Thunderbird helps Crow Tribe and Cloud Peak Energy

By Tim Slager

It is always a pleasure to hear from alumni, and all the more so when they are calling upon Thunderbird Executive Education to provide assistance to their current employer. Such was the case when alumnus Todd Myers ’88, Senior Vice President of Business Development at Cloud Peak Energy, called to inquire how Thunderbird could help their employees with cultural versatility skills. It may seem at first glance that the focus of Cloud Peak Energy’s (NYSE: CLD) business would require little in the area of cultural versatility skills. After all, leaders of this domestic U.S. coal producer with a pure-play focus on the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana would not appear to have any reason to concern themselves with different cultures. However, as with many aspects of the U.S. coal industry, a second glance is revealing and rewarding.

We soon learned that the reason behind Todd’s question was the successful completion of an agreement between the Crow Tribe of Indians and Cloud Peak Energy. Representatives of the Company have been working for some time with the Crow Tribe to arrive at an agreement to mine vast coal deposits owned by the Crow Tribe. In anticipation of working more closely with the Crow, the Company decided to offer a cultural versatility class to a trial group of employees. In response, Thunderbird developed a one-day custom workshop entitled “Working Beyond Familiar Boundaries.” The workshop was attended by 30 employees who drove through several inches of snow from different operation sites to an off-site location in Sheridan, Wyoming.

The workshop consisted of the following four segments:

  • Cross-Cultural Communication Effectiveness
  • Crow Tribe Expert Panel Discussion
  • Cultural Orientations
  • Cross-Cultural Work Effectiveness

Several members of the Crow Tribe were able to join the meeting as honored guests of Cloud Peak Energy and served as subject matter experts on working effectively in the Crow culture. While the occasion for the class was the upcoming business project with the Crow, the class also considered the cultural orientations of several Asian countries in which the Company does business. Each culture is of course unique, and the skill of learning how to work effectively with one different culture equips employees to work effectively with additional cultures as well.

When different cultural groups come in contact with one another, they often interact through individual ambassadors who exclusively represent the interests of their respective groups.  Effective global business operations, on the other hand, require that many individuals- both formally and informally- serve as ambassadors as they interact with the other culture on a regular basis. For instance, it would be expected that Cloud Peak Energy executives would interact with the individual leaders of different cultural groups as they play the lead role for the Company. However, Cloud Peak Energy employees at multiple levels also find themselves in frequent cultural interactions in both their communities and work. Further, if the Company does develop operations on the Reservation, it has agreed to provide preferential training, hiring and promotion rights to Indians.  For this reason, Cloud Peak Energy extended the training to employees from several different locations, disciplines, and levels.

The learning flowed in both directions as our Cloud Peak Energy hosts taught us a great deal about the Powder River Basin and its niche in the coal industry. The visit to the Spring Creek Mine in Southeast Montana was particularly revealing in providing us with an introduction to the modern coal industry. While approaching the Spring Creek Mine, we were immediately struck by how different it was from what we expected. For example, the restored mining areas were indistinguishable from the surrounding natural landscape. The areas which were once a mining pit, are now backfilled and restored to the level of detail in naturally contoured land and native vegetation. In the active mine, equipment operated by skilled operators now does the work which was once extremely labor intensive; dirty and dangerous.

Through our tour of the mine, and overview of the industry, we learned about the important role which the unique coal from Powder River Basin will play in the world’s overall developing energy picture. The Spring Creek Mine, and the entire Powder River Basin produces coal which is both low sulfur and high energy. This coal is particularly appealing to U.S and Asian utilities which are seeking to significantly reduce emissions. Coal accounts for 30 percent of the world’s primary energy needs and 42 percent of global electricity production (about 40 percent of U.S. electricity and 80 percent in China), so current debates about the desirability of various types of energy are best not viewed as an either/or proposition. Coal will continue to play an important role in the world’s electrical generation for the foreseeable future—especially as a bridge to energy forms yet to be fully developed. 

Our Thunderbird Executive Education team looks forward to a continued partnership with Cloud Peak Energy as the Company expands efforts to connect the unique natural resources of the Powder River Basin with increased demands for low-sulfur, high energy coal among industry within both the U.S. and Asia.

Tim Slager is a client director at Thunderbird Executive Education.

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