Avanthi Parboosing believes in recruiting people who are a “culture add”

The HR leader’s 20 years’ experience in the governance space paved the way for her CPO position.

When Avanthi Parboosing took on the role of chief people officer (CPO) at Life Healthcare two years ago, her change in career was met with some surprise, but the experienced executive says she blocked out the noise and focused on the expectation of the role and what needed to be immediately done to entrench herself into her new set of responsibilities. “I took every concern and discomfort and turned it into an opportunity to learn.”

Her journey into the people space was unexpected as she had, for the past 20 years, been an executive within the governance and ethics space, having served as a group secretary for a number of listed entities, including Impala Platinum and Kumba Iron Ore.

In December of 2020, the newly appointed chief executive of Life Healthcare, Peter Wharton-Hood, told her that she had outgrown the governance role and that she needed to take on a bigger challenge.

Avanthi was cautious and needed some convincing. “By my own observation, I was a good company secretary. I liked operating in a comfortable but challenging space and doing what I know best. I enjoyed the breadth and depth of the company secretary role and was nervous about letting that go.”

Peter, she says, was patient. He had a particular vision for the company, and closer to home, a specific plan for her career. That was reassuring.

“He re-focused my attention and diluted my discomfort around the ability to execute and influence in the CPO role. I can honestly say that there is a deep trust within the current group executive, and we work well as a team, supporting each other in our various areas of responsibility. Leadership’s collective belief is that one of the crucial ways to drive this organisation forward from a strategic perspective, is to ensure that we look after our people, and having this collective view from my colleagues and from the business at large, certainly makes the role easier to execute upon.”

Without any formal human resources background or training, Avanthi quickly learnt that the role needed a strong technical team supporting it, both in South Africa and internationally.

“Life Healthcare directly employs circa 17,000 people across its southern African and international operations. It’s a big company with a global footprint. Fortunately for me, there is an exceptionally strong technical HR team, both in the international and South African operating environments, who I work closely with to deliver on key objectives. The technical aspect of HR is absolutely key, but I have the right people, in the right roles, at the right time. The team is phenomenal.”

Avanthi’s role manages more than just the people portfolio. She also holds executive responsibility for diversity and inclusion, communications and reputation management, sustainability (ESG) and stakeholder engagement. Although not a typical collection of portfolios, Avanthi says it works.

“We understand that for our business to grow sustainably, we have a duty to develop our people, whilst enhancing stakeholder value and minimising the impact of our operations on the environment. We are aware that it is critical in today’s world to identify, understand, and manage material ESG impacts, and the HR portfolio is key to contributing in this space. It’s interesting to observe how critical HR has become to almost every aspect of business – especially today – where the focus on ESG has become completely entrenched in every investor’s mind.”

As challenging as her job is, Avanthi says she is delighted to have taken on the challenge. There are no regrets.

“It’s been a tough few years for the healthcare industry in general and certainly a tough two years for Life Healthcare. A focus on critical elements of a progressive people function is integral to the company’s sustained performance during difficult times, and the executive team continues to work tirelessly to respond to the challenges brought on by the pandemic.”

Difficult decisions also needed to be taken, and Avanthi played a key role in assisting with the rollout of the company’s mandatory vaccination process. “We needed to deliver on the promise of always putting our people first and making Life Healthcare a safe space. It was one of the most difficult processes to go through, but we got it right. We managed it with respect and care, and we got to where we wanted.”

There has also been some real traction in the diversity space, a key component of the CPO role and one for which Avanthi has real passion.

Together with the CEO, she created and led the company’s very successful Women-in-Life Programme, and as the responsible executive for inclusion and diversity, paid personal attention to hiring processes, taking deliberate stances on all the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Avanthi admits that the handling of extremely complex people matters takes up a large portion of her time. “There is a certain level of dexterity required in managing people matters. There is a need for sensitivity and compassion – sometimes managing issues with an iron fist in a velvet glove. This is the part of the HR role that requires the most attention – doing what’s right for our people, whilst taking care of the organisation as a whole. I’m trying to master that art.”

Having been in the governance space for more than 20 years, Avanthi says she did not realise how much that journey had prepared her for her current role as CPO.

“Some decisions in my current role often have to be taken care of quickly, but in a measured manner, because taking a decision about an employee in an organisation can often impact that person’s entire life.”

Her interaction with various listed boards during her career as a group secretary has also helped her in her new role. “I fostered incredible connections during my governance career, observing some of the best corporate leaders within the boardroom space, and learning from them. I have also worked with phenomenal executive teams. Without sounding sentimental, the most rewarding part of my career thus far has been the ability to engage with great minds – and soaking up lessons along the way.”

After Impala and Kumba, Avanthi took a two-year hiatus to focus on her children. “After a very short while, I realised that the kids didn’t quite need me as much as I thought they would. These were little humans with their own lives – and I fitted into their universe only after the end of the school day. What was I to do the rest of the day?”

Avanthi then created and managed her own strategic governance consultancy, “The Good Practice”, working with companies such as FirstRand, Woolworths, UNISA, and Anglo American on strategic governance. “Ironically, some of my key projects as a consultant were squarely within the people space, including assisting with the re-organisation of departments and managing labour-related issues.”

Avanthi spends long hours and some of her weekends ensuring that she is on top of remuneration-related issues and trends.

“Succession planning and talent management have been an easier adjustment for me because I’ve been exposed to these areas during HR and remuneration committee discussions over the years. The real focus for me has been getting to grips with the acutely technical issues linked to rewards structures. This is where the real work begins – understanding how remuneration philosophy drives the entire continuum of the recruitment and retention circle – from start to finish,” she says.

Avanthi does not believe in micro-management, but in having the right people in the right positions, at the right time delivering what is expected of them.

Working during the “chaos” of the Covid-19 pandemic was hard for Avanthi, but it was also a defining moment for her.

“If I was going to fail, it would have been at that point in time, but the teams I work with were incredibly supportive and astute – we work well under pressure and there is a level of resilience that surfaces when the going gets tough.”

Her aspiration is to create a workforce that does not want to leave Life Healthcare. She also feels strongly about bringing in talented people into the organisation who are a “culture-add” as opposed to a “culture fit”.

“Our people are the foundation of our success and our sustainability. To achieve our vision of being a people-centred organisation, I need to ensure that we continuously focus on creating an empowered and inclusive workforce and environment. When our people feel valued, they organically contribute to exceptional business performance and operational outcomes. That’s where the magic lies.”

Avanthi is a mother of two children. Her eldest son is studying towards a BSc degree at the University of Toronto. Her daughter is in Grade 12 and will be moving to Canada next year to hopefully study a degree in life sciences.

Personally, Avanthi is passionate about animal welfare and education. She also provides pro-bono advisory on governance issues, when needed.

“I have three rescue dogs who take up a lot of my time, and a wonderful husband who supports me – whilst growing flowers on a farm he owns with other shareholders. A CPO and a farmer. It’s a good combination! We both have to nurture and grow that which has been entrusted to us!”