CHRO Cape Town Summit unpacks the art of doing business


Attendees hear that leaders shouldn’t consider people and business as separate things.

We’re living in an era where the things HR professionals are concerned about are making headlines. Whether it’s remuneration, talent management, inclusion or well-being, what we do as HR professionals are on the front pages. Yet, HR and business are still considered separate.

During the annual CHRO Cape Town Summit on 18 April, attendees discussed “The art of business” and what their roles were as the painters.

Avanthi Parboosing, who had served as a company secretary for 20 years before taking up the role of CHRO at Life Healthcare, said: “HR people are special. It takes an incredible EQ to run this faculty in a business.”

She explained that when she stepped into the role, she very quickly went to work sharpening her EQ skills. “Company secretaries usually get caught in the middle of everything. We know everything about the company, down to what the executive members think of each other. HR executives are exactly the same.”

She added that HR professionals know exactly how everyone feels, because they are the leaders people turn to for advice when they are having problems. “We are the safe space for the business, so we need to become confidential listeners.”

HR leaders also need to be great communicators and storytellers, because you have to collate the information of the business to the people in a way that they understand and can buy into, she said.

Avanthi further explained that in both roles she has had to become a good listener. However, what’s different about the HR role, is that she has also become a cultivator. “The CEO role is changing, because they have strong CPOs and HR executives that are mentoring and motivating them on the people-centric aspects of the business. Historically, CEOs only thought about profit and strategy, while they left the people stuff to HR. Now, however, HR is treating CEOs like business partners in cultivating culture.”

She noted, “The HR function is where the human and business elements of an organisation combine so closely.”

But this is not enough anymore, attendees agreed. It’s time for the human and business elements of the organisation to become one.

It’s all about wellness

As a CEO herself, Mercer’s Tamara Parker then revealed how CHROs can get buy-in from their excos when there are already so many competing demands, using a personal anecdote.

“I worked for an organisation where the way you climbed the ladder was by working harder and more. Eventually, I was working 16 hours a day for seven days a week. It was a client that pointed out to me that I needed some help,” she said.

She explained that it was a very humbling moment, because until then she hadn’t seen it that way. “I was so proud of myself, because I thought I was so smart and driven. When it happened to other people, I thought they were just lazy.”

She then realised how wrong she was. “I was certainly putting in the hours, but I was unproductive, because I was exhausted. There were days when I couldn’t string a sentence together because I was too tired.”

Tamara added, “We talk about productivity, and we think it’s the hard work and long hours. But productivity is the softer things, like innovation and collaboration. You can’t do that when you’re tired.”

She referenced a study in the US by Adobe with some of its students who had been studying at home during Covid-19. “The vast majority of young people want to be in the office and want us to be there to guide them and mentor them.”

A third of the participants said they would give up their increases if their organisations focused more on their wellness and health.

While some were concerned that having a forceful approach to returning to the office might be counterproductive to the work that’s been done in improving company culture, Tamara believes the important thing is making the office a happy and wonderful place. “Bring in a TV and PlayStation if you have to. Only then will you reach wellness and attrition.”

She added that, “CEOs also get measured on attrition, but many won’t spend the money on wellness.”

Just business

It is because of this that Simeka Health MD Mbali Khumalo said HR professionals need to hold the other leaders in the organisation accountable for their people as well. “People are longing for an employer that cares for them, and we need to incorporate that into how we do business. You can’t have human capital coming in like a consultant – telling you what to do and how to do it, and then walking away. We need to make sure that these things are implemented and carried through.”

To do this, CHROs need to have tough conversations with other leaders too. “Every leader needs to understand what their people are going through, because it’s their job to drive results through others. You can’t expect results without getting to know the people who deliver them,” she explained.

Mbali pointed out that currently, there are human capital projects and there are business projects. But that needs to change, because people are the business. “Everything the business does, hinges on its people. We’re good at saying they are our biggest asset, but when the time comes to look after them, we refer them to HR.”

She urged HR professionals to step up, and drive this integration. “You’ve worked hard for your seat at the table. Now it’s time to start talking.”

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