Adams and Adams HR director Marge Mantjie on rolling out HR in Africa

There's no magic pill that you can give to people to make them adopt any given corporate culture, says Marge. 

Marge Mantjie, who will soon join Alexander Forbes Investments from law firm Adams & Adams, has become one of our top experts when it comes to rolling out HR in other African countries. Her key takeaway from working in the rest of Africa is that one must never go to other African countries with the attitude that you're going to teach, but also with one of going to learn. The cultural differences mean there are things that do not work in South Africa that might be very successful elsewhere. 

“I found for example, that when I want to introduce something new in South Africa, there is resistance to change, but when I was out there, there's a willingness to experiment.”

In October, Marge will start in her new role as HR leader at Alexander Forbes Investments after a successful period at Adams & Adams. For this interview, we spoke to her about the lessons she learned from the start of her career when he was thrown in the deep end at Multichoice and later at Bowmans.

It all started with a one-year internship at Multichoice, after she was approached to work for the company’s rest of Africa business. It was a new role that required a lot of travelling and the company took a chance on her because they were not sure if the role was going to materialise into something that added value or not. 

“They essentially hedged their bets with me because, instead of appointing someone who was very experienced into what was very much an experimental role, they could take a graduate who would basically be like a new employee, even though I had been at the company for only 12 months as an intern during my studies,” says Marge.

“The timing of the opportunity was perfect because I had just spent all of those years at university, so learning came very naturally to me,” she says, revealing her plan of action. “I would use my experience from South Africa use and improve and customise it where necessary when implementing it in the rest of Africa.”

Marge would go on to spend seven years servicing the rest of Africa, which included the east, west and SADC regions building HR structures from nothing into fully-fledged and operational HR divisions throughout each of the Africa businesses. 

“I would have nobody reporting to me and I would basically have to go into a business and convince them why they needed to set up an HR function,” explains Marge. “Once sold on the idea, the business would give me a headcount of how many people I could bring in to run the HR function as I would invariably have to move on to another jurisdiction…That's how I built my strength, capability and independence as an HR practitioner.  I would go to a new country basically become the national HR director. The buck stopped with me, so I really had to get clued up very quickly on HR matters.” 

Starting from scratch

Marge says being part of bodies like the Institute of Personnel Management helped a lot because they make it easier to keep abreast of the HR issues that one should be paying attention to.  Even then, it was still difficult because South Africa’s employment law is far more advanced than in other African countries but she tried to apply the same principles in general and created more localised policies and initiatives where it was necessary. 

After Multichoice, she went moved to sister company Mnet where she again had to build the HR profile within each of the respective businesses outside of Africa. 

“Different countries were at different stages in terms of their HR capabilities so my role would vary depending on where I was.  The systems, in particular, proved very challenging. There were many instances where, because of bandwidth limitations, I didn't have the luxury of using the systems I was accustomed to using in South Africa so I had to improvise. For example, our performance management system was on PeopleSoft but the rest of Africa businesses didn't have PeopleSoft so I had to use Excel.” 

Strong communicator

In addition to being someone that learns very quickly, Marge says she benefited from the fact that she is quite a strong communicator. When moving from one business to the next, she had to be able to build relationships quickly. As a new person walking into an entirely different organisation with a mandate from the head office, she had to be able to be the link between Africa businesses and the local office. Even though she was out there on her own, she would often engage with talent management experts in South Africa, for example, who would only be able to advise her based on her ability to properly communicate what the challenges in those particular areas were.

She found that, because they are relatively close to South Africa, her work was easier in Namibia, Zambia and Botswana because talent management, for example, was already a conversation they were having in those countries. Even though implementation was tricky, either because they didn't have the ideas or resources on how to execute, they already had a high-level understanding of the subject in so far as how it was an essential business imperative. 

The further up north she went, the more she had to do to first convince management why certain HR initiatives were necessary in the first place before beginning to design and implement solutions.

“Practically, after the first few trips, I would do an audit of all the offices, finding out what was in place and what was still needed from an HR point of view. Different offices were operating at different levels and had different pressures,” Marge recalls. “My HR strategy, therefore, had to be ninefold because each country had prioritised different agendas. At the same time, my strategy had to make sure that, within a period of two to three years, all those offices would have to reach comparable levels of HR functionality.”

Culture can be a tricky animal

After Mnet, Marge joined Bowmans as an HR manager and soon learned that it was her experience at Multichoice and Mnet that interested her employers most as the law firm was interested in growing its footprint on the rest of the continent and did so by first associating with smaller law firms and eventually rebranding each of them to make them all part of the Africa business. 

"Again it was a matter of selling the function to those businesses. I had to explain why they needed to have a people strategy in place and what it had to look like.

One of the challenges she faced was inculcating Bowman's culture into all those other businesses, which was difficult because culture can be a tricky animal sometimes. 

“It is not something that one can copy and paste. There's no magic pill that you can give to people to make them adopt any given corporate culture. So I introduced an exchange programme where junior lawyers from our Nairobi office, for example, would spend time in Sandton and one would go the other way.”

The idea was to have some culture sharing process so that the people engaging with those who have been seconded can get a real sense of how thing are done in another office. The programme went a long way towards inculcating a culture that embodied every office and, in the end, was so successful that it was extended from a three-month period to six months and is now a full year secondment. 

"When you are in Sandton dealing with the person in Nairobi, you have a vested interest because, one, you actually know the person that you are with and, two, you have personally spent time in that other business so you have some level of attachment towards it."

Beyond billable hours

What she enjoyed most about having to build HR from the bottom up in new places was that she could improve upon what already existed in South Africa. When some processes in the local business had too much red tape, for instance, she was able to test new ideas when designing new HR practices because there was a clean slate.

As an example, she made changes to the performance management template for Bowman’s Nairobi office whereby lawyers were no longer evaluated solely based on billable hours. It was such a success that the Sandton office has since adopted the same measure. 

"Law firms are not typically good at performance management. Lawyers are not equipped with having those conversations because there is a soft skill element to them. The change I introduced was to shift from simply looking at billable hours to ask the lawyers to put together a portfolio of evidence of the work they had done and the effort they had put into the cases they thought were worthy because that would give a better context than simply looking at billable hours in isolation," she says.