From union negotiations to people-centric leadership: The HR journey of Tshepisho Mahlangu

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People director of large industries at Air Liquide Tshepisho Mahlangu speaks on championing transformation and impact through people-centric leadership.

It's 3am at the Unitrans depot, a tense situation arises when disgruntled truck drivers voice their displeasure, and vowing not to let the trucks leave until their concerns are addressed. In the South African freight sector, such situations are not uncommon, but Tshepisho Mahlangu, a seasoned executive in human resources, is no stranger to dealing with union demands.

Without hesitation, she took a proactive approach and headed directly to the depot. Having had a brief but impactful conversation, a positive resolution was reached, and the trucks finally embarked on their intended routes. However, this remarkable achievement did not happen overnight.

It was the outcome of months of unwavering dedication, characterized by consistent open communication and numerous informal meetings between Tshepisho and the union representatives.

Tshepisho who currently occupies the role of people director large industries at Air Liquide, emphasizes the paramount importance of building strong and reliable relationships throughout human resources.

“It’s also about mutual respect,” she reflects, recalling a later incident where a union representative refused to collaborate with her simply because of her gender. While laying the groundwork to cultivate the relationship, Tshepisho came to realize that there were still hurdles imposed and the preservation of the status quo.

Though this was much earlier on in Tshepisho’s 20-year career in HR, the experience highlighted the importance of transparency, which she would go on to use in a later role where she introduced town halls and HR conversations forums, which was unheard of for a French corporation at the time.

Stepping out of her comfort zone

Through her time at Unitrans, Tshepisho achieve even more success and a record of no strike action, her then manager recommended her for a senior role, which she felt she was not yet equipped for.

“This was a multinational company, and it was an HR Director role for the entire Africa region. I looked at him and said, ‘Excuse me, Africa! What do I know about Africa?’ And he said, ‘You’ll learn. I said no, because I was still a manager and 31 years old at the time, I felt wasn’t ready, and I said no again, but he said yes.”

Tshepisho subsequently agreed to an interview, aced the interview, and an offer was made. She admits thinking the hiring manager had made a poor hiring decision and that she would fail in the role.

New broom sweeps clean

Her first mandate as an HR Director was the most challenging – restructuring – she had to lay off over 90 people in the business’ Africa division. “Everybody was unhappy this new HR person that just joined. The plan was to also restructure the entire executive and senior management teams, there we a few loose ends in the business that needed tightened to help turn the business around.

“So, I did the restructuring for the first three months, and then afterwards, with the VP: Operations, we started the process of ensuring the business is run like an organisation by improving efficiencies."

The process was no small feat, as it meant processes and procedures had to be put in place. Subsequently, at the end of the restructuring Tshepisho had lost her entire team and had to start over.

“I got a new team, and literally we started turning things around, putting together policies, processes, systems, sales incentive structures and performance management systems. I had to harmonize them into Africa, because at the time we didn’t have group policies and processes."

The science of small actions and the people-first approach

After losing her husband, Tshepisho returned to the fast-paced world of people and took on a role at a major packaged goods company in South Africa. At the company, Tshepisho saw the effects of legacy and resistance to change.

A few months in the role, she realized that the culture was not people centric. “I think it was a legacy issue because it was an ‘us and them’ type of environment. You just couldn’t fit in,” she says, you needed to be YES person to fit in.

“It was never about the people; it was about sales and targets. When you get leadership that puts people first, you see rapid change in the culture, which will improve business.

“For me, it starts with management, if the business puts people first, you see a huge difference in terms of the culture. If you have a leadership team that is all about numbers and targets and they “forget” their people, you will never, ever see any change happening,” she says.

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