CHRO Day 2023: Inspiring HR execs during a day of insight, lessons, and exquisite cuisine

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HR leaders gathered at The Leonardo for a day of networking and learning - and to reimagine prosperity for their companies and the country.

On a day themed “Reimagining prosperity”, South Africa’s leading HR professionals gathered on 4 July for CHRO Day at The Leonardo in Sandton.

Lauded as the pinnacle of executive learning for HR executives, the exclusive day laid out the intention to provide insight and solutions to professionals, leaders and boards who face challenges that come with running successful businesses in this day and age.

The exclusive day kicked off with a thought-provoking keynote by World Economic Forum tech pioneer and author Jos Dirkx.

Jos started by explaining to executives that the technical evolution that is now happening is a natural progression.

“Work is a fundamental aspect of human evolution. We know that work has changed particularly through the pandemic, evolution and the AI revolution that we are going through. Our world is changing at an exponential rate, not linear. What this means for your business, is that you need to be able to tap into collective innovation and ideas by creating a workplace environment to hear and accept great ideas,” she said.

AI is having a moment, according to Jos, and HR leaders should use it to supplement their skills and simplify tasks such as consolidating data, leveraging dispersed dashboards, and saving time on admin and bureaucracy.

“These tools are within your reach, just engage with them. With AI, you can also support teams better, enhance company culture, and make space for mental health by freeing managers,” she said.

Jos added, “When it comes to AI, there are tons of tools you can use now, especially for small teams, because this is critical in how we are hiring and what we are hiring for. Most of you here should be hiring a chief AI strategist for your organisations.”

The power of data science

Next up was Kosta Kontos, lecturer of the Data Science Leadership course at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town.

Kosta captivated the executives in attendance with his talk on how best to recruit, structure and retain high-performance data teams.

“Build a centre of excellence, which can be a useful recruitment tactic as it’ll allow your organisation to compete on culture instead of salary [data science teams, on average, are highly paid]. A centre of excellence is a standalone space where data scientists work together, celebrate successes, and where teams can give talks so the organisation can learn about what’s happening. Prioritise quiet study time, which is rare in large, open-plan corporates, and ensure you have one or two recognised data science experts working in the centre to serve as role models.”

After a delectable lunch and much networking, attendees separated into three breakout groups where business-relevant topics, challenges and solutions were discussed at length.

HR leaders are human too

Sylvia Baloyi, industrial psychologist and transition coach at Lehlogonolo HR Consulting led a breakaway session on how leaders more often than not continue to lead while dealing with their own physical or psychological trauma.

Pumeza Bam, CHRO at Liberty shared her story about finding herself diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and how she managed to navigate her way through the physical, emotional and mental trauma that came with it.

"Trauma doesn't tell you it's coming. It just arrives. And you don't know how long it will stay. As hard as it may sound, one needs to not live in that trauma - but rather live past it," she said.

Pumeza added that organisations need to think differently about compassionate leave.

"The only way organisations will ever be able to support all their employees' mental health and wellbeing needs is if they take a specific approach to each individual instead of a policy approach. For me, the mental health support was what mattered the most. The mental and physical health erosion is something that cannot be ignored," she added.

Managing executive at Sanlam Corporate Nzwa Shoniwa who underwent a different trauma, of losing loved ones in a short period, added that as much as no one can escape adversity, it is the environment that one is in that allows for adequate healing.

"As HR leaders we need to create an environment where people can bring their pain to the organisation. This helps with how people navigate the adversities they find themselves in," he said.

When you go through trauma as a leader, it hits differently, he added.

HealthImpact CEO Jedd Myers concluded that HR executives need to have the courage to ask for help. “It is common that HR leaders carry a lot and more often than not bear the brunt of being the guardians of the entire organisation.”

Merged in matrimony

In the breakout session themed merged in matrimony, panellists discussed how to best navigate the often-fraught process of mergers and acquisitions.

Moderated by Life Healthcare’s CPO Avanthi Parboosing, Juba Mashaba, CHRO at Cell C and Chiluba Mumbi, an independent strategy and tech M&A advisor, emphasised how HR leaders need to be involved in the M&A process right from the start.

Part of the problem is that CHROs tend to not immerse themselves in the business: the panellists noted that if CHROs don’t understand the business’s key drivers, they won’t get a seat at the table, so, demonstrate how you can bring value, and make it your business to understand the business.

A critical aspect of a successful transition is being able to bring together diverse cultures and ways of doing business because M&As aren’t just about merging companies, but also cultures. This isn’t easy, but the panellists highlighted that often the M&A itself doesn’t bring value; value is found in people.

The third breakaway session gave CHROs tools on how best to make a deep emotional connection with employees.

Mikateko Nkuna-Valoyi, head of talent and capability, Vodacom SA delved into how the organisation has created communities of belonging, “Inclusivity includes absence of judgement, personalisation and understanding your own organisation’s workforce. There is no silver bullet, you have to find out what people want.”

Similarly, Sana-Ullah Bray, CHRO at Sanlam explained that sometimes efforts for inclusion can backfire and create silos, so we need to be mindful. “When it comes to inclusivity, it’s all about learning from each other. Organisations need to balance commerciality with people and the role of HR is to straddle that.”

Tamara Parker, CEO at Mercer added that engagement is what makes organisations work and tick and ultimately what retains people. “In an organisation, you want people to feel they can belong because, in today’s workplace, it’s as important as hard deliverables.”

Old dog, new tricks

An intriguing and vigorous panel discussion on orchestrating a responsive, agile and impactful HR function within SOEs captivated the audience next.

Themed “Teaching an elephant how to dance” Itumeleng Matsheka, chief of people management and learning at Transnet, Eskom’s Elsie Pule and former SAA GM for human capital now independent consultant Thuli Mpshe spoke frankly about the solutions which can see the national SOE thrive.

Elsie said creating a sense of safe space and safety net given the challenging circumstances at the SOE has been her team's key focus.

“Making sure that we provide our employees with comfort by being transparent. Employee engagement proved to provide a sense of belonging and sanity while we are weathering this storm. Mental wellness programmes that are particularly geared to the youth - who now make up a healthy majority of the employees - have also been a winner, she said.

Sungula Nkabinde, community manager for CHRO SA posed the question about the leadership vacuum at SOEs given the challenges.

Thuli spoke frankly about the level of integrity and courage that is needed to be an honest leader within a parastatal. “The vacuum at the time was mostly due to a lack of courage and values on the part of leaders at the time.”

Itumeleng, who joined Transnet at a time when the parastatal was going through a transition in 2020, explained that the process is not without struggles but it has proven to be fruitful. “People read about state capture; HR leaders at SOEs have lived it. But you have to teach this elephant agility; it’s an intelligent animal and if you have the patience to teach it, it’ll dance.”

Rounding off the triumphant day was the last plenary session that looked at the possibility of a three-day weekend becoming a reality in South Africa.

4 Day Week South Africa director Karen Lowe, discussed the first local pilot of a four-day work week and shared that there is an appetite for such a radical change, as well as the potential benefits and drawbacks of this model. “The 4-day working week is game-changing, illuminating, incentivising but most importantly, it is your future talent pipeline.”

A night under the stars

The CHROs in attendance were treated to a delectable three-course meal at lunch and the night ended with drinks and networking at Alto234, the highest urban bar in Africa.

This exclusive day is supported by CHRO South Africa’s Principal Partners Mercer, Sanlam and Workday. Healthimpact as an Executive Partner and Associate Partners are AtlasHXM, Discovery, Gordon Institute of Business Science, Standard Bank and YuGrow.

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