The AusIMM Bulletin sat down with Zimi Meka to discuss his leadership philosophy and how he has helped to build a strong team culture that celebrates diversity.
Published in AusIMM Bulletin
You have more than 35 years' experience in the design, construction and operation of minerals processing plants and infrastructure around the world. How has your global experience shaped your leadership philosophy?
From a leadership perspective, I think it starts with truly seeing and appreciating differences, cultural and otherwise. People sometimes forget that even those of us who speak the same language might not necessarily be culturally aligned. As a leader, I want to be able to influence people in their decision-making process rather than be directive, so it’s important to be able to understand different backgrounds to get the outcomes we need as an organisation. Given the complexity of my job, and the many different situations I deal with every day, that takes a lot of patience and just as importantly, a willingness to listen.
You have overseen Ausenco grow to become a global team based across 26 offices in 14 countries with many project locations. How do you keep a cohesive culture within the company while still celebrating diversity?
I think it comes down to shared values. We respect and embrace the diversity and different views of our people, that is what shapes who we are as a company. At the same time, we have a common set of values that are non-negotiable. We don’t just hang our values on the wall; we live, breathe and celebrate them. And our leadership plays a critical part in that, not just at the top level of the company, but throughout the organisation. We expect our leaders to model the behaviour and the organisational culture we want to see, and they know we’re not shy to call them out if they don’t live up to that commitment.
How have you been able to put your leadership skills into action when responding to COVID-19, and ensuring the health and safety of your workforce?
What is the saying: ‘Never waste a good crisis’? What’s been important to me hasn’t necessarily been my leadership during the pandemic, but the leadership of the whole organisation. Our leaders have really stepped up, taken control of their areas, dealt with the challenges, and just delivered on their goals. That tells me that we’ve made some good decisions around selecting those people.
I've been through a lot of downturns in the industry, and I have some tried-and-proven methods how to deal with a crisis. I think it’s critical to keep the lines of communication open, and not sugar-coat difficult situations – people need to know what’s going on. In this case, our leaders have picked it up and run with the ball. That has been spectacular to watch.
Do you undertake ongoing professional development for leadership (even if this is informal, such as networking or coffee catch-ups with other leaders)?
Not so much formal development anymore, but yes, I absolutely have a good support network that I tap into all the time to bounce ideas around and get an alternative view.
In the past you’ve said ‘[A CEO’s] number one priority is to make sure you've got good people’. As a leader, what do you look for in your people to ensure they’re the right fit?
I focus a lot on whether someone is a cultural fit. Are they going to show what I call ‘above the line’ behaviors, do they fit in with the team? Do they communicate, do they respect and believe in our values? Once I’ve established that someone is a good fit, it’s about their passion, enthusiasm and curiosity. I believe that curiosity is an important trait in a strong leader: knowing what questions to ask, of whom, and when.
You don’t just establish these things in one meeting. I take my time to get to know someone, get my colleagues involved, see the person in different environments and social settings if possible. And at the end of the day, it all boils down to gut feel. You can't beat that.
You are a co-founder of Ausenco. What prompted your decision to be involved in the formation of a new company, and what has it taught you about leadership?
When you're 30 years of age, you don't understand downside risk, and therefore you don't over-analyse. I wasn't happy with what was happening in the industry, I felt there was a better way of doing things and providing value, making a difference. I’ve always believed that we play an important role in the economy and in the community, by providing commodities that are used to improve the lives of many people.
Early on, I was probably very focused on being a good technical leader. Over the years you realise that to build a sustainable business, you need to think strategically, and build a strong team of people who know things that you don’t. I certainly went through an evolutionary process, self-analysing my strengths and weaknesses as a leader, to take the organisation to where it is today, and hopefully beyond. I think that is part of the journey any leader needs to go through.
You are an AusIMM Fellow and were awarded the Institute Medal 2009 – the highest award conferred by AusIMM. What role has AusIMM played throughout your career?
I became involved with AusIMM at a young age, just after I graduated, when I took on the role of treasurer at the local branch. AusIMM has always attracted high-profile speakers from the mining industry, so I met some very inspirational people who helped mould my career. I also saw the positive impact the organisation had on industry participants, particularly in remote locations. It was a space for technical exchange, and more importantly, social exchange, a hub where various disciplines (geologists, mining engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers) could come together and share ideas.
Over the years, I’ve seen and been a part of the professional development that the organisation offers young people, and the technical leadership it has provided to the industry. It’s a fantastic organisation that is well respected globally and is on a good path to continue its influence.