Discovery SA's Tswelo Kodisang on the parallels between running and being an HR leader


Tswelo runs marathons as a way to explore new cities around the world.

Family Man. HR leader. Avid Runner. Part-time Uber driver ? these 10 words sum up Discovery chief people officer Tswelo Kodisang in a nutshell. When he’s not in the office, he is chaperoning his three girls ? Nyakallo, Kganya and Reabiloe ? all over Johannesburg and across the country, mostly to sports events.

“I Uber them around on weekends. That's my side hustle. If things don't work out with this HR thing, at least I’ve got that as my fall back option,” he jokes.

The girls, aged two years apart with the eldest being 14, are extremely active and so is their father who has become so enamoured with running in recent years that he now runs marathons as a way to explore cities around the world.

Tswelo started taking running seriously in 2014 when he was on sabbatical after his time in the UK. His brother had been preparing for the Two Oceans marathon and invited him along to one of his training sessions and before long Tswelo had run the Soweto Marathon and was hooked.

He has now completed the Two Oceans Marathon three times, the New York Marathon, and last year ran the Berlin Marathon.

“This year, I'm doing the Chicago Marathon… I still haven't done the Comrade’s though because I am yet to wrap my head around the idea of running an additional 30 km after the standard 56 km," says Tswelo.

For him, there is nothing like running through a totally new city for the first time, alongside hundreds of people from all over the world with even more locals cheering them on. That way, one covers a lot more ground and can get a much better appreciation for the nuances that one simply misses out on when one is just visiting tourist attractions and museums. 

“In New York, for example, everybody was wearing their medal like a badge of honour in the days that followed the marathon. You would see people walking in the streets, in restaurants and even in suits on their way to work wearing their New York Marathon medals. I had never seen anything like it before.”

Parallels with HR leadership

Running is a great leveller for Tswelo because, on the road, nobody can tell how much another person earns or how well connected they are. Everyone is the same, and this leads to a lot of great conversation and camaraderie among runners who are extremely supportive of one another.

It’s this kind of spirit that Tswelo says is engendered among the people at Discovery where the aim is for everyone to support each other and feel that anything is possible.

“In addition to putting me in a healthy frame of mind for work and meeting wonderful new people, running has been a great way to spend time with my brother. It is something that is pencilled in our schedules so we get to see each other often. I believe, that if you don't create common interests with people you care about, it is very easy to grow apart from them. Running has really allowed us to stay connected. Sometimes my sister will drop us off and support us at a race, so it is a family connection.”

There are many parallels between running and the work Tswelo does as an HR leader, particularly from a mindset point of view. And, in many ways, it’s a lot like steering a team towards achieving a seemingly unachievable target.

“When you first set yourself a target of running a marathon, it seems a mammoth task at first. It doesn't seem doable and the truth is, that it won't be if you don't train. This is the same with strategic objectives within an organisation. You need to set bold targets but you also have to have the discipline to do what it takes to achieve them.”

The Vitality model

Tswelo has been a longstanding member of the CHRO SA community and, a year into his new role, he still follows the same principles for achieving people-focused organisational growth as he did when he was the CHRO at Tiger Brands, despite the two being very different companies. 'Tiger' is a mammoth fast-moving consumer goods company which was slightly more complex because it had 40 factories, with up to 20,000 people spread across the continent and in Chile whereas 8,000 of Discovery's 12,000 employees are situated in the same building in Sandton. Also, all employees at Discovery are professional knowledge workers whereas, at Tiger, one deals with a mix of non-bargaining and bargaining labour groups.

"One is not bigger or better than the other. They're just different. I'm learning a lot because it's my first foray into the financial services space. But, at the end of the day, people are people and we all want the same thing – to grow, be fulfilled and feel valued by the people we interact with whether that is inside or outside of the work environment," says Tswelo.

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Discovery is also much further along in their digitisation journey. The shared value model has been a game-changer for the business and will be key to Discovery’s new behavioural bank, which was launched in February. Just like the hundreds of thousands of Vitality health members that have become healthier through rewards, Discovery Bank will incentivise customers to optimally manage their money, harnessing the shared value model, global digital and emerging fintech capabilities and the broader Discovery ecosystem.

Employees get the same benefit as customers

On whether employees will be required to move over to Discovery Bank and become platinum level Vitality members, Tswelo jokingly responds in the affirmative.

“Of course. If you are not on the platinum level, we deduct your pay accordingly,” laughs Tswelo.

On a serious note, he says it is up to employees how much they want to benefit from the rewards, which are available to every Discovery customer. Rather, it’s about displaying behaviours that are good for their mental and physical wellbeing, to incentivise pre-screening that allows for pre-emptive care rather than waiting to become ill and to do damage control thereafter. The rewards, which are the same for all Vitality members, regardless of whether they are employees or not, should influence individuals to get moving, which drives them to become healthier and, as a result, they will be more productive at work.

Says Tswelo: “The same principles will be applied to the bank. But there is no mandatory requirement. We believe there are about five controllable behaviours that lead to three conditions of financial wellness, which we are trying to address.  It's the same logic with short-term vehicle insurance. There are behaviours that lead to accidents, which we are trying to influence. If we can get people to control their speeding through our app, for example, those people are less likely to be in an accident, which means they are less likely to claim and their premiums will be lower which means they will have more money to spend...That's the essence of our business model.”

This article was originally published in CHRO Magazine, available in airport lounges around South Africa now.

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