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FIRESIDE No. 2 with Bob Pennington

Fireside 

Posted on September 13, 2017 by Blake Leath

 

 

"PERSEVERANCE, MISSION, AUTONOMY, GENERATIONS,

EDUCATION, POLITICS, AND RECHARGING ONE’S BATTERY"

 

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I'm an organizational sociologist, strategist, writer, and teacher, but am—first, foremost, and always—a student of enterprises and those who lead them. In my 2007 book, Cultivating the Strategic Mind, I explored the transition from leader to visionary, creator, and architect of strategy. Today, I continue studying strategists and leaders but am increasingly haunted by what I see as a more fundamental, personal quest: understanding and improving the dying sub-disciplines of management, whether time, conflict, self, or life-management. Leadership gets a lot of glory, but management is the nuts & bolts practices of every day that gets it done. Fireside (which admittedly began as a series of ruminative 1 ½ to 2-hour one-on-one conversations with seasoned management executives reflecting on their life’s work) quickly evolved into dialogues about work within the context of life and life after work. This ricochet took me by surprise, but I found it an exceedingly pleasant surprise. After all, “Though we hire employees, we get people.” My sincerest hope now is that—in an oft-discouraging world—Fireside might prove a respite, a source of light, warmth, energy, encouragement, safety, nourishment, perhaps even inspiration in your own career or life, whether at home or out in the big, bad world. Around the fireside at the end of the day, it’s clear that we are all in this together, and everyone has a story worth telling and hearing. You will be the ultimate arbiter, of course, but I predict we shall learn a great deal about management, yes, but even more about ourselves and this enterprise we call life.

 

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Today's guest is Bob Pennington.


Blake Leath: Thank you for joining us today, Bob. I appreciate your carving out some time. If you would, can you take a moment and walk us through some of the highlights of your career positions?

Bob Pennington: I dropped out of high school to get married, and finished high school by taking night courses. I started in construction, became a licensed pipe fitter and plumber, and after about 3 ½ years the economy slowed down, so I resumed my education and began college. I chalk it up to serendipity, though, because if the economy hadn’t slowed down, I’m not sure I would have made the transition. Staying employed had become problematic! I enrolled at New Mexico Tech [New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology], and degreed as an engineer with a metallurgical emphasis. In 1979, I took a job with Kennecott, and have continued similar work ever since.

Blake: How would you describe those early days as an engineer?

Bob: Unsupervised! Or, at least, that’s how I like to think of it. I had lots of freedom to tackle and explore a number of projects. That’s been a common denominator in work I’ve enjoyed: it always involves building something. Four years after college, I was involved in building a crushing plant for Chino mine in Silver City, NM. Then I became a Plant Manager, and Phelps Dodge Mining Co. bought the property in 1986. I moved from the milling side of the business to the hydrometallurgical side and was selected to oversee the engineering and construction of the SXEW plant there, 1987-1988. From there, I moved to Morenci, AZ as a Concentrator Manager where, once again, serendipity struck. One Sunday morning I was in the office and the phone rang. It was Phelps Dodge’s COO. He asked if I wanted to go to Chile to build a mine there. I said yes, and by 1989 I was in South America building a mine, first with feasibility, then with construction in 1992.

I returned to Morenci thereafter, as General Manager, and eventually met you in 1997 when I joined the Tyrone mine in Silver City. I was laid off from PD in a RIF after copper prices fell, but immediately became a stakeholder at an engineering company in Tucson, served as COO, then began consulting, then joined General Moly [a molybdenum start-up] which aims to build Mt. Hope mine in Nevada.

Blake: How is that project going?

Bob: Molybdenum prices are down, so it’s been slow going, but we keep at it and it’s forced us to think creatively. For example, we acknowledge that it’s difficult, but surely it’s more difficult for other start-ups in similar spaces, so in recent years we’ve turned our attention to acquisitions. We decided to leverage our good relationships with South Korean and Chinese investors in the steel and copper industry and pursue acquisition targets. We’ve probably vetted nearly 100. I’m confident we’ll find the right opportunity to give us staying power for the future.

Blake: Is it difficult to keep employees excited and engaged in such a market, for a period exceeding a decade?

Bob: It’s unusual. I find that rather than managing people, I’m managing strategy and a business. In hard times, sometimes a winning strategy boils down to survival.

Blake: It sounds like you’ve found a way to remain creative, though, to pivot, and to refashion your difficulties into strengths.

Bob: It’s been hard, and there’s no sugarcoating that. We’ve had to let people go, good people, but we’ve been fortunate to possess a core group of people who believed in the same mission from day one, whatever the difficulties along the way. It’s a struggle, but one we’re all in together, and it’s a loyal group that remains committed to the outcome.

Blake: Typically, an organization aligns itself around a vision that creates excitement within 3-5 years, and after whatever lulls come along, such a vision buoys people and serves as a lighthouse, but these periods don’t last a decade or more. What can we learn from you—and your team there—about weathering storms that may last longer than we imagined?

Bob: We all began with this common vision: to build this project. Everyone wanted to be involved in a major U.S. mining project. It’s a big project that includes not just engineering and construction, but also the support structure that goes around a mine, like environmental commitments, and the social license that makes good relations possible in the industry. Without exception, everyone at General Moly today was eager to participate in a greenfield opportunity and create the best of something. That’s a powerful motivator, to create something that one believes to be the best.

It goes back to what I described at the beginning, when I felt rather unsupervised as a young engineer but loved the freedom and possibility. I was, in many ways, my own boss. I’ve felt that way often, where a leader or manager was describing vaguely what they wanted, but I possessed the freedom of choice and decision. That has always motivated me, and it shapes how I influence others today. People know what they need to get done, but letting them be creative really gets their juices flowing, their commitment and energy and excitement up. I can think of no better route to a sense of personal ownership.

Blake: Tell us more.

Bob: Ownership in something, connectivity to it, and to having a really clear sense of mission; these things are critical. In mining, it’s a clear mission: design it, build it, get up and running, and improve…improve…improve. Success is obvious; there’s no waffling and wondering what the mission is or whether we’ve accomplished it. Rallying people around something tangible makes all the difference in the world.

I think the reason people haven’t left, Blake, is because we haven’t lost sight of the mission. The work continues, we endeavor, every day we show up for work in preparation to build Mt. Hope and, in addition, another project called Liberty.

Blake: Mt. Hope and Libertythat’s truth in advertising!

Bob: Every day we roll our sleeves up, do everything within our control and sphere of influence, and hope and liberty get us through it! Every pursuit, from engineering and environmental work to our recent acquisition pursuits, drives us toward the constant mission, which remains unchanging.

We recently lost our CFO, but to missionary work in Guatemala. Do you mind if I talk about that a little more?

Blake: Please.

Bob: We are not a Christian-based organization, but we are definitely a principles-driven organization, and I think that’s important. Really important. Values and beliefs are so essential in business today, and I worry a little bit about our country and the erosion of beliefs and family. Every year, I fear we lose more of our country’s identity and the principles upon which we were founded, and which made us successful. It remains my goal, as a human being, to exemplify timeless values. We treat others as we would want to be treated, we are honest and forthright, we are forgiving and, though we all falter, strive in all our dealings to be as gracious as possible.

Blake: Have you experienced division? Divisiveness along the way?

Bob: No. I’m a huge proponent and believer in organizational structure. When I joined General Moly, I described to our CEO (my boss) how important I think proper structure is to creating responsibilities, accountability, clear line of sight, and the prevention or elimination of politics. I believe that when organizational structure gets foggy, it creates politics. People need to be super clear on their roles, and to whom they report, and who’s in control, so that politics never come into play.

Blake: I find that some of the greatest paradoxes in business are the most instructive. For example, it’s during change—the time when people are the most distracted and least energized and least engaged—that we need them most focused. Or that only through clear and firm sideboards are people actually empowered.

Bob: Yes, I agree. Ambiguity—fuzziness—is a hotbed for politics. But to the extent we make everyone’s role clear, unambiguous, they are all the more empowered, as I have felt my entire career. I would also add that an organization should cast out, or not hire in the first place, people who like to experiment with political boundaries. They are disruptive at best and toxic at worst, dividing people rather than uniting them.

Blake: That reminds me of Lincoln, and his “better angels of our nature.”

Bob: Right.

Blake: Bob, you’ve described freedom, and the importance of tangibility, and mission, and principles, and a little bit about politics and employee selection. Can you tell us more about the selection process?

Bob: Absolutely, happy to. Though it may sound harsh, one of the first things I’ve often done when joining a team—even an established one—is letting go those individuals who were either not contributing in a meaningful way, or whom I felt were distracting the team from achieving its core purpose. Sometimes it was a cold shower for everyone, but what I discovered from those that remained was that it liberated the team and was often a huge relief. The wrong people in the wrong jobs are detected not only by Leadership but also by everyone around them. When you take action, it’s uplifting.

I like alignment. Talent is key, particularly competence around the core technical aspects of one’s job, but talent is overrated. What matters to me, and to most executives I know, is the soft skills. Specifically, an employee’s ability to get along with others on the team, to gel, to show leadership in their domain, and to do so without being so ambitious. There’s something to be said for contentment and commitment to the job at hand, versus working with someone who’s always chafing at the bit and constantly striving for the next job. Those people are morale killers. 

Blake: You recently said that people sometimes describe you as “old school,” but that it’s meant as a compliment. Care to elaborate?

Bob: When does one become “old school,” I think that’s the question! I sense from your interest in Fireside that you are approaching the age when many of us began to question what we knew, or thought we knew, and to do exactly what you described in your introductory post: to winnow and distill, rather than heap more logs on the fire. I’m 62 now, and when I was about your age I began to think maybe I’d learned most of what I needed to learn, and instead needed to shave off the excess, to cull out the nonessentials. 

Blake: Right. In fact, just last week I finished a huge, multi-year project, and I spent the weekend throwing things away. Literally filling trashbag after trashbag, because I can’t have the past hogging the future. At some point, things end, and we need to make room for the new to grow, or it’ll get crowded out by the weeds of the past.

Bob: That’s right. And in my case, and maybe in your case, too, I think there’s something to be said for focusing on the ‘sacred few,’ rather than continuing to haul an ever-growing backpack of past artifacts. I don’t want to sound like the old man shouting at kids to get off my lawn, but it’s that I’m convinced people yearn to be led and managed by someone who ‘gets it,’ and who can do what, I suppose, is meant by old school. Things like commitment, competence, hard work, trust, having fun, believing in each other, looking forward and never backward, expecting mistakes to happen and to learn from them, and getting to know each other personally and caring about each other. And being the boss only when you need to be. And most importantly, encouraging constructive debate. Surprisingly, great management has nothing to do with administration. I find that most people can ‘administrate’ themselves well enough without much or any input from above.  

I think many people yearn for gray hairs, and I see from your photo that you’re graying, too.

Blake: Completely. What do you think has shaped you, this management style of yours, and served as your crucible?

Bob: Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I think a lot of people associate that time with hippies and the free love generation, but 95% of us were not that; that was just a thing going on at the time. I learned very early on, from great parents, the importance of working hard, being dependable, showing up and getting the job done, being respectful, avoiding attacking other people, using encouragement and development as tools to create a productive, conducive atmosphere. It’s what you and I did together at Tyrone, and how you create teams. It has a lot to do with accountability. The more reliability one shows, the more accountability one earns, the more free one is. Work ethic is key; I work hard, as hard or harder than anyone around me, and I think that sets an important example, and a clear drafting effect. Every leader should work hard. I’ve worked for some executives who didn’t work hard, and typically their organizations failed or failed to reach their potential.

 

 

“My dad is on the right. Granddaughter Bella and #5 son, Edward. 

Neighbor in the middle. This is last year when we baled 300 tons of hay.”

 

 

Blake: When you look to the future of work, what do you anticipate? Do you worry about 'kids these days' and devices, distractions, job-hopping? Are the days of loyalty and discipline and job-sustainability behind us?

Bob: I think we face a breakdown of the family unit in this country, and that it will prove problematic in coming decades. We’re already seeing canaries in that coal mine. I also think technology—from constant connectivity, the internet, and everything current and coming—that work as we know it will continue to experience upheaval and automation. Much that we see is disruptive, from a President who uses Twitter as his main form of communication and who is, to my way of thinking, onto something that may prove historically significant if he learns to discipline himself and refine it, to teens and young adults who are completely different, though separated by merely one decade. I, for example, have seven children, the second youngest of whom just graduated from high school this past May. He is as different as one can imagine from most of his siblings. It’s absolutely true that these generations are different, unique and distinct from one another, but I can also tell you that my youngest is most like my oldest. I think there is truth to the notion that generations return, as if on a loop, to what was before. Maybe like a pendulum, what swung that way will eventually swing back this way. I think one generation sees the excesses of another, and hungers to return to something prior. Each generation has great pride in who they are, but I sense the most recent graduates are more driven than those even four, five, or six years ago.

Our universities have swung so far left, often putting individuality and self-expression before common good and unity. Obviously, this is a cultural reflection of systemic upheavals in this country, so I know I can’t change it, but within my sphere of influence—and with my grandkids, nephews, nieces—I do what I can to encourage dialogue about such things. They’ll visit me at my cabin on weekends, or during summer, and I think they relish good talks with this old guy.    

Blake: What do you think they relish about it?

Bob: I think they know they can ask me about anything, and several of them are now in college setting out to build careers. I’m happy to talk to them about what that looks like, and how I personally made decisions about college majors, or job selections, etc. I think they see me as someone who’s been successful, but also peaceful, so I think they’re just probing. Someone they can relate to and talk to.

Blake: What advice do you give them? How do you help a young person make decisions, choices, to find their identity and choose their career? I find that most young people are making three of the most impactful decisions when they are the least equipped and ill-prepared: what to do (vocation), where to live (location), and with whom to live (relationship).

Bob: The first thing I tell ‘em is don’t be anxious about it. It’s normal not to know what to do. The second thing I tell ‘em is not to hurry; you’ve got plenty of time, but don’t waste your time. Just don’t feel rushed to make a decision today. Third is what I think everyone knows to be true: first discover what you love to do, what makes you passionate. Fourth, and maybe this is the Calvinism in me, but I remind kids that college is about getting a job! And you don’t have to go to college to get a job you love; it’s not for everyone. I think it’s key to only pursue those things that feel right to oneself. If you don’t need college to pursue what makes you passionate, then don’t. Don’t do it simply because that’s what our culture seems to be telling you. Half the jobs in this country are trades, and we need those people as much as the other.

Blake: I think that’s music to my ears, the sort of advice we hear from Mike Rowe and Peter Thiel. Perhaps too many young people are unnecessarily stressed or burdened by the notion of college, and the time and debt incurred. I think sometimes we underestimate how poor a fit it might be. I also think it’s pacifying, and liberating, to not become something we are not.

Bob: That’s it. And when you have enough children, you get to see it all. But let me turn to something else, if I may.

Blake: Sure.

Bob: You’re starting to think about time, right? All of a sudden, there’s not this infinite timeline anymore. It starts to dawn on you in your thirties, and more so in your forties, but definitely by sixty! It just occurs to you that time is not something to be wasted. And then there comes a point, like my dad, who says, “Every day I wake up is a good day. It’s another day given.” He’s nearly 90. We all go through these stages, but to me it’s not about thinking that the end is near, so I was curious about how you’re thinking about it. I don’t think about it as if my time on this earth is coming to an end. I really think about it as my capabilities are diminishing, and what that brings in terms of what it will feel like ten years from now, if I live that long. Or as long as my dad, another 25 years from now!

Since my mother died, I’ve watched my dad experience real loss, not only missing my mom, but also having to learn to do more and more things for himself, which, at his age, is not particularly easy. Just the physicality of life. They were married 63 years. Just caring for himself day in and day out, from cooking his meals and doing the laundry to all the sundry tasks that we sometimes take for granted. I know that as he gets older, he gets more frustrated. And what’s causing that? He can’t physically and mentally do the things he could just a few years ago. His frustration leads to this anger or, as my older brother describes, fear. But maybe they’re both part of the same continuum, reflections of one feeling less capable, less influential over his own life.

Blake: I see that too, this continuum of powerlessness, which in some people leads to a sense of resignation (the flight response) or indignation (the fight response). That’s fear and anger.

Bob: The worst of it, though, is how it tears me up inside, and how difficult it is for a child to help a parent work through those years, because I, in turn, feel helpless or powerless to help him. This can manifest in conflict, or firing back at each other, and we—or I—have to work very intentionally to be my best with him, not my worst. Since then, a particular exchange we had, we find ourselves in this mending of fences, and working through things. Even without acknowledging the conflict, which isn’t his inclination anyway. We obviously can’t ignore it, so we fix it without talking about it, which can be fine, as long as the root is resolved.

But beyond all that, it’s caused me to think about (as I plan the next ten years, say) considering my physical and mental limitations, as these will indeed be factors. We better keep ourselves healthy. The mental side is something different altogether, though. We all slow down, mentally, and certainly start feeling it around 60. My dad didn’t slow down, really, until his 80s, and it wasn’t memory so much as reasoning and cognitive skills. We’ll be out, working on something sorta complex, taking something apart or building something, and while it’s obvious to me—it may not be to him at the time—and he’ll say, “Slow down; I want to figure out what we’re doing.” The trick is to not get impatient, or tell-assertive. It’ll just upset him, and he simply can’t think that fast anymore.

So to me, what you’re exploring here Blake isn’t so much about time, or the loss of time, as it is about physical and mental capability. Death is inevitable for us all, and I would say even welcomed when one gets to a certain age. “How will I deal with my physical and mental capabilities when I’m 80 or 90, if I’m blessed to live that long?” That’s the question.

I think it’s why 70-year-olds jump out of airplanes with parachutes strapped to their back!

Today, and in coming years, America is faced with this tremendous number of Baby Boomers moving into this age bracket, and I think the key will be can this country learn to manage through it all? I don’t know. I think Native Americans have figured it out, having tribal elders in key positions of influence, as opposed to mainstream America which marginalizes and pushes elders to the curb.

Blake: Well, what advice do you have for managers today, not just young people?

Bob: I wouldn’t read too much into generational differences. They exist, to be sure, but I think the core work ethics, the way people think about work is largely unchanged. We shouldn’t be seduced by trends that trouble us. The basic fundamentals are about people willing to work to earn what they get. The role of manager is to conduct him or herself in an ethical manner, to be forthright in how we speak to others, to avoid politics. I think these old school principles will attract and retain the right sort of talent for tomorrow, and always. They are core to who and what we are as people, as workers, whatever the age or generation. Speaking plainly, I tend to ignore generational differences, because I think they are a distraction from what’s true: people want to do good work, to be part of something meaningful, and to be acknowledged for it. That’s always been true, and I’m convinced it will always be true.

I spend a lot of time working with and talking with young people, and frankly, they’re no different than I was at their age. People want to contribute, to be part of something, to matter, to make a difference. It was true for me, and I believe it’s true for them. Ignore the micro-trends and hype, and focus instead on the core truths that have remained true for eons.

Blake: How do you personally intend to ‘finish strong’ in your life?

Bob: It presents both a dilemma and an opportunity. When you say that, how do I intend to finish strong, it can create a dilemma because I would have liked to have chosen to exit Corporate America sooner, get my farm going, build my wife her dream home, etc. But the dilemma is I’m having a hard time letting go of the vision, of building Mt. Hope. I feel too connected to that to let it go. I think many executives feel this tension, this desire to at once make the leap out and beyond, while also hanging onto the work at hand that we love. It’s hard to say goodbye, to tell all your friends, “Do keep in touch.”

I doubt I’ll disengage. It’s clear to me this industry has a vacuum, fewer and fewer people who have the breadth and depth of what I’ve lived and learned, so I think there will always be work if I want it. A way to stay connected to some basic things. The demand will remain for me to tinker and consult and advise, to stay abreast of what’s going on in natural resources and mining. I’ve also considered a few Board positions, and may very well do some of that, but the Board I will most definitely join is my ‘family Board,’ my nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, wife, and father! Whatever I do, I want to do it with grace, and in ways that energize me. 

Blake: I think what you’re describing is spot-on. I also think what you described about Time and Capability as two axes is also spot-on. I know that for me, I noticed about four years ago that I was having a harder and harder time seeing things. Literally. I would awaken in the morning, turn and grab my phone, and realized I was having difficulty reading it. I feel in some ways that my world is shrinking, and that this physical reality is representative of a mental reality. The ability to run as fast, jump as high, dart to a gate 200 yards away to catch a plane, to think for as sustained a duration, to be creative for long periods of time…that all these things catch us flat-footed, often within a 4-6 year timeframe. And the things I teased my parents about, I’m becoming!

In fact, to that point, I remember several years ago I had a Jeep with a hardtop, and one of those pully systems in the garage, you know the deal, where you attach the brackets under the top and hoist the thing into the air and tie it off. I was pulling on the rope, and my dad was manhandling the balance, and we had this moment where I felt like saying, “Let’s go!” and he would have said, “Slow down!” I feel that way sometimes in our business, where people want to go boil oceans, and I want to say, “Let’s focus!” Less is more. I have no interest or energy for extraneous pursuits.

Bob: I think that’s representative of aging, yes, but also of maturing and coming to terms with reality. We have to make trade-offs, and choices, and not just because of the time axis, but also because of the physical limitations and capabilities.

Here’s the good news, though. Sure, I have pains in my body and can’t for the life of me remember how I got ‘em. Decades ago, I suppose, doing whatever, and now they emerge. And I haven’t been able to read without glasses since I was your age. And it’s the little things, like I can’t stretch my neck beneath a vehicle to fix something or tighten something, because I can’t get my bifocals positioned to see in there! Without my glasses, right, I feel unable. It’s all these little things that start happening, and get frustrating, but eventually—maybe around 60—you simply accept them and incorporate these new findings into how you plan, and how you behave. Trust me, you’ll get over it! You may not be able to run up the hill, but you’ll learn to walk up the hill.

To me, is the curve really diminishing, or does life just change in more meaningful ways? It goes back to what I said about Native Americans, and how they’ve figured it out, and our culture has not, and is not too kind about aging. It’s not about managing the timeline of our lives, because its diminishing is inevitable. What we do have control over is how we deal with it when it comes, the lack of general capabilities. Figuring out how to make this transition gracefully is what’s key to me.

Blake: How has your approach to management changed then? Evolved in light of what you describe?

Bob: I’m a lot calmer, though I remain engaged and passionate. I think I’ll continue to desire to contribute, but to do so in coming years—maybe even until 85 if I’m able—in new and different, more meaningful ways. The way I approach things more and more, and will surely then, is through counsel and advice, not demanding or controlling. I’m to the point where I say, “Here’s my advice, take it or leave it,” and they really can. They can take it or leave it. If it’s valuable, do it, if it’s not, just ignore me. Every now and then I come up with some great nugget. There’s no need to fire out like an automatic weapon.

It all boils down to helping others, and finding more and more efficient and effective ways to get there. I think that defines your career, and that probably won’t change, and I doubt it will for me, either.

In closing, Blake, I read your introduction for this series, and I learned something about you that I did not know: you’re introverted, and I would not have guessed that. Let me ask you a question then, because I am, too. We’re both out there, in front of people, and it’s always been a struggle for me. I’d just as soon be standing with a fly line in the water, or in my cave. It’s all about recharging.

Blake: Recharging and recovering. Ruminating, organizing one’s thoughts, having something worthwhile to share. Then doing it, and trying to do it well, and recovering before going back out there to do it again.

Bob: Yes. And that’s always been the struggle for me. To be out there, but to prefer to be in here, whether in the cabin or the cave or at the water’s edge talking with my grandson about life.  

 

  

 

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To learn the impetus behind Fireside, click here or hereand please join us again next Wednesday for another chat.

 

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