Dr Simi Ramgoolam: digging deep for personal leadership fulfilment

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Dr Simi Ramgoolam sheds light on the distinctive nature of HR within a multinational mining company, and how the HR agenda directly influences and contributes to the broader mining community, illustrating how the company’s people strategies extend beyond internal operations.

In the complex world of business, individuals like Dr Simi Ramgoolam shine brightly, offering deep leadership insights and a strong focus on outcomes. Simi, the executive head of people & organisation at Kumba Iron Ore, Anglo American, brings extensive experience and a strong passion for influencing business strategy, developing talent and improving organisational life.

Throughout her career, Simi faced various challenges across numerous industries, each providing opportunities for growth and resilience. The mining industry, known for its inherent complexities and safety risks, presents unique developmental opportunities for employees. For Simi, South African life is truly reflected in the mining industry and it is where she has experienced her most fulfilling stretch opportunities.

“Mining is a tough industry, and the safety of our employees is really what keeps me up at night,” she says. “It is also a beautiful industry, where the workforce is truly connected to the value chain of the business, which makes it quite a purposeful experience. We had a fatality at Kumba in February 2023, six months into my tenure in this role, and it was an extremely difficult situation to navigate on a number of fronts. Staying strong and focused while allowing oneself to be vulnerable is important, and a test of one’s character. A mining operation also exists within a community ecosystem, and it was emotionally taxing to witness the ripple effects on our employees and community.”

Despite these challenges, Simi’s determination and empathetic leadership helped her team to navigate through tough times.

“Every challenge we faced was an opportunity for us to grow stronger together. The tragic incident at Kumba was a stark reminder of the importance of safety and the resilience of our team in overcoming adversity. Kumba has an amazing culture where people are highly authentic, connected to each other and share and laugh easily. These are precious organisational characteristics that we strive to nurture and protect.

“Our mines and communities are inextricably bound. We therefore have numerous partnerships and collaborative initiatives with our corporate and community affairs teams, which makes the people function in mining really powerful. Our gender-based violence (GBV) prevention efforts, for example, extend into our communities. We have used compelling and accessible techniques, such as industrial theatre, to bring key experiences and themes to the fore – at the mines, but also in community milieus – schools, churches, health facilities and the like. This was a different approach to conducting a diagnostic effort, and the insights yielded have really assisted our more granular actions in this space.”

Where it all began

Growing up as the eldest of three daughters. Simi was brought up in a very socially conscious family. She was not shielded from the harsh realities of a then socially fragmented society, and this has really shaped her commitment to inclusion and diversity.

Simi completed her tertiary education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. “I initially went to university to major in theatre and stage design, and took psychology as a filler. I started to see the parallels between drama and psychology and the elevation of, and introspection into, the human condition in both fields. These two lenses have really helped me to harness creativity and out-of- the-box thinking in the various roles I have held over the years.”

After completing her studies, she began an internship at the company then known as BHP Billiton. She then went on to make strides at various companies including Edcon, Investec, IBM and Holcim Schweiz/Suisse/Svizzera.

“I subsequently went on to numerous roles in strategy and consulting, not pure HR, which has stood me in good stead. I have had a variety of rich and compelling career experiences, but a stand-out was probably in my early 20s when I was selected by the city manager at the time to be the change lead for the City of Cape Town’s transformation Unicity project. It was an extremely exciting role that had an impact at a grassroots level for the people of Cape Town.”

Adaptation and wellbeing

According to Simi, some of the key challenges facing HR include adaptation to rapid technology advancements, as well as employee wellbeing.

Speaking on wellbeing, Simi says cultivating psychological safety in an organisation is not truly possible if employees do not feel psychologically safe in their lives.

“It is difficult in the world’s current political and social zeitgeist to feel whole, safe and secure, and while we may have numerous quality wellbeing initiatives and support systems available to employees, it is very often not enough. We need to stay empathetic as leaders, and make time to listen and engage with employees at all levels in the organisation. Understand the realities and challenges on the ground, so that employees feel heard. There are no easy fixes for the anxiety-inducing global and local terrain the world is navigating. Hence we need to listen to understand, instead of listening to respond,” she says.

Simi believes that it is of utmost importance to acknowledge the importance of technology and automation in reshaping work in the mining industry. On technological advancements, she highlights that employees should not be avoidant around digitisation and automation, as they are changing the future of work in mining.

“It is also the way we eradicate safety incidents in the industry. While we have initiated significant efforts in the mining industry, balancing the perception of jobs being at risk and digitisation being a threat to job security is a concern. What we need to elucidate for stakeholders is that there are new job avenues coming to the fore and socialisation and skills building in this regard are paramount.”

Mapping the way forward

However, she advises against blindly following trends and instead emphasises sticking to foundational principles like being relatable, listening to various voices in the stakeholder landscape, and executing activities effectively to produce quality outcomes, which are crucial for successful HR leadership.

“It often feels to me that HR leaders are caught in a trends trap, and we have let go of some of the basics that make organisational life nourishing. HR leaders need to be accessible, receptive to different voices, and must be able to ideate and execute. I have seen many good intentions and ideas go awry because of a lack of execution excellence. It’s exceptionally important to have this capability.”

Looking at the future of HR leaders, Simi encourages aspiring HR leaders to embrace diverse experiences and unconventional career paths to foster holistic growth and develop a deeper understanding of human dynamics. By doing so, they can become effective leaders who inspire others with compassion, resilience and an interesting personal story.

She advises, “Don’t be afraid to explore different paths in your career journey. Embrace the squiggly paths! Each experience, whether planned or unexpected, contributes to your growth as a leader. Embrace the challenges you encounter, stay open-minded, and never stop learning.”

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