HEINEKEN SA's HR Director Njabulo Mashigo is a stickler for the basics

She sees the modern HR function as strategic, and herself as an enabling partner to business.

Until she took up the reins as director for human resources at HEINEKEN South Africa, Njabulo Mashigo’s career was neatly split: seven years in FMCG human resources and seven in financial services. After graduation, she got her start at Unilever and SAB, before an opportunity to relocate – both geographically and in terms of industry – to the National Treasury came her way in 2009. It was her first foray into public service. From there, she joined the JSE. But FMCG was not done with Njabulo yet – and when HEINEKEN and Diageo dissolved the Brandhouse joint venture in 2015, she made the shift once again.

“I wasn’t looking to move back,” she says. “I was in a really good place at the JSE, and enjoyed a great relationship with CEO Nicky Newton-King. But at the back of my mind, I did miss the pace of FMCG, and I knew this was an incredible opportunity. Ultimately, it was a decision led by curiosity. I was intrigued by the story of this brand, moving out of a joint venture, and taking its own future into its hands.”

Heineken heritage

Two years on, HEINEKEN South Africa is entering into the next phase of maturity. Njabulo and the function she represents were part of navigating that path between being part of a global brand, and being a small South African enterprise building itself up from the ground. It was a complicated – and highly legislated – start, with the company having commitments to keep in terms of the retention of jobs (from the Brandhouse split), as well as creating more. Additionally, they had to embrace the heritage that is so integral to HEINEKEN, and simultaneously develop their own culture, plans and strategies. 

“We need staff to understand that they are part of a bigger organisation, as well as the local entity. We focus on the family business history of Heineken beer in our onboarding process, but we also give recruits the global context, and how South Africa and the region fits into that context. We want people to understand that they are part of a global entity, and elements of that – such as behaviours, values and leadership expectations – are set at the global level.”

She continues: “At the next level, we have also created our own local strategy, called Reach for the Stars. We co-created the strategy as part of our journey, and as a result, our leadership team and line managers take ownership of it.” 


Developing staff is a key goal of the company, and Njabulo believes that HR provides the right kinds of opportunity to do so. She sees South Africa as a talent hub for the region and is proud that they have already had a handful of local staff handpicked for international teams. 

Her approach to this imperative is equally strategic. “We believe in the 70-20-10 principle of training and developing staff. That means 70 percent learning on the job, 20 percent through coaching or mentoring, and only 10 percent through formal training. That's quite a big mind shift for many people. Some still think of training or development as a shopping list of courses, but every day is a learning opportunity. And that’s especially true when you are introduced to a new organisation.”

HEINEKEN HR supports the on-the-job learning through a programme of documenting learnings, development plans, and building the capabilities of line managers to better support their “reports”. “We also translate this into the ‘how’ element of assessments. Most people focus on the ‘what’ of KPIs, but we use the development plans to moderate scores, and create a discussion about how a person executes what they have to do.”

Sexy stuff

Njabulo is no slouch when it comes to the strategic input of the contemporary HR function. But she’s also a stickler for the basics. “I often tell people ‘You get your credibility with the basics, and then the sexy stuff comes’. Talent management is the sexy side of HR. Equally important is the strategic side which includes development and succession.”

Outside of the boardroom and its strategic value, the day-to-day functioning of HR is just as important: recruitment, training, talent management, remuneration, development, job creation, and leadership training are all key concerns of this department when done right.

All of this, for Njabulo, boils down to recognising the role that HR can play within an organisation. A critical and enabling role, but – she admits – a support role in many ways because it is not directly revenue-creating. That’s okay, she argues, because the revenue-generating teams only function as well as they can when the right talent is found and nurtured.


Given this, she cautions that HR personnel shouldn’t fall into the trap of low self-confidence. “HR is not at the core of a business,” she says, “but for me, how you see yourself matters a lot. I tell HR people to take your role and yourself seriously. It is not a competition with who is at the core of the business. Instead, start from the corner that you are in, and realise that value.”

“My experience at National Treasury, however, taught me that if you aren’t paying your people right for example, or if your leave calculations aren’t right, you will struggle to attract and keep the right people. That’s the basics, and that’s governance. That’s where HR earns its credibility.” 

Another key lesson from her financial services days is the power of analysis and the confidence that brings with it. She encourages her HR peers to become experts in their field and not to shrink away from that challenge. “Draw up your dashboard. Crunch the stats. If you can show what you are contributing, if you can tell that story, you are on solid footing.”

Business acumen

Finally, she encourages HR practitioners to build strong relationships with their executives: “I am fortunate to have an MD who wants us to be involved in the business. We don't get excluded from commercial discussions. A strong and supportive MD or CEO will model the processes and behaviours that you want to embed in an organisation. When they support the HR or people agenda, they become a role model, and this also helps hold other people accountable. If you don’t yet have this, you can build it through education and advocacy for the HR function. Show them the value you offer the business.”

Njabulo believes that HR can and should earn their place at the boardroom table. “Another one of my little sayings is that ‘it matters how we show up’. For me, showing up is about how we understand the business. We need to develop real business acumen and participate in business discussions. We need to care about what our internal customers care about. You can have a seat at the table, but it’s what you do with it that matters.”