CHRO Deseree van den Berg believes in mutual trust

It was through a happy accident that the HR leader’s career path into auditing changed.

By Jane Steinacker

Deseree van den Berg, head of human capital at Risk Benefit Solutions, may have landed up in the HR sector “by accident”, but it was a happy accident for the industry.

“I started my career in a call centre with a headset on my head at Sanlam in their medical aid administration call centre,” she recalls. It was at that call centre that Deseree became interested in learning and development.

“I landed up becoming a learning and development specialist in the client services call centre,” she said. Even though at that time she was still determined to become an auditor, unbeknown to Deseree, that is where her career path changed.

Her love for numbers and how businesses operate saw Deseree continue her Bachelor of Accounting Science degree through UNISA. But Deseree’s passion had been captured and after finishing her qualification she set her sights on developing people within organisations.

Her career in this field was taken to a whole new level when she joined Metropolitan Retail as a learning and development specialist in May 2006.

“I started my journey as a learning and development specialist after which I moved naturally through the ranks from specialist into management. I was privileged to work with various amazing leadership teams that really believed in me and my journey with them. My career projected exponentially as I was mentored and supported by senior and executive leadership,” she said.

The leadership team saw Deseree’s great work and she started being tasked with building the learning and development capability across multiple divisions within the organisation.

“The team saw the value in what I built in parts of the organisation and wanted this to be expanded into other areas of the business. I started creating a learning and development team for all the servicing environments and based on the success I was tasked to expand the capabilities into other non-sales areas of the business,” she said.

It was the merger between Metropolitan and Momentum where Deseree really earned her stripes.

Amazing opportunities
“When I took over the HR portfolio for Metropolitan Retail, it happened in the middle of a merger. The leadership team put their utmost faith in me as my general HR experience was not exponential at the time. True to my nature not to say no to a challenge I accepted. It was the biggest learning school heading up HR during this time. What an amazing opportunity to grab with both hands!” she says.

“This experience clearly crystallised where I wanted to take my career, business and people. As a result, I continued my studies in this field and completed my BCom degree in industrial and organisational psychology in 2019,” she adds.

After being deeply involved in various extensive organisational redesign initiatives after the merger, she decided to take a sabbatical to focus on family and studies.

In December 2014 Deseree opened her own beauty business. But the HR profession called her back into its fold within a year. She was offered the position at Risk Benefit Solutions where she took up the role as head of human capital in October 2015. She continued her entrepreneurial venture, which she sold a couple of years later.

“Risk Benefit Solutions, one of the largest brokerages in South Africa, is an entrepreneurial organisation that is different to a large listed corporate,” she says.

In her current position Deseree enjoys access to smaller details across all areas of the business and the ability to expand her value add into operations, a luxury one does not have when running a division in a large listed corporate business.

“RBS has done various acquisitions over the years, and it continues to be one of our strengths,” she says. This is where Deseree’s experience in mergers and acquisitions and the complexity that comes with comes into play.

“It is always a challenge with mergers and acquisitions to integrate diverse cultures from often owner-managed and family businesses to that of your organisation,” she notes.

Passion for learning
Deseree has recently continued her passion for learning, especially in organisational design, by completing her MBA specialising in executive management through the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town.

“The Executive MBA at GSB UCT is a transformative learning experience that not only focuses on functional management but also on developing authentic leaders. It is where I learned and refined my own practice of reflection, being present and even meditation,” she says. Her thesis topic was: “The remote workforce and organisational design conundrum”.

Deseree will be publishing and presenting on various platforms on the findings of her research. She is adamant that organisational design as practice is not fully understood by organisations and practitioners alike.

“Organisations are complex and organisational design is complex. Add remote work into the mix and you soon realise that a cookie cutter approach to your remote work implementation is not going to work. Organisational design is also not just about creating an organogram and filling the blocks,” she says.

Her extensive experience in dealing with complex HR challenges coupled with her knowledge of business operations and her studies is seeing her current role evolving further: “I'm currently heading various exciting digitisation projects as well as caretaking some operational teams in addition to the HR portfolio. My focus is on process efficiencies and performance metrics. What are we doing, how are we doing it, why are we doing it, how do we measure it, etc. It is about connecting the dots across the organisation and understanding how a change in one area impacts somewhere else. It is about answering questions on how we design the organisation and all its parts to ensure strategy execution,” she says.

Deseree adds that maintaining the culture of an organisation during a pandemic has weighed heavily on the team. Organisational culture combined with other factors resulted in RBS adopting a work-from-office philosophy, yet allowing flexibility where needed, she says.

She highlights the importance of building an organisational culture of trust in this new world of work: “Without leading from a place of mutual trust any flexible working solution is not going to be successful,” she says.