Alexander Forbes’s Jonathan Muthige says he got into HR out of sheer curiosity

Jonathan was curious to see how he could use his foundational training in drama in the corporate world.

One thing that the lockdown and the pandemic has taught us is to understand the strength and the vulnerabilities of the state of mental health in our own families and colleagues, says Alexander Forbes’s chief human capital and transformation officer Jonathan Muthige.

“I think I've definitely found much greater quality time with my young adults, and wife. The amount of time the pandemic has given me to get to spend with my loved ones has been phenomenal. I know that there are people out there for whom it has been devastating, while for some the confinement affected their relationships,” he says.

HR journey
Jonathan says his journey in HR was probably very unconventional. “I studied acting, and taught it at the University of Natal and UCT many years ago, and I got into HR out of sheer curiosity,” he explains. “I got into HR through the drama training department. I was just curious to see how I could use my foundational training in drama in corporate, and I wanted to test whether I would enjoy it. The rest is history.”

Multipotentialite
With his varying interests – from drama and deejaying to lecturing – he found his way into conflict resolution in the taxi industry while lecturing at UCT.

“I trained as a conflict resolution mediator, and got involved in taxi disputes and mediation to help bring peace in that space, and then I joined BP Southern Africa as a trainee for six months before taking over as the training manager.”

He was a training manager for a year before leaving HR. “I went into project management, managing solar and gas projects, where we set up probably one of the earlier programmes that brought renewable energy in some communities.”

Jonathan was asked to go back to HR as a commercial director, where he spent a year figuring out why HR should exist in any organisation, and what the right business case is? He did a lot of work with professors at Harvard to figure out the commercial sense of doing the work HR professionals do.

Jonathan counts himself lucky to have multi-industry experiences as well as to have had responsibility for multiple markets across Africa, Middle East, Europe, and the US.

People solutions
“The development of people and how companies leverage human resources is fundamentally what's deep-seated in Jonathan’s heart. That's actually what I enjoy the most,” he says.

His view of things has always been that “Unless I step out of HR from time to time and get into the firing line, I become less relevant as an HR leader. That's always been my personal philosophy”, he adds.

Because of this belief, he has built skills and experience in human resources, sales, project management, banking operations, facilities management, procurement, and BEE and transformation.

“I’ve always believed that in any organisation, the two most important roles are the CEO and your head of human capital. These are the two people that get to see the business fully end-to-end,” he says. “As an HR professional, I've got to be able to understand the business end-to-end to do what I do.”

When faced with challenging periods when it came to people management issues, he says he thinks about people solutions from a business perspective. “HR is very deep in my psyche, and what I do. I get very irritated when HR people, you know, lock themselves in the room and use all this jargon. How much is this going to add to the top line or bottom line? I prefer to spend a lot of hours figuring out what the business problem is, and then step back and say, alright, how do you overlay people solutions on this?”

Joining Alexander Forbes
Joining Alexander Forbes has been an amazing journey with proud milestones achieved by the business. “It's been a fantastic year. I was looking for a company that is going through a transformation and needed somebody to partner with them.

“And Alexander Forbes was going through a major change. I look after transformation as well and one of the things that the organisation was very keen on was to make sure that we get the transformation part right.”

He shares that he is having a lot of fun because a part of what he knew and came to do was to transform the HR function to become a lot more commercially focused. This combines his passions for business and people intimately.

“I think more than anything I love what I do and I am a great believer that people who are working in the HR space are the most influential people in the organisation. It’s just a pity we have given that space away by failing to realise that our roles are first and foremost business leadership, before they are about whether you have the best recruitment policy or not,” he concludes.