Elsie Pule on driving Eskom's performance culture
Elsie has been with Eskom since 1995 bar a three-year stint at SARS.
Heading up the function of an organisation everyone loves to hate isn’t easy, but Elsie Pule’s commitment to the success of Africa’s largest energy utility is unquestionable. The group executive for HR at Eskom since 2016, Elsie Pule has been with the organisation since 1995, a streak only broken by a three-year stint at SARS from 2010 to 2012.
Despite an enviable career, she admits that her path to HR was an unintended one. “Having grown up in Winterveldt, my world view wasn’t expansive and I didn’t know a lot about career options.” All she knew was that she was going to pursue an education and do something to better herself and those around her. “When registering at The University of the North, also known as "Turfloop", in 1985, I saw a queue for Humanities and I remembered a lady back home whom I admired, and she was a social worker. I decided to follow in her steps and enrolled for a degree in Social Work.” She recalls.
This led her down the path of working for Government and the NGO sector, servicing the underprivileged, children and the elderly. A pivotal experience was participating in the change management process when in the early nineties when the banks moved pensioners from bank books to cards. This was a difficult change however, the elderly embraced it and the rest is history.
“I worked in underserved communities including Brits, Winterveldt, Moutse, Cullinan, Bronkhorspruit, Mamelodi and Atteridgeville where a lot of the elderly had low rates of literacy and needed extra care.” She found that setting up old-age homes, luncheon clubs, feeding schemes and other social services, was a momentous period that, while it was demanding, changed people’s lives. Through that and other similar situations, she built strong organising and grassroots skills, which have proved powerful assets throughout her career.
In 1995, South Africa was in its early days of democracy and Eskom was looking for talented, black professionals in its affirmative action drive. Elsie had just completed her Honours in Psychology at the University of Pretoria, where the language of instruction was Afrikaans, which led her to being hired as the first African lecturer at the University of Pretoria to start the Psychology classes in the English medium. She is very proud that this opened the door for many non-Afrikaans psychology students to access an education at the University of Pretoria. Then, Eskom headhunted her to play an organisational development advisor role.
As an advisor, she had the opportunity to carve out a niche for herself and quickly honed in on the issue of human performance to understand what causes human error and sub-par delivery. An avid behaviourist herself, she spearheaded the establishment of the Human Performance function in the Generation Division of Eskom and revealed that underperformance is mostly a function of latent organisational weaknesses including poor management decisions and inadequate policies, and often not particularly a reflection of competency.
Elsie thrives off projects with complexity and high impact. She was tasked with creating the business case to structure the Shared Services Unit at Eskom.
Says Elsie: “I was thrown in the deep end and had never done anything like that. I travelled the world learning from leading companies, including Shell and Walmart. I picked up best practices and led the design implementation of the unit. In 2004, we went live with the first business and have been capitalising on benefits such as capacity flexibility and cost savings since then.”
In 2009 the South Africa Revenue Service (SARS) approached her to come on board as chief human resources officer – an offer she took up.
The role aligned with her passion for serving a higher purpose and afforded her the satisfaction of knowing her decisions changed the trajectory of many young people through bursaries, graduate training and other opportunities.
“It was a complex role and I had to quickly learn about the fiscus and immerse myself in the world of finance. I started participating in the World Customs Universities, spent a lot of time coming to an understanding of how countries such as China ran their customs and helped in establishing the Africa Tax Forum, especially the staffing establishment and capabilities,” says Elsie.
She also addressed issues of compliance within SARS, and is most proud of having started the SARS Academy of Learning, which boasted a ground-breaking customs training programme that saw her team giving virtual training around the world as part of the World Customs Universities.
Coming back to Eskom
Elsie returned to Eskom after three years at SARS and took up a general senior manager position. She was strategic in navigating her career and made sure that her tasks were high-impact, high-visibility projects, which included the Eskom Women’s Advancement Programme. This initiative has successfully moved the proportion of women in the executive band from 27 percent to 40 percent today.
She is also particularly proud of a programme that has recruited 100 youngsters as nuclear operators, 40 being female, who are now being phased in as licensed nuclear operators over a period of five years.
She admits that navigating a space like Eskom is difficult for a multitude of reasons. A World Bank study in 2016 found that Eskom was 66 percent overstaffed. Many of the challenges she has had to confront are a result of competing priorities, such as reducing the parastatal’s wage bill while finding efficiencies and balancing those against the pressure to maintain jobs in a country where unemployment is at endemic proportions.
Stood the test of time
Elsie has served under several chief executives and boards and navigated her career through one crisis after the other including the load-shedding that threatened to derail the 2010 World cup, labour disputes and corruption and mismanagement scandals. She has been steadfast in playing a constructive role in helping the organisation navigate these challenges.
From an HR perspective, tough decisions have seen the organisation’s headcount fall to 46,665 employees in 2019, about four percent lower than the previous year, but wider staff cuts have been resisted while taxpayers are expecting Eskom to be more prudent.
“Some of our most burning issues include keeping the country’s power supply going, getting the best out of talent, being agile enough to change with our rapidly transforming world and meeting demands of the future.”
Elsie understands the magnitude and impact of the people component at Eskom given its role as a major economic driver and an enabler for millions. Despite the challenges the utility faces, she believes it can become the beacon of excellence it once was.
“I have seen Eskom at its highest when it was an award-winning, world-renowned utility company. I have met people who have grown and achieved a lot of impact. Knowing that the organisation can achieve these heights is what drives me.”