World Coal Association
Michelle Manook is chief executive at WCA, which represents coal miners and users, since July 2019, and previously worked in strategy, government and corporate affairs in senior roles over 25 years in the energy and mining industry.
How is the World Coal Association's industry leadership role changing and why did you take it on?
The leadership opportunity is to change the emphasis around the coal narrative – this is about a transition to clean energy, not a transition away from coal. Our role is to enable the advancement of coal technology and innovation and ensure that government and investment policies are realistic, inclusive of all forms of energy, and free of roadblocks. The facts support coal's relevance for the foreseeable future, and we have a better chance to engage in sensible transition conversations, towards achieving the types of clean energy solutions which will deliver our global environmental aspirations. Coal will continue to be relevant to addressing energy poverty and economic growth, particularly now in developing countries. This whole conversation around coal was not really developing in a constructive and useful way, and one in which would support the emerging markets' right to develop. Not just to develop coal, but all energy solutions they wanted to, just having that right to choice.
Is criticism around coal's emissions without a broader understanding of energy security and geopolitics, technology, and access to power a major hurdle in changing public perception?
There are multiple issues that countries have to consider around energy and industrialisation. Often the conversation is simplistic, with preconceived perceptions and often emotive commentary overlooking the facts. Clean coal can very much be part of the solution. So often, arguments against coal don't seek to understand the real challenges and rights of developing markets to grow and prosper. I felt the rights of developing economies really needed to be heard, in a discussion that was as much about the environment as it was about economic development.
At the start of my career in energy and resources, those challenges were in the form of considerations around energy reliability, affordability, energy security, regulatory policy, investment certainty, economic contribution, local community employment and enterprise, governance, and environmental responsibility. All these factors are critical to understanding the role of energy and resources and they inform a robust public debate. Today should be no different.
How are you using your experience to date to work against the stigma, and does declining structural demand for thermal and coking coal outside Asia make coal a more Asia-centric discussion?
I have seen and experienced first-hand in communities benefits delivered through the resources and mining industry. I also had the privilege of seeing how innovation and technology has addressed issues and advanced economic growth. These are not simple issues. If they were, they would be solved, and we would be well on our way to achieving our global climate target of below 2 degrees. So, I remain pragmatic and optimistic that there will be a point where we understand this, and we will become more realistic in our approach.
Coal and renewables are not natural enemies. In fact, they are allies, they co-exist in some countries to deliver affordable and reliable energy systems whilst lowering emissions. Working together and inviting collaboration is key.
Where do you see effective examples of corporate culture and frameworks promoting women's participation in the energy and commodities industries?
The most important, impactful influencer on corporate culture is an understanding of unconscious bias, not just in promoting women's participation, but rather in promoting diversity. When I first participated in unconscious bias training, I thought being an ethnic, younger, female somehow meant I could be exempted. The training proved to be a powerful experience in recognising the depth and extent of unconscious bias. In many instances, I find myself pausing – in meetings, in board rooms, and asking myself if I am being objective in my assessment. I think acknowledging our biases creates a much better framework for discussions and decision making.
Can more be done around benchmarking, accountability, and metrics to ensure women and minorities feel they have an equal chance to be recognised and promoted in the metals and mining industry?
I'm sure that I, like anyone who identifies as being in a minority, want achievements to be regarded as merit-based and not a result of "positive discrimination". I can understand why quotas and metrics are put in place, but more is needed to drive the right change in behaviour for the long term.
We can see across the mining industry that more action is needed. It needs to be aligned and reflected in corporate strategy, culture, and leadership, which are intrinsically linked. What made the most difference to me was having leaders, who helped me address my insecurities and find that recognition within myself, through providing development and leadership opportunities.
It's important to identify leadership and empowerment in every role, no matter where it falls in the organisational structure. I see this as an important facilitator of equality.
How does a career in policy, investor relations, and government communications fit in with corporate finance, sales and operations-based backgrounds dominant at senior levels in the metals and mining industry?
I've predominantly dealt with complex commercial issues with the potential for material and adverse corporate and public impact outcomes. Not having an operations-based background has actually been an advantage, it meant I learned the business from a range of perspectives with no pre-determined view. Being open to the learnings has assisted with problem-solving and finding the win-win solution. While there are some biases which exist about the backgrounds needed for senior executive and board roles, there appears to be growing interest in leadership skills, stakeholder management and diversity. I see that as recognition that leadership is not just defined by your education or your experience
Is the focus around ESG making the metals and mining industry more attractive for graduates and executives to progress their careers, drawing in women with backgrounds in STEM, finance, investor relations, the environment, and policy?
I have been fortunate in my career to work with organisations that have been focused on ESG. I don't believe that ESG should be looked at in isolation. For me, good, sound ESG practices should be a given and we can see from the research that companies perform better when they have this focus.
I would hope what draws people to working in this industry is about the total contribution that responsible mining can make to change the lives of communities and countries when conducted with responsibility and care.
Interview by Hector Forster