bp’s HR director Theo Motshabi shares lessons learnt through HR, entrepreneurship, and leadership

Theo says you have to search within and ask yourself what type of leader you are. A lesson learnt very early in life and applied throughout his career.

bp Southern Africa's HR director, Theo Motshabi experienced first-hand, the value in leaders embracing change early.

“With the world of work changing at a rapid pace, we need to take the lead as HR professionals to ensure our organisations are ahead of the curve. This means intensely looking at the different functions within HR and assessing them against the new requirements necessitated by the evolving world of work and being decisive.

“We could see the trends long before COVID. The trends show that the pace and magnitude with which the world of work is changing means we need to relook across the HR value chain and assess for relevance,” he says.

Theo adds that although the evolution of HR has come in waves, COVID has significantly accelerated it:

A few years before COVID hit, Theo had successfully undertaken a transition to modernise HR within a section of bpSA focusing on automation, digitization and enhancing the employee experience. “Sometimes taking the plunge as leaders and embracing change at the early signs of an impending transformation can deliver big payoffs, with value for people and business.

“Coming into this role during a pandemic meant I had a blueprint to start from, but even that will soon be outdated because expanded analysis tells us we need to continue our journey to evolve in the people and culture space.”

Career journey and lessons learnt
Going back to the very start of his career, Theo recalls his journey into HR almost hitting a bump due to financial constraints while at university, similar to most South Africans. This did not deter Theo, and instead ignited the entrepreneurial spirit in him.

He hopped on a taxi to university, knowing he would need to find a way to make his dream a reality, with the little that he had. At the time, this meant hosting a series of party events, which raised him enough to cover tuition and residential fees for his second year of varsity within the first quarter of the year.

“For the following years, I was very fortunate to land a part-time role as a field work supervisor for the research department in the faculty and a bursary,” he adds.

The same entrepreneurial spirit that enabled him to fund his studies would see Theo quickly advance up the corporate ladder, accumulating experience from various industries. Theo’s HR journey began at a psychometric consulting organisation, Saville Consulting.

After Saville, he joined SAB’s soft drinks division ABI as an HR trainee and a series of promotions later, he became an HR specialist, before leaving the company for his first stint with bp where he joined as HR manager. His next stop was HR Operations Manager at Multichoice, it’s here that he remembers one of his most impactful leadership lessons as a young person, taking up a key leadership position:

“Multichoice taught me two important lessons: That you’re not going to always find a place where everything runs smoothly. You have to search within and ask yourself what type of leader you are. And if leadership is essentially about the ability to influence, I needed to learn to influence no matter the environment. That was very exciting for me.

“The second lesson was the importance of taking people along with you on the journey and building authentic connections.”

Giving back in his professional and personal capacity
After Multichoice, Theo took a sabbatical, and that’s where his entrepreneurial skills resurfaced: “I set up a family business as a way of giving back to my support structure.”

Theo explains that giving back for him is about finding sustainable solutions and the family business gave him the time to extend opportunities to the people that first entrusted him with all they had to offer.

“In the professional setting, centering people and bringing them along on the journey proved valuable as drastically changing workplaces needed HR functions to adopt and scale change to meet business needs and enable new ways of working,” he adds.

Driving early-stage transition with bp
Theo returned to bp in 2016 to head up HR in global business services in South Africa. “I was privileged to be supported by exceptional senior managers who believed in me and gave me the platform and space to make an impact. I developed a robust three-year strategy, focusing on stabilising the foundation, making sure the basics were in place and ensuring we had the right capability to modernise HR.”

The business was in transition and HR needed to embrace this, “It was important to build the right capability in terms of competence and the right processes to foster accountability and improve delivery. The next step was to look for opportunities to enhance overall employee experience through automation and digitisation,” Theo recalls.

The successful delivery of this strategy saw him seconded to a global role as head of HR for GBS customer, overseeing HR in various regions including Europe, Asia, Australia, South Africa and the Americas.

Soon afterwards he was appointed HR director of bp Southern Africa during the energy industry’s biggest transformation yet.

Leading during a period of transformation
Theo couldn’t have foreseen that the company’s earlier transition would build to bp’s 2020 commitment to undertake its biggest transformation in its history.

As the world faced a pandemic, bp committed to reinvent itself and set a bold new ambition to reimagine energy for people and the planet. Theo commends bp as an organisation whose purpose and ambition he feels truly connected to. “To make such a commitment requires that you care about people and the planet,” he says.

After a collective seven years with bp, Theo is finding he doesn’t have to look far for his next challenge.

“Our purpose is to deliver solutions to customers through, amongst other things, sustainable forms of energy over a period of time, because we care about people and the planet. And I love that because it speaks to my values and as a result, the ideas and creativity are effortless, because they come from the heart.”