Lewis Black is the CEO of Almonty Industries, a leader in tungsten concentrate mining, processing, and shipping.
I was born in London and sent to boarding schools at age 7. The first was a prep school, Mostyn House, one of the last holdouts using Victorian education principles. Sports included boxing, and discipline involved caning. When we did something wrong, we immediately knew it was time to assume the position.
Then, my parents sent me to another school, Malvern College, in the beautiful hills of Worcestershire County. The main building was a replica of Eton’s main building because only the landed gentry or aristocrats could go to Eton during the Industrial Revolution. Hence, the industrialists at the time built their schools. But it wasn't a school for students whose parents were wealthy or descended from the aristocracy. Discipline was strict here, too.
I learned that education is like a lottery. If you don't quickly work out how to thrive in that environment, it's not a great place for you. I was a joker with a quirky sense of humor, which helped me get through. My favorite subjects were poetry and history, and I also liked building sets for stage productions rather than acting.
Next, I attended Manchester University and earned a B.A. in management and technology. I loved university. I went from a rigid boarding school system to no rules at all. It was one of the best times of my life.
I was lucky to get a coveted summer job with an organization that operated two campsites in the south of France for British kids from the inner city. They came down for a week, went windsurfing, and lived in a tent in a pine forest. They were tough kids. By the end of the week, they had experienced things that helped them rediscover their youth.
My first job out of school was at Lloyds of London Insurance Brokers. It involved making sure that an underwriter signed policies. The pay was terrible, nobody worked very hard, and an old boys' network taught me that if you want to succeed in the U.K., it's all about whom you know and the school tie you wear.
It only lasted about 10 months. I headed to Australia, ready for something new and eager to escape rainy England. My mother was from New Zealand, and I could get in. I thought the weather was always fantastic, and everyone had a barbecue daily in the backyard.
Nothing had been planned. After arriving at Sydney airport, I slept on an acquaintance's sofa, not knowing what I would do the day after. Before long, I got a job in a factory manufacturing women's clothing.
Being fresh off the boat and an outsider with a peculiar accent was an unusual and humbling experience. I realized that if you put in the longest hours and show everyone you'll do anything and that nothing is beneath you, you'd earn respect. This was the first valuable work lesson I stumbled on at age 24.
My dad was one of the most important influences on my life. He was relatively unemotional like others who had been through the Second World War, but he was also the most moral person I have ever known. He understood right and wrong and believed you must live by a moral code. I respected him tremendously.
As a manager, you must always be prepared and ready to get your hands dirty. The worst leadership advice I have ever heard was making people afraid of you. But fear is not a motivator. My role is more like a psychiatrist. You have to understand people and know their feelings and fears. I empathize with them and acknowledge their contributions to the team.
This is especially important in the mining industry. It's a predominantly male business. These men risk their lives every day going down into the mines. This work is incredibly stressful, and they drink and curse a lot. The crews eat and live together and develop a great camaraderie.
I can look back on many accomplishments during my mining career. I didn't have any money at first and didn't know how to run a business. I lived in the U.S. and became a naturalized American citizen. America gave me an opportunity that never would have happened in the U.K. In the U.S., they don’t care where you come from.
I've seen the mining industry evolve over the past 20 years. Everything was done manually back then, and you wore a headlamp when operating underground. Today, it's more about technology and automation. We have digital safety systems and lights designed to reduce fatigue.
You have to embrace these changes for the industry to survive. Tungsten is vital to so many things. Without it, nothing would exist in our lives. I helped save the tungsten industry for the future from the threat posed by China and Russia, the industry's dominant players.
For young people starting their careers, I would remind them that money isn't everything. Do something that interests you, not what you think will impress others. No matter how ordinary this work might seem, you will find comfort in it.
I never looked back after choosing a career in mining. After all, I’m just a kid who never grew up. I get to blow things up at work with the bravest guys in the world.
CEO of Almonty Industries