This month we share the inspiring story of how Leah Miller became NSW Mining’s 2020 Exceptional Young Woman in Mining. We caught up with Leah to hear about her journey and what it’s like to become a role model for young women.
Leah is the CHPP Maintenance Delivery Superintendent at Yancoal’s Mt Thorley Warkworth Mine. She’s not only the first female to hold the role, but also the first to do so without a trade or engineering qualification. Her story is proof that with determination, hard work and a willingness to learn there really are no limits to where a career in mining can take you.
Raised on a dairy farm in Victoria, Leah’s a country girl at heart. Life on the farm meant not being scared to get your hands dirty. It also instilled in Leah the attitude to ‘get in and get the job done’. Growing up, Leah also moved schools a lot which was a tough but valuable experience.
“Moving around a lot taught me how to make connections and to interact with people from all walks of life,” Leah said. “It’s a skill that has served me well and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”
When it came time for university, Leah did a Bachelor of Business and Commerce at Bond University on the Gold Coast. Upon finishing her degree she entered a Rio Tinto Graduate Program as a Business Analyst in 2012, expecting to spend the next 18 months working at Hunter Valley Operations before moving on.
“I hadn’t really considered a career in the mining industry but the program seemed like a great opportunity so I decided to give it a go. It was while I was in this role that everything changed. The downturn hit and I began working with teams all across the business to identify ways to save money. I’m proud to say that during this challenging period working as part of a team we identified millions of dollars of cost savings.”
“Before that happened I was feeling a little unsatisfied with the predictability of the role. These new challenges gave me a real sense of accomplishment and I saw what you could achieve as part of a bigger team. I got to see how one side of the business could tangibly improve the other side. It made me want to learn more and do more. It was then I decided I wanted to move to an operational role.”
Leah knew that it would be a difficult transition to move from the commercial to the operational side of the business. She began to look for other people with her background who had moved across to other roles thinking they could provide a road map on how to transition, but it turned out only rarely had it ever been done before.
Despite this Leah was determined to take on an operational role and began exploring options within mining, maintenance and CHPP. Thanks to her persistence, and no doubt her skill at connecting with people, before long she was promoted into a Specialist Contractor Management role.
“This role really opened my eyes to the art of influencing people and what you could achieve as part of a team and was a good stepping stone. I continued to build relationships and chase down opportunities and thanks to a manager who had faith in me I got the role of Rebuild Coordinator with the maintenance team in 2017.”
For the next year Leah oversaw over 150 HME rebuilds leading a team of 140 personnel. Where some might have struggled being thrown in the deep end, Leah thrived. She established herself as a strong leader and managed her first capital project to completion, on time, on budget and, most importantly, safely.
“Not minding getting my hands dirty sure came in handy for my first capital project,” Leah says with a laugh. “It was one of those projects where you jumped one hurdle and another would come up. It was extremely stressful but I relished the challenge.”
Then after only 10 months in the role Leah stepped up into the role of Project & Shutdown Superintendent when the former leader unexpectedly became ill. It was a stressful time for her and her team but Leah kept them motivated and continued to deliver high value outcomes despite the pressure they were under.
With so many successes under her belt and a reputation established as a respected leader it was no surprise when in October 2019 Leah was rewarded with the role of CHPP Maintenance Delivery Superintendent where she became responsible for leading a large team while managing maintenance priorities.
“We’ve had our challenges since I stepped into the role, especially with the pandemic, but we have exceeded our availability target by 1.5% thanks to the entire team. I’m proud to have been able to lead them and help them maximise their skills so we could achieve this together.”
Through every role Leah has shown that she can step up to any challenge and is a role model not just to women, but to everyone. A worthy winner of the award, yet Leah says she was very surprised to be nominated let alone win.
“I’m really very grateful and honoured to have won, it’s recognition of all the hard work I’ve put in. During the presentation of the award so many people were there with me. All the people who contributed. From the warehouse to HR to the infrastructure to the managers. People that believed in me and helped me and taught me. I wouldn’t have got to where I am today without those people.”
Although she’s now a strong advocate for the awards, Leah said she didn’t know too much about them before being nominated but now recognises how important they are.
“Awards like these are vital, not only to recognise all the women out there doing fantastic things, but to promote the opportunities that are available in the mining industry and show young girls what’s possible.”
“Our business like many in our industry still needs more female representation in the workforce. Here we have only 12.1% of female representation and only 2 out of 13 operational superintendent roles are filled by women. The business has done a lot in terms of improving facilities and spaces but we still have a way to go.”
“I’d like to be able to tell young people and especially young girls who are still in school or considering careers that there is more out there than you can ever imagine. In our industry there are roles and jobs that most people don’t even know about.”
Leah has plenty of advice that she’s keen to share. Her drive to learn has been a key element in her success. “If you haven’t got the skill, get out there and look, see, touch, feel. I’ve found that nearly every person I’ve worked with has been willing to teach me. If you show you are interested people will respond and happily share their knowledge.”
Leah also advises that you should take every opportunity that comes along. Be willing to say yes and take that chance.
“The best advice I was ever given was don’t wait until you’re ready for your next job before you go for it. You might never be ready. I think this is especially important advice for women who are more likely to underestimate their skills.”
And those skills don’t have to come from a degree or qualification. Leah has learnt that experience often means more than a piece of paper. Whilst study is important nothing beats real world knowledge.
“The other advice I have to give is find mentors and people who will support you. ‘You can’t be who you can’t see’. And don’t necessarily look for mentors who are at the top, often the people who are one or two rungs above you are the ones who can help the most. Think outside your department or role for mentors too.”
“I’ve also found programs like WIMnet to be valuable. LinkedIn is great too, not only for the contacts you can make, it also has a lot of online courses and resources and most of them are free. At the end of the day it’s about expanding your awareness, getting out and trying things, you never know where you’ll end up. I never thought I’d be doing this that’s for sure but I would never go back. It’s challenging and rewarding and fulfilling.”
After talking to Leah, I was impressed by her story, but what impressed me even more was discovering later that she has achieved all this whilst facing the challenges of managing an autoimmune disease, a disease which has severely impacted her work and home life. Instead of allowing the illness to obstruct her, it seems instead she has used it to strengthen her by giving her a greater understanding and empathy towards others in the workplace.
What’s next for Leah? “I’m not really sure,” she muses. “I’ll be looking to my mentors for direction, maybe a little soul searching, and of course I’m always looking for what can I do next.”