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Natural Fit: South African Mining CEO On Influential Leadership

Published 3 months ago
By Yeshiel Panchia

Exxaro’s brand-new CEO Dr Nombasa Tsengwa on influential leadership, greening the mineral resources industry and the fine balance of managing business, natural resources and environmental needs.

DR NOMBASA TSENGWA CUTS A STRONG personality even across a computer screen, with her acute mind and high energy driving clear, well thought-out responses – appropriate given that she is about to take up the mantle of CEO of Exxaro, one of the largest heavy minerals mining companies in South Africa.

While the position seems a natural fit now, having an established reputation both within the company and the mining industry, the journey from botany and agronomy to a female executive in the traditionally male-dominated mineral resources industry was engaging, and not without challenges.

Growing up in rural Transkei, Tsengwa’s father drove home the importance of academic success, which eventually led to her obtaining her PhD, and her mother’s passion and success in gardening led to her field of study in botany and agronomy.

“… being raised by a father who was a disciplinarian and teacher… I’ve got to really be successful academically,” Tsengwa recalls with some fondness. It is to his stern focus on success that she credits her determination and drive to succeed. Identifying which direction this success would take was less clear in the beginning.

After graduation, Tsengwa began her career in the civil services working at the Department of Environmental Affairs, where the work she was suited to began to reveal itself; implementing and ensuring compliance with environmental policies, particularly with the imminent threat of climate change.

“It was great to create impacts in the country in terms of environmental stewardship, and making sure that the standards in the country are upheld.”

Her commitment to the role and enjoyment are clear, but the work seems something of a far cry from taking up the helm of Exxaro – the transition from environmental policy enforcement to working for a mineral resources conglomerate doesn’t immediately seem reconcilable.

Tsengwa laughs heartily when you ask how this shift occurred.

“I’d never planned to go to the mining industry,” she says, smiling. “I got to be known by some industry players as one of the leaders in supporting the environmental space… Kumba Resources wanted to build a good safety, health and environment division – and I became that person for them.”

Transitioning into the mineral resources and mining industry meant that Tsengwa’s leadership qualities and excellence really had to come to the fore. The typically male-dominated industry sees over 90% of actual miners being male (Researchgate, 2018), and C-suite and executives at around 80% male (SPQ Global, 2020). As a woman of color from an environmentally-conscious background, Tsengwa was not blind to the possible challenges she would face, and took a proactive approach to engaging with her teams and subordinates.

“So, here I am coming into a strange environment full of men, mining engineers mainly, and making observations and recommendations,” she laughs with characteristic self-awareness.

“It felt very strange to have heard an external lady, a woman, a black woman on top of it, coming from outside the organization and occupying at that time what was considered the most senior position.”

However, ensuring that her recommendations and proposals were consistently driven, and being willing to learn and listen, earned her critical respect and relationships. “You’ve always got to ask the question, ‘what value will you add?’” she continues. “You’ve got to play, and bring your pound of flesh. You’ve got to deliver value all the time.”

And delivering value she did, leading her to be recognized within the company and moved over into operations, which led to even more interfacing with specialist, mostly male engineers. Typically, GM of operations are from mining engineering backgrounds themselves and hold mine manager certifications.

“You know, there was a definite pushback, even when the announcement was made… it was never heard of in this industry of a female who is not even a mining engineer,” says Tsengwa. She credits some of the clearing of her path to the outgoing CEO Mxolisi Mgojo.

“He had challenged us to say, we have created this bottleneck for ourselves. There’s nothing that says you cannot lead operations if you don’t have a mine manager certificate, because you’re not managing your mind.”

The transition came over the December holidays, and coincided with a few weeks of accrued leave.

Tsengwa made use of this time effectively to brainstorm her approach to the new role in operations and how she would approach her leadership. She turned to what she terms “influential leadership” vastly increasing her knowledge of the fields her specialists worked in, and taking a collaborative, supportive role in her management.

“I had five weeks to reflect on and feel how vulnerable I was. The only solution for me… was to acknowledge my strength, and to share with my team that I’ve not come here to do your job, I’m here to support your work, I am here to learn from you so that I can keep you accountable,” she says firmly. “And the more you teach me, the more you open up to what you do”.

This approach paid dividends, and led to a very successful term in operations, and in part that led her to be earmarked for the role of CEO, replacing Mgojo when he leaves in August.

Tsengwa’s background in environmental sciences and compliance will also be crucial in leading Exxaro to transition away from being a fossil fuel-based company moving forward.

“Climate change – it’s a global phenomenon,” says Tsengwa, acknowledging the role that companies in the mineral resources industry play. “It was a call for us to rally the organization to say, what is it that we think we can do, given the fact that we are mining coal? What opportunity does this give us… once we rotate ourselves into new areas of business, that will contribute to a low carbon economy, we’ve got
to make sure that our current operations are beginning to abate these greenhouse gases.”

Tsengwa will be driving a pivot in Exxaro’s business strategy, which began in 2018.

Not only does the company aim to offset its greenhouse gas outputs via new business investments, Exxaro is aiming to take on the green economy by storm in the future, developing and growing investments in mining materials used in the renewable energy sector such as aluminium and germanium, which applies similar core business principles but are critical in lithium batteries and solar panel construction.

The company aims to be completely carbon neutral by 2050.

“Through our renewable energy business, we want to make sure that we transition at speed, so that we make sure that we don’t just kid ourselves but we are also helping clean the world, whilst still ensuring our shareholders are getting their returns through new minerals from an earnings point of view.”

Tsengwa concedes that managing business and environmental needs is a fine balance, but if anyone is able to execute such a transition, it will be her – leading collaboratively, and with a firm awareness of the importance of mitigating environmental impacts.

“Authenticity for me defines who I am… and that, coupled with my respect to others and my desire to change things, that’s going to take us a long way.”

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