Bryte SA’s Ncumisa Mtshali dissects the art of networking

The key is to not overthink it and to keep your old relationships warm, says Ncumisa.

The art of networking is difficult to master, but, for Ncumisa Mtshali, head of HR at Bryte SA, it’s almost second nature. While most people shudder at the prospect of initiating conversations with strangers, Ncumisa effortlessly builds long-lasting relationships, and this has been a key pillar of her success. 

Very rarely do HR leaders reach out to CHRO SA, asking to join the bi-monthly Community Conversation. Usually, the sequence of events is the other way around. Ncumisa is one of a select few to grab the bull by the horns. After seeing a social media post about the invite-only Zoom calls for HR executives, she wanted in.

“I didn’t know if it was reserved for paying members or whether it was for executives working in JSE-listed companies, but I thought, ‘Just reach out and tell them you want to be a part of the community. What’s the worst that could happen?’ And that, in a nutshell, is my networking philosophy.”

Three years into her career, Ncumisa became the regional HR manager at Edcon where she looked after HR for 13 Edgars stores in the Eastern Cape. She was new to the retail industry and her line manager, with whom she only had one virtual meeting, was based in Durban. She realised that she had to create a professional support structure if she was to succeed in the role.

“I very quickly needed to learn how to get my foot into the business and I was self-aware enough to know that if I didn't build a network, I would fail in that role. I only had three years' experience at the time and, to be honest, I was a little out of my depth, but I had to find a way to swim and demonstrate that I was capable of delivering what the business required. That's when I learned the art of networking,” she says.

“I had very few contacts, firstly because it was early in my career and, secondly because I had just moved from Durban back to the Eastern Cape. I didn’t have any relationships or colleagues from the HR fraternity other than my line manager who I didn’t want to bother with questions that might expose that the job was too big for me.”

She started reaching out to other HR professionals within the retail sector in the Eastern Cape, attending networking events, sending LinkedIn requests and calling people that she had been referred to by friends and family. Within months, Ncumisa had a support structure that she could heavily rely upon for advice and guidance. 

“I realised how invaluable it is to be able to bounce ideas off people with more experience than I had and to get feedback that would enable me to sidestep some of the mistakes that someone of my limited experience would typically make.”

Keep old relationships warm

As her career progressed, Ncumisa figured out that networking was as much about building new relationships as it was about “keeping old relationships warm”. To this day, she still has a relationship with her very first boss and almost every colleague she has ever worked closely with. 

“A quick phone call or message asking someone how they are doing and what they're up to can go a long way. You don’t want to fall into the trap of only calling people when you need help with something.”

Whenever she has a memorable engagement with someone – regardless of whether she collaborated with that person to deliver a project or simply had a stimulating conversation with them at a networking event – she asks them if they would mind keeping in touch. 

Says Ncumisa: “Very rarely will someone decline an offer to stay in touch. The trick is to follow through on that promise. That’s the step I think most people miss when it comes to networking. You have to stay in touch with the people you’ve worked with before. You don’t know what you don’t know, so if you don’t keep those lines of communication open you may be missing out on some great information, opportunities and ideas.” 

The WhatsApp travelling group 

Ncumisa continues to swear by the power of networks because, without them, people operate in isolation and their perspectives become limited by their experience and immediate environment. 

“The size and diversity of your network are directly correlated to your spectrum of possibilities. Because you might think you are excelling in your role until you see how others in your field are pushing the envelope, thus driving you to challenge yourself more in that space that you are in.”

The key to networking, Ncumisa says, is to not overthink it. Relationships, ultimately, are about making a connection and that is something that cannot be forced. You have to let relationships develop organically and be guided by common interests and chemistry. Among her current go-to sounding boards, for example, is a WhatsApp group that was initially intended for planning vacations. During her time as a regional HR business partner at MTN, she and five other colleagues shared a love for travelling. The group chat was thus created to organise trips together overseas.

Ncumisa was the youngest and occupied the most junior role in that WhatsApp group but, somehow, that chat evolved into a melting pot of human capital wisdom and innovation. 

“They were all senior managers at MTN while I was a mid-level manager so I heavily relied on them for advice and guidance on how to approach various challenges I faced in my role. Everyone eventually moved onto new opportunities for top HR roles, as did I, but we never stopped engaging with one another in that group,” she says. 

Says Ncumisa: “We've only travelled to Hartbeespoort, so it’s fair to say that our plans to see the world together came to nought. But we've used the group to share ideas and challenges. Whenever I’m stuck, I simply type my thoughts into the chat, saying, “I want to implement this or that initiative. This is the environment we have. This is the analysis I've done. I don't know what I want to do, practically, but this is the thought process I've followed thus far.’ For example, I'm currently running an employee roadshow called ‘Reinduct Yourself’ and I was able to lean on one of the ladies in that group who had done it before.” 

Ncumica cherishes these kinds of relationships and says she is fortunate to have understood the value of networking early in her career journey. “I don't know it all and I don't think there is any leader who can claim to have all the answers, especially in the current climate,” she concludes.