Challenges keep Ilze Johnston on her toes

It took leaving her previous job for Ilze Johnston to find her true purpose.

At the end of last year, Ilze Johnston reconsidered her career path and decided that she wanted to find her ikigai. Ikigai is a Japanese concept referring to something that gives a person a sense of purpose and a greater reason for living.

As a career counsellor for over 10 years, a neurolinguistic life coach and proven specialist in talent within the HR field with 15 years behind her, she realised the importance of applying a purpose-driven life into her own career. Now as a VP: human capital at Releaf Africa, she has a very special reason for getting out of bed each day.

“With Covid-19, regardless of age, people took a step back and asked themselves, is what I’m doing every single day adding value to my life or to the lives of others? If I pass tomorrow, can I say that I did something valuable? I thought about that a lot and I put it out there that I needed my next position to be different,” says Ilze.

Having sat with many companies, Ilze met with the founders of Releaf Africa, an Agri-Tech start-up, and immediately knew she had to accept the position. She believed that the role would not only add value to her life, but also to the lives of many others.

Releaf’s mission, she says, is to drive the future of African food processing by building a network of smart food factories that are closer to farmers.

Starting with Nigeria’s oil palm sector, Releaf is bringing processing capacity closer to farmers in a way that aligns with the continent’s traditionally decentralised farming model. The founders have created technology (from scratch) that actually does the processing part for the farmer, making them more efficient and profitable. So, they [farmers] can focus on farming and Releaf can take care of the rest – processing, logistics, etc.

Internally referred to as chief human innovation (CHI), Ilze is responsible for providing strategic direction to the organisation across all levels from a human resource perspective.

Her role focuses on recruitment as they aim to expand into new factories, new raw materials and new geographies, as well as leadership development, operational policies and procedures, employee benefits, performance management, employer branding, and overall guidance in scaling up the organisation.

Since Releaf is a growing business, the founders appointed Ilze to bring in her expertise across human resources, understanding the importance of being an organisation driven by solid people practices.

Utilising her extensive corporate experience across many different technical industries, Ilze understood the importance of innovation in HR when she joined Releaf Africa.

“At Releaf I have taken both a top-down and bottom-up approach to strategy. It was in my previous role at Anglo American Platinum as Global Process Improvement Specialist where I learned the importance of taking both approaches.

“While my head was in strategy and my engagement was primarily with senior leadership, it wasn’t until I interviewed more than 20 administrators and co-ordinators globally that I fully understood how to steer the business in line with best practice.

“The end user is the person who decides whether they will adapt and change to best practice or resist and continue doing things the way they’ve always been done. At the same time, they also know what really needs to be fixed.”

Having learnt this lesson, Ilze applied this theory to her new role at Releaf and spent her first few weeks conducting “voice of the customer” interviews with people across multiple levels in the organisation.

While smaller than most corporates, Releaf was certainly not less complex. However, Ilze quickly got to the bottom of the primary challenges that both management and the people were facing. These conversations, inclusive of all levels of staff, guided Ilze on how to innovate in HR.

She says leaders who make decisions without properly hearing the voice of the people are not innovating but rather creating what they think the company needs. “We have seen many HR initiatives fail due to this very reason and even worse, we have seen many costly business initiatives fail due to this same reason.”

In a start-up, Ilze believes it is even more important to be close to the people as you cannot afford to have one person in the company that is not engaged and delivering at optimal level.

“In a start-up, there is nowhere to hide or to move someone who is not performing. You have to ensure that you are hiring the best person for the job, without doubt, and that you are ensuring they are set up for success to perform at their maximum potential for the benefit and growth of the organisation.”

This means that you have to get the basics right. In her eyes, most big corporates have the basics in place, but fail to adapt as the organisation’s and people’s needs evolve. In her current role, she aims to quickly get the basics in place but to also adopt a level of agility to ensure that HR can grow with the business.

“To me, innovation in HR means that HR processes and procedures that are implemented and enforced are needed by the people and management alike, that they are practical and easy to use and that they are fit for purpose in respect to the overall direction or strategy of the business.”

In every role she has had, Ilze has always chosen an aspect that exposes her to something she hasn’t done before.

“The job I am doing at the moment has opened my eyes in so many ways. Because it’s a tech start-up, two things are important: getting it right the first time and agility. In order to get it right the first time, you have to know what your people want and need and there is only one way of going about this. Get your hands dirty and go as low as you can go for input and direction.”

Ilze believes that the challenge that lies ahead is what gets her out of bed excited every day. As an HR professional, she believes in the importance of her role and the purpose she plays in the future of the organisation. “There is not a single organisation that can prosper without a solid foundation of people's practices to get them there. Setting up your HR foundation properly and ensuring you are able to adapt to the people’s needs with agility,” is her key learning so far.

As a mother of two, Ilze also believes in explaining her role and purpose in the company to her young children. She learnt this lesson in the midst of Covid-19, when she was working more than 12 hours a day on revamping and tripling several PPE factories for Honeywell Engineering, to convert and manufacture N95 masks.

At first she did not say anything to her children, except that she was working during family time and the guilt of being away from them quickly built up. “One day I sat the kids down and explained to them that I was in the business of making masks and that my job was to get more workers in the factory to produce more masks so that we could save more lives.”

She was pleasantly surprised when she woke up the next morning and found a note from her children which read: “Here you go mommy, this note is for you to say we love you and good luck with work.”

“That afternoon, I was working late and I saw them go into the kitchen and they were busy making me a cup of tea. I had goosebumps and I still feel them,” Ilze says.

Her children’s generous and kind gestures took away her guilt because she knew her family was behind her and very supportive of the work she does, because she took the time to explain the purpose and importance of her work to them.

“Because of that, I was able to do my job effectively. As parents, we carry so much guilt because the more senior you get, the more hours you often have to work, and a start-up is no different. If anything, the hours are longer,” says Ilze. But with the support of her family, who understand her ikigai, she is looking forward to great things ahead.