ArcelorMittal’s partnership with Duke CE is helping shape the steel giant’s next generation of leaders.

For those unfamiliar with the steel industry, walking into a steelmaking facility for the first time and experiencing the scale of production can be daunting.

“I remember visiting my first steel plant, in Ostrava in the Czech Republic,” says Brian Callaghan, the company’s recently retired global head of resourcing, leadership development and learning. “It was bleak, cold – minus 25 degrees Celsius – and there was this huge construction. It looked to me like something out of Mad Max! But then you see the energy of the people and see the steel being made. It was quite incredible.”

It is an energy that has served the steel and mining leader well since its creation in 2006. The company is the result of the merger of European steel manufacturer Arcelor – the world’s largest steel company at the time – by the Indian-owned Mittal Steel. Today, it is drawing upon that energy to respond to a broad range of strategic challenges – not least the need to decarbonize, at the same time as reshaping its operating culture for a more people-centric future.

As it does so, ArcelorMittal continues to work with Duke Corporate Education on the pivotal task of developing its future leaders. Dialogue and Vishal Patel, Duke CE’s president of global markets, spoke to Ilton Zamprogno, who has taken the reins as global head of resourcing, leadership development and learning, and Imane Jelloul, global head of talent and senior leader development – as well as Callaghan – to identify what has driven a successful partnership over almost 18 years, and discuss the future of leadership in a global industry giant.

The competitive differentiator: people

ArcelorMittal defines its purpose as “smarter steels for people and planet”. It is a purpose anchored on its values of safety, sustainability, quality and leadership. Its priorities include its commitment to leading the steel industry’s efforts to decarbonize and, in a competitive global marketplace, achieving strategic growth while maintaining a strong balance sheet and delivering consistent returns to its shareholders. To enable that, the company needs to continue to attract and retain diverse, world class-talent. That last point is critical, as Zamprogno points out. “Every single competitor has the same equipment that we have. What makes the difference? It’s people!”

That truth is driving changes in the company’s leadership culture. Callaghan has seen them unfold first-hand: he led on leadership development until handing over to Zamprogno in late 2023. “What I call the ‘humanistic’ side of leadership – certainly in the early days, that wasn’t so apparent,” recalls Callaghan. “The focus was more on financial performance, executing on our customer needs and productivity.”

The picture today is more balanced. “The future lies in a more caring, inclusive form of leadership,” he says. “It’s important – because otherwise we will struggle to attract and retain talent.”

Zamprogno agrees with that assessment. “If we don’t get this right, we risk losing people,” he says. That means challenging the status quo and reshaping the company culture. “We are performance-driven,” says Zamprogno. “It’s one of our top competencies.” But what that means, exactly, is changing. “We used to focus on the ‘what’. Now, the question we’re asking is: how? How are we going to deliver? It’s important we remain focused on what we do, but now we’re thinking about what that extra layer is. What we mean by ‘performance’ is getting richer – and stronger. The sky’s the limit.”

That carries implications for leaders. Zamprogno sees the need to address two sides of the equation: developing leaders with the courage, strength of character and competence to truly lead, but also improving the environment that people work in. “We’re creating a safe environment where people feel able to speak up.”

The next generation of leaders

Part of the credit for that cultural shift goes to the leaders who developed through ArcelorMittal’s talent and leadership programs over the best part of two decades. “A new generation of leaders, who we’ve been able to shape, are now taking over”, says Zamprogno. That transfer of power is nothing short of a necessity. Many of ArcelorMittal’s senior leaders will retire in the next few years, meaning that a generational shift is underway in the company – in parallel with a shift in the talent entering the business, bringing new expectations and demands into the workplace.

How should the company respond? “I would like to bridge the new generation coming in and the senior generation leaving”, says Zamprogno. “We need to find flexibility – that’s the key word in this. We need to find the right balance to accommodate everyone.”

Zamprogno identifies this generational and cultural transition as one of the three pillars of his agenda, along with redesigning the learning strategy, and developing leaders who can forge the future, reshaping the ‘how’. “We have a key role shaping the future leaders who will drive our organization into the future. It’s about preparing people for what’s coming,” he says.

Leadership development programs

On that front, Zamprogno is building on deep foundations. ArcelorMittal works with multiple partners, including Duke CE, in an alliance first established in 2007. Over the first decade, delivery was built around three Talent Pipeline programs, which reached more than 4,400 participants in 151 sessions. Today, there are four core Leadership Pipeline programs – dubbed Aspire, Connect, Engage and Aware – serving analyst, specialist, professional and management-tier personnel. These have reached around 900 participants since 2019, with a nine-month format – expanded from an initial one-week format to increase the impact – that combines in-person modules with assessments, coaching and virtual learning.

For more senior leaders, Duke CE provides executive-level workshops on mastering peak performance, leadership communication and presence. First line leaders are offered the Succeed 1 program, delivered in two blocks of two days, which is booked by local businesses for their leaders. Since its inception in 2022, it has been delivered in Europe – in German, English and French – and in India. That is followed up by the Succeed 2 program for middle managers.

One of the unifying concepts running through those elements is the idea of adaptive leadership, drawing on the work of Harvard’s Ronald Heifetz. With an emphasis on embracing change and challenging the status quo, the relevance to ArcelorMittal’s strategic priorities – from decarbonization and sustainability, to promoting diversity and inclusion and putting people first – is clear. “This has helped us with all the shifts that the organization is going through,” confirms Jelloul. “We need to focus on empowering tomorrow’s leader. That’s why these programs have a transformative impact.”

The Duke CE collaboration has shown its own capacity for adaptation over the years as circumstances have changed – sometimes overnight. The financial crash of 2008 threw the steel industry into crisis, leading to a rapid rethink of plans. “We had to adapt to survive,” recalls Callaghan. “But there was a mutual recognition that this was a difficult time and that we would need to work together to try find solutions. And we did.” The result was a partnership that has flourished and grown in the years since.

“It comes down to trust,” Jelloul says. “That’s the basis of our collaboration.” There have been testing moments that challenged ArcelorMittal and Duke CE alike, she points out. “We all trust that we will work it out together, and we can trust that Duke CE will find innovative ways of answering our needs.”

Across the programs, participants benefit from a wide range of tailored experiences, aligning around a leadership framework developed by Korn Ferry. Immersive experiences offer highly impactful learning sessions, while site visits broaden participants’ perspective on the firm’s global position.

Of course, the content keeps evolving to reflect changing needs. A key shift in recent years has been the integration of action learning projects in the Aspire program for management personnel, focusing on real business challenges with sponsorship from management committee members. “We’ve seen really good collaboration between participants and sponsors,” says Jelloul. “Many of the ideas are already being implemented.”

Even if the ideas generated aren’t ready to implement right away, the process helps emerging leaders broaden their horizons and engage with the company’s global challenges and opportunities.

A series of ‘fireside chats’ with top executives has been similarly impactful – with perhaps the most striking session taking place with the company’s chief executive, Aditya Mittal, himself. “Our leaders provide concrete examples of how to succeed and what they learned,” explains Jelloul. Close proximity to senior leaders is eye-opening for participants, she says – and reinforces the need for personal and organizational resilience. “We are developing leaders who can adapt to different challenges and situations, and help build the resilience of the organization to navigate such challenges.”

The impact on participants

As ever with leadership development programs, the impact can be tracked both through hard data and participant feedback. A 2019 review showed that 40% of Talent Pipeline program participants had enjoyed promotions in the wake of their experience; a new comprehensive system for tracking the impact of the current suite of programs will be rolled out in 2024, Jelloul tells us. Yet feedback from participants and sponsors alike already makes the value of the programs abundantly clear.

“It’s been a really rewarding experience. It’s amazing how much I’ve grown throughout the program,” says Adam Smyth, manager in flow and execution at ArcelorMittal Dofasco, based in Ontario, Canada. “I would recommend this course to other high performers in the company. It really sets a nice foundation to learn and grow.”

Lakshmi Jaigopal, head of HR at ArcelorMittal Downstream Solutions, told us about her choice for a program project. “I chose the topic for the project based on something that we are working on right now, which is to bring a change in our culture to be more inclusive as a management team,” she explains. “The team worked on this topic, and they have come up with some very interesting ideas,” she adds. “It’s going to be something that we will implement.”

Shofali Agarwal, a strategy manager also working for ArcelorMittal Dofasco, enthuses about the blend of program elements. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing people, to see some fantastic plants locally and to learn something about myself.” She also underlines the practical relevance of the program. “I hope to take all of this back and make sure that I am actively thinking about some of the concepts that we’ve learned to develop teams – and make ArcelorMittal an even better place to work.”

Facing the future

Like so much else, the world of leadership development pivoted quickly to online channels in 2020. Zamprogno predicts that a truly flexible, mixed-channel approach will be the lasting result. “We can have a bit of everything,” he says. “We don’t have to be stuck with one model.” Employee uptake of ArcelorMittal’s online offering has rocketed, he says. But that doesn’t mean that online learning will completely replace real-world experiences – just as remote working cannot fully substitute for the organic knowledge-sharing that happens in person. “Of course it’s not the same thing,” he accepts. “When you’re there in person, you meet people, read body language, you network,” he points out. “But I see benefits in it all if it means we can provide learning to everybody.”

Zamprogno adds a key point: there are two sides to the coin when it comes to developing leaders. It isn’t all about what the business does. “It’s also on the individual. They need to be open and have interest in learning.” Learners need to take ownership of their development, with the organization empowering them and fueling their curiosity. A culture of learning is every bit as important as the formal programs on offer.

Building the capacity to learn is crucial for any company. It requires greater connectivity across the business to solve complex problems, building a culture that serves people’s needs as well as driving business performance. And it will hinge on curiosity: an appetite among leaders at all levels to continually get better. It is a bold agenda – and one that ArcelorMittal is embracing to be the steel company of the future.