“The key to success in any challenge is leading from a place of true understanding for what people are going through.”
That idea is at the heart of Ryan Harnden’s leadership approach. Since joining U.S. Borax in February as chief operating officer of our California operations, Ryan has been getting in touch with the most important part of the business: The people who make our operations run.
Born in Zimbabwe, Ryan has worked around the globe. After starting his career with a variety of commodities companies, he joined Rio Tinto as a production engineer. That hands-on role allowed him to work on improvement projects in both mines and production plants. For the past 19 years, he has worked in multiple Rio Tinto locations, building his leadership skills with an intentional focus on understanding and valuing the people who make those operations tick.
Starting with the “dog’s job”
“When I was the general manager of the power plant at Rio Tinto’s copper mining operation in Kennicott, I asked the plant manager, ‘What is the worst/hardest/dirtiest job here? I want to spend some time doing that job with the workforce.’”
The job he got was called “the dog’s job”—tapping the coal-fired boiler to release built-up slag that’s coming out at more than 1800°F (1000°C). “I made it through half a shift and was sore the next day—but I really felt what that job was like and what we expected from our workforce.”
Ryan has always sought out those practical, hands-on experiences to help him better understand the people he leads. Early in his career, he drove equipment—haul trucks, water carts, loaders, and diggers—doing rotating day and night shifts with extended periods away from home. He’s worked as a Mine development manager “doing all the jobs that aren’t as enjoyable and now one wanted to do”—maintaining power, water, sewage, and even snow removal.
“Literally keeping the lights on,” he laughs. “So yeah—I love to actually see what the worst job is and have a go at it.”
Building on experience
Willingness to really experience what employees at all levels do—the physical and emotional labor that goes into producing products—has earned him a high degree of respect as he’s taken on leadership roles across Rio Tinto.
Over the years, that empathetic approach has enabled him to take on not just the physical jobs that others don’t like—but also the strategic challenges. He’s been tasked with expanding operations in one place, contracting operations in another, and even facilitating the shutdown of one operation while ensuring that the workers and surrounding community came through the experience with dignity.
Building on history—and pulling in the same direction
Ryan says he’s excited to come into his new role with U.S. Borax as we are celebrating our 150th year.
“This business has such a great history. And, it’s exciting to see how far we’ve come. Our products do so much—from fertilizer that helps grow crops that feed the world to the screens on smartphones…from insulation to wind turbines…You start thinking about where our product goes, and you realize its essential for life and critical for our future.
That enthusiasm for the value of borates is already spurring Ryan into supporting a variety of strategic goals.
Safety: It’s something we have always taken seriously, and Ryan wants to keep improving our record. He says, “My first measure of success is continually improving safety. We always want to make sure everyone goes home in the same condition that they came in.”
Engagement and alignment across operations: Ryan knows that in large organizations, there’s a tendency to take different paths on the way to any goal. “We want to provide clarity not just about what our goals are, but how we’ll help each other to reach them.
“We’re starting by implementing new field training for people in leadership roles to begin creating that connection. And, we’ll extend that out so that people have a better sense of how interconnected their jobs are—how much what they do matters to everyone around them in the process.”
Production targets: He recognizes the challenge of every industry—consistently producing the products that our customers need, on time, at the right quality, and cost effectively. “That’s what makes us a good partner for our customers and makes us a healthy business.”
Look to the future: Ryan says, “An important piece for success is to set up a solid future for the borates business. I'd really like to clearly articulate where we’re going so all employees know the 10- and 15-year plans for this business.”
Ryan sees that future linked firmly with sustainability projects happening both within U.S. Borax. He says, “Look to our lithium plant. It’s an exciting project and one of the best examples I’ve seen of sustainable use of resources: We are proposing to mine material out of the ground. We create our borate products. Then, the waste stream that comes out of the plant goes into the lithium plant. We extract high quality battery grade lithium—and then that waste stream will go into a concrete plant and create low carbon concrete.”
One percent better every day
“One of my personal mottos is to be 1% better each day,” says Ryan. “I love the idea of being better today than yesterday. I do that personally and I hope to motivate people in the workplace as well to just be a little bit better each day.”
Ryan knows that 1% is a small goal and might be difficult to see in the moment. But he embraces the idea that when everyone is aligned with a common vision and purpose, that small goal is easy to reach. And over time, the small gains add up to a tremendous achievement.
He’s not naïve. He knows that in a complex organization like U.S. Borax, it takes time to bring everyone together to support that shared vision. But he also knows where we’re all coming from because he’s done the work—the real work—of understanding what powers our business.
Ryan and his family in Perth, Australia.