BMW’s Julia Modise: Paying it forward is my biggest flex as an HR leader

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Julia shares the importance of not underestimating the importance of mentorship and seizing opportunities.

Seeing young people thrive through her self-established mentorship programme is Julia Modise’s pride and joy.

Julia is the group human resources director for BMW Group South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. She, along with her team at BMW Group South Africa, established a mentorship programme with students from Lethabong Secondary School to afford young students access to professionals within the organisation. This mentorship programme enables employee engagement through corporate social responsibility, which is one of the pillars of the HR three-year journey.

Lethabong Secondary School in Soshanguve, outside Pretoria, is home to many BMW associates employed at the organisation’s plant in Rosslyn. She adds that the learners benefit from a close relationship with BMW Group South Africa that spans facilities and resources, to learner mentoring programmes.

“I deeply care for people and contribute to the growth and development of others. Someone did it for me when I did not deserve it. So, I am paying it forward, while doing my job.”

For Julia, moments such as these are the sweet spot: “I become very proud when I look at individuals who have gone through my leadership and are now in senior positions. It is extremely fulfilling, and that is where the big reward is.”

With 25 years in the HR profession, 15 of those at executive level, Julia says she has become very passionate about diversity and inclusion. “It drives innovation, and when you have a diverse team in terms of mindset, educational background, and culture, you can complement each other and truly solve business challenges because you have different perspectives in the room.”

She notes that the best way to create an inclusive environment in an organisation is threefold, “Firstly, I surround myself with capable people and choose people who in some ways are better than me. I make sure that I partner effectively with business to ensure that the people solutions I deliver enable business success and develop the growth of the people through creating the right working environment.

“Secondly, we want to win the hearts of our people by giving them a strong sense of belonging. So, we create an inclusive environment, which then leads them to perform and engage in such a way that leads to business success.” Inviting dissent is something that leaders must not shy away from, she says. When everyone in the room simply agrees with the leader, the opportunity to create diverse solutions is lost.

Lastly, she adds, she partners with business to implement policies and procedures that are people-centric, and solutions driven. “I dislike HR organisations that are purely and strictly policy and process driven. My HR organisation is people and solutions-centric, not driven purely by policies and procedures. One of the things that I do is to be accessible to all. I don’t subscribe to hierarchy. I engage directly with any employee in the organisation.”

Seizing opportunities

A firm believer in grabbing every opportunity and maximising it, Julia recalls how as a young tertiary student working at Edcon as a casual worker to aid in paying for her tertiary school fees, she approached her then HR manager Nicole Gierschick to grant her an opportunity to be exposed to the HR function.

“I had no experience and had not even completed my qualification when I approached her, but she saw potential in me, when I probably didn’t fully understand what potential is. This led to her recommending me for an HR officer role at the tender age of 20, and that is how my career started. Nicole taught me that a leader’s role is to identify and nurture talent.”

She adds that after joining Cummins, a global technology leader specialising in diesel and alternative fuel engines and generators, and related components, she was given an opportunity to move to the United States (US) at the age of 26, to gain global perspective and multicultural experience. Following this stint in the US, Julia recalls how proud and nerve-racking it was to reach a directorship-level position at 30.

The lesson that lies herewith for younger HR executives is that one must always be ready to grab opportunities that become available and there’s no such thing as a person being 100% ready for a job, she explains. “Go for it. What matters is potential and attitude. I can teach and transfer skills and build confidence, but I cannot build or transform a bad attitude. We hire for attitude and train for skills. Also, be a sponge, absorb as much as you can, and build a network in your chosen career. It’s important. Do not underestimate the importance of mentorship.”

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