Resources Sector Leadership Strategies in the COVID-19 Pandemic

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I caught up with Professor of Practice Brett Heyward to discuss his presentation at the Resources Industry Network 2022 Safety Conference in Mackay (24-25 March 2022).

Currently a Professor at the QUT Graduate School of Business, Brett is a former Director-General of the Qld Department of Natural Resources and Mines and presented on research being progressed through BEST, exploring the broad leadership strategies involved with managing the COVID-19 pandemic within the Resources sector.

Decorative imageThe research was aided significantly from quantitative data collected by third parties, particularly the work of Austmine and Queensland Resources Council (QRC). The findings were divided into six key areas:

  1. Economic Impacts
  2. Access to Government
  3. Managing Public Perceptions
  4. Crises drive Collaboration
  5. Take advantage of disrupted markets
  6. Industry has a lot more control than it thinks!

The following questions address each of the six key areas, providing a synopsis of the findings.

Before we begin, in your opinion, why was this research necessary?

The resources sector is worth approximately $300B to the Australian economy each year, or roughly 15% of the Australian economy as a whole. The METS (or the supply-chain) sector alone generates $92B of this economic activity.

As a result of the potential economic harm that could come from poor regulation of the industry in a crisis, I felt the resources sector deserved special attention.

The importance of the industry is particularly apparent in the resource-rich states of Queensland and Western Australia.  In Queensland, for instance, 1 in 6 jobs owe their existence to the resources sector.

1) What was the economic impact of the resources sector response to COVID-19?

Overall, the leadership of the COVID-19 response in the mining sector was really encouraging. For instance, research undertaken by Austmine showed that over a third of METS companies grew their revenues during the crisis – something that stands in stark contrast to other crises events – events such as the GFC, for instance. 

In the GFC supply chain impacts were far more impactful, with less than 15% of companies able to grow revenues, and far more widespread revenue losses within the industry.

This goes to show that the sector was able to cope with the crisis far more effectively than past calamities.

2) What roles did sector leaders and the government play in the response?

As someone who has been involved in several disaster responses (cyclones, floods, etc.) this is the first time that I’ve seen an entire industry carved out and given direct, frequent, engagement by Government.  It was quite extraordinary from my view.

Through my interviews, I found that the Queensland Resources Council (QRC) established direct access with the Qld Premier’s Office – with that office coordinating Ministerial offices, including Health, on a routine basis. In comparison to other peak bodies, including the Minerals Council of Australia at the national level, the QRC was the only peak body to establish such a direct line of communication with senior leaders in government.

And, with most of the regulatory impacts residing at the State Government level, this access to senior government officials in Queensland proved vital for the Resources Sector. It was able to avoid much of the pain suffered in other sectors of the economy due to this open communication channel.

Yes, there were many points of frustration on the ground with COVID-19 protocols, such as how many people were allowed to travel in a car, but in the end, there was a channel to work out better solutions.  Other industries did not have this level of access. On the flip side, the privileged access that the industry was receiving, it needed to be hyper-vigilant about its health protocols.  The management of COVID protocols were very similar to what was occurring in professional sport, for instance.

3) How did the resources sector hold it all together?

The issue of public perceptions came up time and time again in the data. Many of the leaders in the sector could see their privileged position, but this position came with huge responsibility. It is no coincidence that the resource sector-funded heat detection and body scanning stations at Airports were in full view of the public. Sector leaders wanted to send a clear message to the community that the resources sector was taking COVID-19 risks seriously and not thumbing its nose to the pain and suffering that was occurring elsewhere in the economy.

4) Beyond the connection to government, what other insights can you share about collaboration?

Crises drive collaboration.  This observation comes up a lot, both in terms of research on human behaviours in crises and in my own lived experience in responding to crisis events in the community. We band together in difficult times.  We are seeing it right now in the Ukraine or in response to the March flood events in Qld and NSW.

The data from the research was packed with comments about how positive it was to see the sector collaborate through the crisis. In my interviews, it was clear, leaders in the sector wanted to keep the collaborative spirit alive once the crisis abated.

Cooperation once seen as impossible was now considered normal. Yet, people need to be reminded of the bad times, and how collaboration got them through. I’m suggesting time needs to be devoted to communication and taking on the views of others during the good times. Explore what compromises need to be made for the greater good.  The industry shouldn’t let this moment go – lock in collaboration as a means of doing business in the future, you don’t need a crisis to show you how collaboration benefits everyone.

5) What advantages now exist because of the sector’s response to the pandemic?

As the saying goes: Never waste a good crisis!

Crisis events do tend to throw orthodox thinking out the window. You may remember me saying earlier that a substantial proportion of the METS Sector grew their revenues during the pandemic.

There are a lot of interesting insights attributed to market disruption, one of my favourites is from a small firm supplying mine logistics software around the globe.  This fledgling company was struggling to get access to some foreign markets, particularly in South America. They constantly got stuck in the bureaucratic maze of large companies, struggling to gain access to decision-makers. Along comes COVID and suddenly executives get used to holding meetings on-line.  More importantly, they find themselves with time to kill, sitting in their home office wondering when they can come back into headquarters to rally the troops. Well, this small firm realised this and with some amateur detective work, were able to get the CEO’s email address at a large South American mining house (they mine copper, a critical mineral in the development of alternative energy solutions). Within two weeks they’re having a Zoom meeting with the CEO, who is so impressed with the software, he commissions them on the spot.

6) How crucial was leadership during the pandemic?

In the chaos and confusion, leadership from within the sector was evident. Sector leadership forged strong collaboration between the regulators and industry, particularly in safety and health functions of their respective organisations.

Despite this, I feel the resources industry can be its own worst enemy.  It has the potential, at times, to be overly individualistic and rule bound. I would suggest that the willingness to collaborate isn’t always that strong, particularly in the good times. Indeed, the propensity for firms to act independently places a lot of unnecessary cost onto the supply chain. Ulitmately, this flows through to the cost of production.

The pandemic showed that the resources industry can write new rules for itself when it adopts a new mindset. The challenge is: Can we keep this going in the good times?

Closing comments

In challenging times, it is very difficult to get a system-wide perspective on a situation. In psychological theory this is called the overview effect. We can only see the things that are in front of us. It’s very difficult to move beyond that. Therefore, my observations and summary of recommendations are:

    • Develop an integrated crisis management plan for the resources sector
    • Deploy case managers and communication resources early in the process
    • Rapidly re-orientate trade bodies to look for opportunities in overseas markets
    • Don’t let the culture of collaboration die – capture the benefits and keep the momentum going
    • Always keep an eye on supply-chain vulnerabilities, even in the good times

What’s next?

QUT is helping organisations to act and address some of the points above, for example, experts in crisis communications, supply chain resilience, and systemic leadership are shaping frameworks and learning programs to support businesses and their leaders to build back better.

For me, connecting with people at the conference encouraged me to share more information on the impact of leadership on physical safety outcomes.

 To access more information, you can contact

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Adam Lenihan is a Corporate Partnership Manager at QUT, leading a portfolio of corporate education partnerships in the mining, resources, construction, and utilities sectors. Adam works with his clients to develop a thorough understanding of their executive and professional development needs to deliver high-impact, real world education partnerships and leadership development programs. Adam’s partnership activities for QUT have resulted in a range of specially designed programs that have harnessed the University’s capabilities to develop leaders and equip organisations with the skills and confidence to succeed in complex, ambiguous, future-focussed and emergent environments. Adam holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA), a Master of Security Studies, a Bachelor of Creative Industries (BCI), and is recognised as a Fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders (FIML) and in 2019 was awarded the Chartered Manager (CMgr) designation by the Chartered Management Institute.

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