectives is one of the most important challenges.

“As a leader you have to keep pace with changing employee expectations and offer something that’s competitive and appealing to a wide range of people in a global market,” Mhairi explains. 

So she leans on her empathy, authenticity and leadership tools she gained from the General Manager Program at AGSM @ UNSW Business School to create a safe and innovative environment where people feel supported and heard.

Driving innovation in a fast-paced sector

Mhairi has seen the positive impact of diversity on team performance first-hand. As Plant Manager at Rio Tinto Iron Ore in WAshe was part of a team with 17 different nationalities and higher-than-industry-average female and Indigenous participation. The team had an excellent safety and performance track record, delivered on plans every year, and continually innovated to achieve results. 

“Diversity establishes strong psychological safety,” she says. “You can be 100% yourself and contribute ideas and know they will be listened to. And those ideas kept us moving in the right direction.”

Mhairi says diversity enables her, as a leader, to deliver on business and sustainability goals. That’s why she has been actively involved in building more diverse teams, focusing particularly on bringing more women onboard.

In 2022, Mhairi coordinated a pilot program at Rio Tinto to hire 100 women. Encouraging women from all backgrounds and industries to apply – from agriculture and aged care to tourism and aviation – the company offered permanent roles to 78 women from regional WA. 

“I have found a sense of purpose in being able to improve female participation. And if that is the legacy I leave behind, it will be one that I really cherish,” Mhairi says.

New perspectives for evolving challenges

As a woman, Mhairi feels she has been rewarded for her perspectives in the industry. 

“Women bring different experiences and diversity of thought. My worldview and ability to think with EQ before IQ have been sought after because they’re typically different from the norm. And that has really benefited me in my career,” she says.

One example of the value of Mhairi’s perspectives came when leaders at Rio Tinto were trying to address high levels of absenteeism during school holidays. 

“I asked if we had thought about why people take more leave over the school holidays,” she says. “It turned out to be because of a lack of childcare options, particularly in the regional hubs. That realisation enabled other leaders to approach issues with care and empathy and come up with effective solutions.”

And with an extremely stretched labour market, this is more important than ever. 

“You try to motivate your leaders and your teams to deliver on your plan by informing culture. But very tight labour markets with very attractive salaries elevate turnover, which makes building sustainable culture quite challenging,” explains Mhairi.

Rio Tinto

Leading with heart – making decisions that align with her values – allows Mhairi to connect with her teams on a deeper level and make them feel recognised, respected and empowered. 

“It’s also about being my authentic self – showing when I feel passionately about an issue, or calling out when I don’t know something.”

Challenging her own mindset

Moving into her current role in May 2022, Mhairi realised she needed to expand her leadership approach to continue advancing her career. So she decided to enrol in AGSM’s General Manager program to learn new tools and skills to help her take on different disciplines and responsibilities that come with being a general manager– the natural next step for Mhairi.

During the five-day intensive program, she came face-to-face with some hard truths.

“I always thought I had a growth mindset. But I quickly found that wasn’t the case,” she reflects. “Although I'm the type of leader who really leans into problems, sometimes I can't see the answer when things are too complex. The course helped me understand I had a fixed mindset.”

Being challenged to take a leap of faith and open her mind to complexity was one of the most difficult and rewarding parts of the program for Mhairi – and something she has taken into her current role.

“I always felt like everything had to be resolved and perfect. The program has helped me acknowledge there are going to be problems or decisions that are so complex there is no solution. All you can hope is that you will be in a better position at the end of your journey. That's been a real enabler for me.”

Another game-changer for Mhairi has been establishing a learning practice in her daily routine. She gathers with her team to celebrate successful tasks or projects and approach ones that weren’t with a curious, learning mindset.

“Why did we win there and not somewhere else? What are we going to test today to try and get a different outcome tomorrow? As a team, this helps us moved forward in a really positive way,” says Mhairi.

She’s already planning to get her Certificate in Executive Management and Development from AGSM – and eventually embarking on an MBA.

But for now, Mhairi’s focused on maintaining a positive culture and continually developing new, efficient ways to minimise the impact of operations on the environment and communities.

“As well as investing in Research and Development to closely monitor our impact before, during and after our operations, we’re also focusing on thinking differently about how we connect with the community, especially our Traditional Owners – and provide greater local employment opportunities.”


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