Engen's Chwayita Mareka on role models and the gift of feedback

The oil giant's General Manager for HR tells the story of how she found her passion.

The terms purpose and passion come to mind when listening to Engen General Manager for HR Chwayita Mareka speak about her leadership lessons. Born in the small village town of Cala in the Eastern Cape, Chwayita was raised by a grandmother who was a teacher and who encouraged her to value education and always strive for excellence. From an early age, it was instilled in her that only her very best was good enough. Circumstances did not allow for Chwayita to study straight after school and her working life began with an administrative job in one of the government departments in East London, through which she was able to further her studies. Chwayita has been privileged to study a National Diploma in Public Management and later an MBA.

"I had to study part-time and I learnt to be disciplined about how I manage my time. To this day, people still ask me how I manage studying, working and parenting as I am currently studying my masters in organisational psychology through the University of London. My answer is simple: I don’t know anything else other than being a working and studying mom.”

Love for HR

The bursary she received from her then-employer limited her to two fields of study, internal auditing and public management, and she opted for the latter, majoring in HR. That was when the bug bit. The course convener for the third-year HR module was a former HR director for Eskom and he inspired her so much that she decided then which direction her career would take. 

After graduating, Chwayita resigned from her administration job because she did not feel challenged enough and thought it would be easier to find another one since she now had a degree. It was not. She worked in miscellaneous jobs, including one as a bag packager for Pick n Pay, until she eventually joined Spoornet as a train assistant.

"My job was to assist the train drivers and working shifts. That shows that I really came from the trenches. I am so grateful for all that experience because I feel it helps me connect better with people and empathise. My advice to any aspiring professional is that, while a head office environment is where you get to be part of the strategic machinery, time at the coalface is invaluable, especially in the HR field," says Chwayita. It was while at Spoornet that she was appointed to her first HR role.

The mentor that changed it all

Spoornet was where she really cut her teeth in HR, benefiting from the mentorship of a man named Deena Naidu, who took her under his wing and taught her that HR had to be involved in many of the operational aspects of the business. It was not uncommon for Chwayita to attend all early morning operational meetings and attend the end-of-night shift meetings to garner support and buy-in for new people-related initiatives. 

"He [Naidu] often said to me that execution is what separates the men from the boys. Because everybody can have great ideas but it takes real determination and perseverance to see those ideas through. And that really stuck with me."

"To be honest, he made me. And I say that without flinching... He demonstrated the power of feedback back then when it was not fashionable. He would write letters giving me feedback on work I had executed, and slip them under my office door. His famous line at the end of such letters would be: 'If you still have the mettle, meet me at this time and place for coffee to discuss improvements'. He was immense for my growth and I’ve tried to follow through on this approach with my own teams since then.” 

A blessing in disguise 

Years later, Chwayita joined Coega Development Corporation (CDC) where she was first exposed to a culture of black excellence. The primary mandate of the state entity was to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) for the purpose of building the Industrial Development Zone in Port Elizabeth, where none of the management staff had less than a masters qualification. She reflects on her time at the CDC with great fondness, and says this was also where her purpose started to crystallise. Her mission was to 'be the conduit through which people connect with their greater selves'. This purpose became even clearer after reading John Sanei’s book, Magnetiize.

Chwayita thereafter joined Engen to gain experience in the private sector and worked in the company’s HR Centre of Excellence (COE) where she found great affinity with the people development space and was later asked to take on the group's performance management portfolio. Later, the group had a vacancy in the GM HR position and Chwayita applied. At the time it was disappointing to not be successful and moreover to move from the COE role into the HRBP role for the largest division in Engen, Sales and Marketing, she says.

“To be honest, it felt like a step backwards, but I trusted the judgment of those in leadership and ended up having the most incredible growth experience in a space where I was able to contribute and influence the business agenda across all aspects of the people value chain."

"The GM I worked for, Joe Mahlo, was another role model with his wisdom and commercial brilliance and love of nurturing talent. Part of me felt that I may have missed out on the GM HR role because I was not good enough, but the truth was that I just wasn’t ready and maybe needed the HRBP role to really hone my skills as a leader of people and process to assume the GM HR role." 

Engen eventually underwent a restructuring process and Chwayita was offered the GM HR role in March 2017. This time around, she didn’t apply for the role but she was ready. The time was right and, to her delight and surprise, she was called into the MD/CEO’s office and offered the role.

“What have been the game changers for me have been the great people I have been privileged to work with and the benefit I have received from feedback wrapped in care and a real desire to see me succeed and contribute. Jack Welch put it so well in his recent lecture saying that: 'As leaders, you’ve got a huge responsibility. God gave you a job where you are responsible for people’s lives. It’s a big deal. You’ve got families you’re responsible for, make it a big success for them. You’ve got one of the luxuries of life: to impact people’s lives. Grab it. Squeeze it. Take advantage of it'. And I’m glad I did."