EPPF head of HR Shyless Nkuna says servant leadership is paramount

If the global financial crisis was the mock exam, Covid-19 presented the real test for HR leaders, says Shyless.

“Leaders are not tested when things are going well. They are tested during volatile times,” says Shyless Nkuna, head of HR at Eskom Pension and Provident Fund (EPPF). Navigating a turbulent 2020 was not Shyless’s first rodeo as an HR Leader.

When Shyless was at Standard Bank (CIB), the global economy was reeling from the subprime financial crisis. The financial services sector was severely affected as capital flew out of emerging markets.

“That was the first time I realised that as an HR professional you need to be adaptable, understand the strategic direction of the business and be clear about the impact that an HR strategy has on business,” she says.

“I learned that to be effective, one cannot force an HR agenda; you must actively partner with business so that they can truly take ownership of HR and understand the positive impact it has on achieving business strategy. You must be agile, which will enable you to effectively respond to business challenges as and when they arise.”

With the business responding to the impact of the global financial crisis, Shyless says there were days when she had to understand that, metaphorically speaking, the sky was falling and that some HR initiatives could be reprioritised; that offering fit-for-purpose support for business to make informed decisions when it came to human capital, was much more critical.

She realised that proposed HR initiatives would have to pivot with every fire that needed to be extinguished. “That kind of nuanced understanding of what is happening within the business at all times goes a very long way,” she says.

Her previous experience gave her a head start – it was a crash course for the pandemonium that came with the Covid-19 pandemic, which tested business leaders the world over, and the human capital space even more so, because it affected people directly.

“As leaders, we were accustomed to seeing and managing people in a very specific environment, but we had to adjust very quickly,” says Shyless. “We had to trust our people and learn to lead more effectively with renewed compassion and empathy. Employees also looked to us for hope and guidance at a time when we didn’t have the answers ourselves.”

Servant leadership

Shyless says that 2020 revealed the importance of servant leadership, something she has always championed, but more especially within the EPPF last year. While a lot of work had to be done to fast-track the digital transformation journey, she focused on the human element, and the reality, she says, is that leadership cannot be automated or outsourced.

“The concept of servant leadership is about serving others first – and leading with compassion is critical. By demonstrating servant leadership, you acknowledge the perspective of your employees, give them the support they need, involve them in decision-making, and build a sense of community within the team. This leads to higher engagement levels, deeper levels of trust, increased innovation and a sense of belonging. Servant leadership is quite simply a way of being,” says Shyless.

Reflecting on the tough year gone by and the uncertain future ahead, Shyless acknowledges that being a good leader is much easier said than done.

“It’s difficult to be inspirational and motivational as a leader when you have the entire workforce looking to you with expectation, hope and direction while you too are facing the same external shocks and personal tribulations that they are. But if this last year has taught me anything, it is that you must fill up your own cup first. You cannot inspire confidence when your tank is empty,” she says. Her strong support system is made up of family, friends, mentors, and doing things that set her soul on fire to help fill up her tank when it is running low.

Unwinding outside of work

Shyless enjoys reading leadership books and listening to motivational podcasts in her spare time. “As a mother, a wife and admittedly, a workaholic, I try as much as possible to spend quality time with my family – this helps to recharge my batteries,” she says.

She also relies heavily on retail therapy and home décor: “There is nothing quite as energising as a new purchase that I can genuinely get excited about,” she says.

Before lockdown, Shyless was an avid traveller; but due to travel restrictions and needing to be more cautious around Covid-19, she says, “Jamaica will have to wait.”