Career lessons from top HR leaders at HR Indaba 2018

"It's important to understand exactly what you like about people before making a career out of HR."

If you ask HR professionals to reflect on why they chose a career in the industry, many would probably say they are passionate about people.  
While this reason is noble and credible, Dr James Ramakau, the senior HR manager at AngloGold Ashanti, said it doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s important to understand exactly what you like about people before making a career out of HR,” said James. 

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He was participating in a panel discussion about building a great career at the HR Indaba on October 3, 2018.  James was joined by his highly experienced and skilled HR counterparts including Jeanett Modise, the CHRO at Sanlam Investments, and Tshidi Khunou, the head of talent acquisition at FNB’s wealth and investment division.

The three professionals reflected on their careers in HR and shared their lessons from hardships and triumphs. In James’ case, the road to his career was paved with hard work, serval moments of having to constantly reinvent himself and challenges. On the latter, he cites two examples.  Having realised that he had to push himself and get out of his comfort zone, James accepted a job-based in a small town in Venda. Having worked for three weeks, his colleagues didn’t engage with him or seek to enter his office.  

Then the penny dropped. 

“I realised that people didn't approach me because I didn't speak Venda. From that day on, I made a point to learn at least one Venda word every day."

At one point, he faced retrenchment twice. One of the events was so significant that he remembers it vividly. Upon his return from sick leave, he found a letter on his desk that informed him to apply for another job as his position at the time became redundant. Asked about the lessons behind both incidents, James said it is important for HR professionals to expand their line of thinking by constantly upskilling and learning.

“I am responsible for making sure that I am a well-rounded professional and not anyone around me. It’s important to build characteristics and unlearn certain things to polish your character,” he said. And in handling matters such as retrenchments, professionals must handle them with sensitivity. 

For Jeanett, what has sustained throughout her career is surrounding herself with knowledgeable people she could learn from. She shared her lessons:

“I surrounded myself with people I could bounce ideas with…I made sure that I invested in support structures around me. If you want to be successful in your career, make sure you have the right support structure.”

In an era when people are required to be constantly working at the expense of spending quality time with their families, Jeanett said a work-life balance is important. One of Jeanett’s regrets is not mastering a work-life balance when she started her career. “It is important to invest not only in the development of skills, but it’s important to invest in exercise and rest. These are important in making sure you are energised and healthy.”

If Tshidi could go back to when he started his career, he would prioritise finding a mentor that would help understand the HR profession.  “Had I got guidance, I would be able to get myself more into what exists in the HR space. Now I have a few mentors I call when I want to make a decision. Most people got into HR by mistake and didn’t know what it entailed.”