Blue Label Telecom Group HC Professional Services Executive Brigitte Chetty on being “The Olivia Pope of HR”

Asked how she landed the nickname, Brigitte says it all began when she was at Massmart.

Blue Label Telecoms Group HC Professional Services Executive Brigitte Chetty describes herself on LinkedIn as ‘The Olivia Pope of HR’. Fans of the popular political drama series ‘Scandal’, which is known as the ‘The Fixer’ in South Africa, will appreciate the weight of such a moniker. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, Olivia Pope is a fictional character whose reputation as the best crisis manager in the country precedes her. No matter how insurmountable a problem seems, Olivia always manages to solve it. The writers of the show describe the character as "the invisible hand behind problems that seem to disappear as quickly as they came. She doesn't just fix problems, she fixes people." 

So referring to yourself as ‘The Olivia Pope of HR’ is quite the bold statement. Asked how she landed on the unique tagline, Brigitte says it all began when she was at Massmart, where she developed such a reputation for solving problems that colleagues across the business started calling her ‘the fixer’.

“It was a male-dominant environment, and like most organisations, the value of HR was not always evident, which made it all the more difficult to garner respect at the table as the HR leader. But I made it my mission to make myself heard by finding ways of demonstrating my value to the business,” says Brigitte. 

It started with transforming Massmart’s approach to Analytics and Insight. In her first month, the leadership team raised concerns about labour costs running over budget and seemed to have no real understanding or answers of what could be done. Brigitte presented a solution to the Exco that nobody seemed to be looking for. 

“I’ll never forget that first meeting because nobody was questioning the reason behind the increased wage bill. It was almost taken as a given. You know, like if the petrol price goes up. In the first Exco meeting, I made a presentation to the executive team, using dashboards and analytics, demonstrating how we could save costs through better management of overtime schedules and leave provisions. By taking that approach, I was able to show them - in actual rands-and-cents - the value I could add and impact the bottom line”

Brigitte empowered HR practitioners in one particular area, Industrial Relations disputes. The company had become accustomed to settling matters at CCMA that, when Brigitte was assigned an IR matter, she was not expected to win the case but rather to settle it out of court. Brigitte changed the mindset within the IR team, by helping them understand the reputational damage the company faced as an employer and by going through every case with a fine-tooth comb. 

“I didn’t reinvent the wheel. I simply sought to improve our way of doing things. I started reviewing every IR case individually, providing the team with feedback on what we had done wrong and how to fix it. And that's how I started turning the HR function around, moving from a transactional model towards a transformational model.” 

Ask Brigitte

Over time, people increasingly went to her for help with anything and everything HR-related, from crafting job descriptions and, organisational design to handling a difficult employee. “When in Doubt,  Ask Brigitte” and “Brigitte will fix it” were the go-to responses to everyone with an HR question or problem. 

“That's where the nickname came from, although I do believe it was formed throughout my career and part of my DNA. It seems to have stuck with me because even now at Blue Label, I'm the fixer,” she says, adding that her aim now is to preempt and prevent crises rather than needing fixing.

The complexity of Blue Label is that the business has multiple subsidiaries operating across a wide spectrum of sectors. Blue Label’s organisational model, however, presents a people challenge, a unique and exciting one at that, because each subsidiary has its own structure, culture and leadership team. Furthermore, they are all at varying stages of sophistication via the strategic value and input of the HR function. 

Says Brigitte: “With Massmart and the other corporates I worked for, I was building structures and processes that didn't exist. I had small teams and was often creating something from nothing. When I joined Bride and Co, they had five euro suit stores. And we grew that to 17 stores. One Group was also a startup that I helped grow from 20 people to 350 people. In this environment, innovation, agility and scalability were key to organisational growth and sustainability. 

Since joining Blue Label three years ago, Brigitte’s main priority has been to support the strategic objectives through transforming the group HR function into a shared service across all subsidiaries with a focus on employee-centricity.

“In the last 6 months, the HC Leadership team have implemented our Grow Model called Success Management, which in essence is our take on a standardised approach to development and performance management. It's the first time in the history of Blue Label that every single company within the group has bought into an HR process and is excited to be a part of the journey. That for me is a success,” concludes Brigitte.