Aurecon's People Leader Dean Naidoo found his purpose in Africa

Strong business acumen widens the influence and impact HR leaders can make, says Dean.

“The most meaningful lessons in my career came as a result of spending time, not in HR, but in the actual business itself. I had a desire to understand the inner workings of business, which was essentially based on a need to be more effective at what I did. Whether you are in HR, finance, or any other support function, you have to start by spending time in the engine room. However, spending time in the business means one has got to build good relationships in order to understand your clients business. Get to know your client and you get to know the product. This helps in the future when you need to co-create a solution for one of those wicked problems,” says Aurecon People Leader Dean Naidoo who started his HR career at Healthcare Funder National Medical Plan (NMP) as an HR administrator. At the time, he made it a point to learn as much as he could about every facet of the business, not limiting himself to the remit of HR. He reached out to functional leaders in different parts of the organisation, understood the strategy and also attended client meetings in a bid to enable business leaders to achieve their goals. 

“I realised very early in my career that, when you start to speak the language of business, and you start seeing through the lens of your clients, your advice is better received and there is a lot more appreciation for the impact that HR can make,” says Dean.

At that point in time, HR was entirely an operational function and there was no need for him to immerse himself in the business as he did. 

“At the back of my mind, I guess I was thinking about my career in the long-term and the fact that, no matter how it progressed, I would need to be more commercially astute and have a strong sense of how businesses operated. It turned out that my approach quite aptly prepared me for my role as an HR leader in today’s world.”

Overtime, Dean progressed upstream to General Manager for HR at Momentum Health, which by then had long since acquired NMP and Sovereign Health Funders.

From profession to purpose

Dean was later headhunted and appointed to the board of Redis Construction AfriKa where he was the group executive HR Director overseeing the entire HR function in this multidisciplinary, multicultural and diverse organisation across the African continent. If you ask him what the highlight of his career has been thus far, he will tell you about the eight years he spent in that role traversing the continent, finding, developing and leading people, and linking organisational strategy to HR strategy, building HR models and teams across countries like DRC, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana and, off course, South Africa. He has also spent time in India and the Middle East. 

It was during those years that he discovered the influence that HR can make on not just business but in society as a whole. He strongly believes that, as an HR person, his purpose is to inspire, make a difference and shape the future, to be an activist of change, and an inspiration to fellow Africans. While setting up operations in some of the most underdeveloped parts of the continent, Dean had to contend with different cultures and legal systems. Agility, knowledge, and social awareness were key. 

“We worked in places like Lubumbashi and Kolwezi in the DRC, where you could still see the after-effects of the civil war… We set out to transfer knowledge through skills development as ultimately we wanted the local businesses to be self-sustainable. Africa is a continent with one of the fastest growing economies globally, blessed with a wealth of resources. So empowerment through education became a huge focus."

In addition to this, Dean also built high-performance HR teams in those areas, advancing the careers of Africans whose lives were quite visibly transformed by the work the company was doing. His strong business acumen is something he says was key to making a lasting impact on organisations that did not have a good grasp of the value that HR can have when it is approached correctly.

More a calling than a vocation

Says Dean: “My time in greater Africa gave me a better appreciation for what our brothers and sisters in greater Africa are going through.  It tested my resilience, level of patience, and empathy. Little did I realise that my time in greater Africa was more a lesson in life than it was a lesson in HR or business. I found myself looking at life through a different lens . It made me aware of my own subconscious biases.  I believe in SA we take many things for granted and when you have the opportunity to work or travel deep into Africa or on the sub-continent you appreciate what you have back home a lot more. It gives one perspective." 

Having played a key role in the social and economic transformation of some of Africa’s most impoverished areas, it was during that time that Dean fully appreciated how HR has the ability and the responsibility to make the world a better place by making a societal impact.

Dean now believes that HR is about inspiring people, shaping their world and making a difference in their lives and, by implication, should be improving the lives of those around us. It should drive and advance businesses and improve the bottom line so that they can have an impact on society. 

"That means we, as HR leaders, should pride ourselves not only on our ability to maximise our organisations’ return on human capital investments, but also on our contribution to the betterment of humanity and in doing so leave a legacy that others can be proud of," says Dean. “And if you have travelled the world and have not been to Africa, then you have not begun yet.”