For Voys CHRO Andrew McDonald, timing really is everything

Supporting talent while unlearning is the way forward for HR, says Andrew.

For Andrew McDonald, Voys Telecom South Africa CHRO, his entrance into the HR world was almost serendipitous.

At high school, he’d enjoyed business economics and accounting, and he wanted to study something in that field. At least, he thought he wanted to. During his first week at the University of Cape Town, he made a friend in the registration queue. His new friend was going to something called “Org Psych”, and intrigued, Andrew tagged along.

The organisational psychology lecturer was quite charismatic, and it didn’t take long for Andrew to have a realisation: he could explore the business world and still focus on the ‘people side’ of an organisation.

“I'm quite a social person,” says Andrew. “Human behaviour interests me and studying psychology was in the back of my mind at this point, so marrying business interests with human behaviour spoke to me – and I decided to study organisational psychology.”

Andrew ended up doing his honours in ‘Org Psych’ – and he quickly found his first job (almost as quickly as he made that friend in the registration queue).

“I presented my Honours thesis on Friday, and I started the job on Monday!” he laughs. “It was my first offer, and I was also the first employee at my first job.”

This job of firsts was for an IT recruitment start-up, and just under a year later Andrew was itching to get more exposure to other elements of the HR value chain. That’s when his role as an HR generalist at Schlumberger, an oilfield services multinational company, kicked off in 2010.

Two years later, in 2012, Andrew took up a role that would change everything. In 2012, there was a secondment opportunity in Cameroon.

“I hadn't met my wife yet, and I could pack up my life in two suitcases,” says Andrew. “Two weeks later, I was on a plane to Douala, a coastal city in southwest Cameroon, and I lived there for about four months. That was my first African adventure.”

Much like his queue-socialising in varsity, the timing for his African adventure was also fortuitous; when he returned to Cape Town from Cameroon, he met the woman who is now his wife.

“I really do believe that timing is everything.”

Supporting talent on the ground
In that same year, he joined National Oilwell Varco (NOV), an American multinational in the oil and gas sector. Andrew’s portfolio covered south and east Africa and included extensive travel to Angola, Nigeria, and Kenya, as well as visiting regional offices in Dubai and Aberdeen.

“I was mainly dealing with HR operational issues or training, all over Africa, and I loved it; I did it for a decade,” adds Andrew.

He noticed, however, that the US staff generally didn’t spend much time on the ground where they had African operations – the same was the case for Schlumberger.

“For me to spend a week with the HR team in the Angolan offices, training them in our performance management processes and systems, resulted in such appreciation for the time investment,” says Andrew. “We had great people and wonderful talent, but that wasn't necessarily being unlocked, and having just a week or two was incredibly valuable; the organisation could see the benefit of it, too.”

Don't get him wrong, he interjects – his time on the continent wasn’t always so heart-warming.

“Most recently, at the start of the global pandemic, I had a contract in Nigeria as a consultant,” he begins. “I could only fly Ethiopian airlines and spending nights in dodgy hotels in Addis Ababa was challenging – if anyone complains about flying from Cape Town to Johannesburg, I don't want to hear about it!” he laughs.

In time he even became nonchalant about the potential danger he faced, and his wife became slightly less anxious.

"I'm flying down to the Niger Delta,” he’d shout over a crackling cellphone network. “It’s fine though, the armed escort is picking me up in the bulletproof Land Cruiser."

But it was a life-altering experience, and he considers himself fortunate and privileged to have spent 10 years working throughout Africa as an HR practitioner. Plus, he was always made to feel very welcome, wherever he went.

Andrew has worked across just about every aspect of the HR value chain, but the talent space has a special place in his heart.

“It can be rewarding when the right talent meets operational needs, and when it’s developed and you can see how that investment in individuals results in growth and progression,” he says.

“At the beginning of my time at NOV, we hired a drilling engineer at level one. He engaged with our performance management approach and learning opportunities, and when I left the organisation five and a half years later, he was a regional sales manager. It's so rewarding to see that happen; you can allow someone to achieve their career goals,” adds Andrew.

Andrew joined Voys Telecom South Africa as chief talent officer in June 2021, and he is excited by this new – and somewhat unusual – opportunity.

The VOIP company was founded in the Netherlands, and the South African business is an independent entity that was established seven years ago in Cape Town. Being a VOIP provider, revenue growth has been exponential over the past two years, largely due to the demand for remote work.

“We focus on SMEs, and we have a high level of flexibility and customisation. We're still relatively small, there are only 14 employees, but we have ambitious plans for our growth in South Africa. It's an exciting time to be part of the business.”

Self-management, and a whole lot of unlearning

Voys has a company culture very different to most – and they were doing remote before it was ‘a thing’. Voys subscribes to a management practice called Holacracy (the only company in South Africa to do so, according to Andrew).

Voys does not believe in traditional, hierarchical management systems and rather emphasises self-management, where employees are responsible for themselves and not answerable to a higher-up. Job functions are also flexible as no one is confined to a single job role.

“The first couple of weeks I felt like I needed to unlearn so much from working in more traditional environments,” says Andrew.

“There's no job description per se; you have roles, and each has KPIs. But there's flexibility and it's dynamic,” he explains. “So, if you're a copywriter it doesn't mean that your only role is copywriting; you can have a role that sits in a marketing or social media, for example.”

Andrew uses a driving analogy: the rules of the road (KPIs) are there to avoid complete chaos. With parameters, everyone can head off on a freeway without crashing, because they know the direction they’re going in, and what each person is responsible for.

Andrew is the first to admit that he’s still learning this new way of working, but for him, self-management seems so much more relevant now, in terms of the new world of work.

“The right person can thrive; some people need more guidance and reassurance, for sure, and perhaps it’s not for them. But if you feel you work well at 8 pm, that's great, provided you're meeting your KPIs.”

Breaking the mould
For Andrew, who grew up in the Southern Suburbs, Cape Town is very much home. He now lives in Hout Bay, and he often goes for runs on Chapman’s Peak.

“Living in Cape Town is really hard to beat. And I’m not diminishing the incredible challenges we have in South Africa, but I do believe there's a lot to be proud of.”

Early in his career, Andrew visited a friend in San Francisco. He wanted a full-on “Americana moment”, so he rented a Ford Mustang convertible and drove from San Francisco on Highway 1, a scenic, north-south state highway that runs along the Pacific coastline. He drove through Pebble Beach, Monterey, and down to Big Sur, then he went back up, and drove past the Google campus.

“It was over two days, and it was awesome,” says Andrew. “But you can drive along Chapman's Peak and it's just as, or even more, stunning.”
Andrew is also proud of the fact that he is perhaps, not a ‘typical’ Capetonian.

“We do have a cliquey tendency!” he laughs.

“Many of my friends aren't Capetonian, though; I have friends from PE, Joburg, Durban. I like to think I’ve broken the mould.”