Harmonising humanity: inside the musical heart of HR leader Colin Smith

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CHRO South Africa explores the harmony of music and community with the head of HR at Northam Platinum.

Colin Smith, head of HR at Northam Platinum, was raised in a tight-knit family surrounded by siblings and cousins. He says his mother taught him the importance and appreciation of family and the care for humanity. “This upbringing instilled in me a strong sense of community and a genuine connection with people from a very young age.”

Early on, he had a strong interest in becoming an accountant but university opened up a plethora of career options unknown to him at the time. “This led me to explore alternative options within the social science field, and I eventually decided to study human resources and industrial sociology,” he says. “Looking back on this decision, I have no regrets, as I believe this path aligns perfectly with my abilities and personality traits, and I find it more fulfilling than any other discipline.”

Finding a home in mining

Colin’s passion for work is palpable as he explains that mining is not just a job for him. “It is my passion, and it is undeniably a people-oriented business. Unlike other sectors such as manufacturing, automotive, hospitality and banking, mining brings together people from diverse backgrounds, creating a melting pot of social, economic and cultural experiences that are truly unique.” Colin has an equally diverse spread of mining experience, having worked in gold, diamonds, coal and now platinum group metals for the past 16 years. “I can confidently say that it is my true calling, and I cannot imagine myself working anywhere else,” he says.

He explains that in South Africa, mining companies play a crucial role in providing employment opportunities. For example, when he first joined Northam Platinum in 2014, they had around 10,000 employees, and now employ 22,000 people. Of these employees, nineteen percent are women, an increase of more than 100 percent since 2014, in for example core occupations like, rock engineers, metallurgists at our base metal refinery, concentrator and mineral processing departments, miners and mining engineers, geologists, shift supervisors, artisans, environmental specialists, metal accountants, chemical engineers, to mention a few positions. Northam Platinum has been at the forefront of promoting women in mining, a sector where women were until recently legislated out of the core disciplines and careers in the industry.

“Over the course of nine years, we have steadily increased our workforce. However, our focus has always been on creating meaningful, sustainable and dignified jobs, rather than simply hiring for the sake of it. This achievement is particularly significant considering the challenging economic environment, the specific sector we operate in, and the remote and rural locations where mining companies are often found.”

Colin explains that these jobs not only allow individuals to earn a living but also enable them to contribute to society and the socio-economic development of the areas in which they live and work. Each mining job has a dependency ratio of up to seven to eight ‘family’ members, which is significant. “We value the communities we operate in and strive to make a positive impact on their wellbeing,” he says.

Growing pains

Northam Platinum’s massive growth has resulted in it reaching an impressive milestone of entering the top 40 of the JSE. Colin says he feels privileged to be a member of this exceptional team and adds, “The success we have achieved in our company is not possible without the collaboration and assistance of our colleagues. HR plays a crucial role in directing company business and strategy and working closely with key stakeholders such as the CEO, CFO, operations executives, head of sustainability, head of business development, and general and HR managers. HR’s contribution to identifying and developing talent, working with and engaging organised labour, creating an environment conducive to each employee being able to truly contribute to the development of Northam Platinum can be seen at the same level as core and critical technical disciplines, making it an integral part of our growth.”

One significant challenge was maintaining a cohesive company culture as they expanded. With a larger workforce, it became crucial to ensure that everyone felt connected and aligned with company values. “To address this, we implemented regular team-engagement activities, encouraged open communication channels, and fostered a sense of belonging through inclusive practices,” he says.

Another challenge was managing the diverse needs and expectations of a larger workforce. “We recognised the importance of providing personalised support and development opportunities to each employee. This involved implementing robust team performance management systems, offering tailored training programmes, and providing clear career progression pathways.”

Furthermore, as the company grew, it faced the challenge of maintaining effective communication channels. He shares that to overcome this, they invested in holistic communication technologies, established regular employee and organised labour engagement meetings, and encouraged feedback through various channels. “This allowed us to address concerns promptly and ensure that everyone felt heard and valued.”

He clarifies that unions understand the importance of collaboration, and fairness in engagements with employees. “I have found that paying attention and treating employees fairly will lead to positive outcomes. How we treat and engage with people is crucial, and this is reinforced by operational supervision and management. I think consistency, authenticity and genuineness in interactions go a long way. Treating others with respect is not just a cliché; it is fundamental and paves the way for success and numerous opportunities.”

Through these obstacles, he more deeply appreciated that the business revolves around people, and having the right skills is paramount. “We prioritised the importance of health and safety in everything we do, emphasising this to those who were new to the industry. By imparting the necessary skills and knowledge, we were able to address this challenge and move forward.”

Relationships with external stakeholders are crucial, and conflicts between mining companies and communities often catch the headlines. Despite some arguments that communities are difficult to work with and finding common ground is impossible, Colin says they have been able to achieve a lot with communities. “With community trusts we have delivered healthcare, electrification, schools, road and water reticulation infrastructure, tertiary education bursaries, housing developments and attacked other social ills that benefit these communities where we draw our employees from.”

“To give you an example of the level of engagement,” he says, “one of our operations engages 30 plus host, affected and impacted community structures, including numerous traditional authorities, local government councillors, legitimate and community recognised business forums, and community property associations, to mention a few local structures. We also engage regional, provincial and national government departments on broader impact initiatives. Continuous stakeholder engagement through skilled operations teams has delivered results with lasting community impact strengthening relationships.”

A heart for the arts

Colin is a big believer in the transformative power of art and literature and is deeply passionate about supporting them. His dedication extends to his current role as director of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, where classical music holds a special place in his heart.

His involvement with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra extends back to 2012. He says, “My passion for classical music stems from my father, who instilled in me an appreciation for its beauty. Our recent collaboration with jazz musicians served as a potent reminder that differences can be the very catalyst for creating something truly extraordinary.” 

He shares that a recent collaboration with jazz musicians in a unique ‘classical vs. jazz’ event underscored the magic of uniting diverse artistic backgrounds to create harmonious and captivating music. “This experience vividly resonated with a piece of wisdom I once received: in the realm of business, identifying whether you need a ‘classical musician’ or a ‘jazz artist’ for a specific task is paramount. Just as I appreciate classical music, I also acknowledge the importance of recognising individual strengths and matching them with the appropriate tasks.”

At work and beyond, Colin says he would like to be known as someone who has made a significant contribution to the lives of others. He says, “For instance, I see this in the context of my children. While I can only do so much for them, I hope to have played a role in their education and overall development.

“I want to be remembered as someone who willingly supported others when the opportunity arose, without needing to be coerced. I genuinely enjoy mentoring and witnessing the growth of individuals. Similar to an orchestra conductor guiding talented individuals to build and deliver something beautiful. Ultimately, I aspire to be recognised as someone who has positively impacted the development of fellow human beings.”

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