Hellmann's Marlize Kriel's lessons from a 10-year journey through the Middle East

Wherever she went, Marlize's motto was always to 'add value, make a difference and leave a legacy.'

Hellmann Worldwide Logistics Chief People Officer for Africa, Marlize Kriel meticulously carved out an adventurous and calculated local and international HR career.  She spent 10 years in the Middle-East and describes it as an experience that changed her entire approach towards people and life in general.

Her journey in that part of the world began with an unexpected call from the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York in April 2005, after she was referred by former South African colleague that was working for UNOPS, a service provider, technical advisor and overall operations arm for the UN. Their mission is to help people build better lives and help countries to achieve peace and sustainable development. Their services extended to infrastructure rehabilitation, project management, procurement, financial management and human resources.

She was offered a unique opportunity with UNOPS in Afghanistan, which had been left to ruins after the 2001 US and allied forces invasion that happened in retaliation for the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The culture shock was severe, to say the least, but Marlize describes the local Afghan people as humble, kind, respectful with a sincere sense of hospitality.

She says: “I was gripped by the unimaginable human resilience of the most vulnerable amongst us, woman in burqa’s walking in small groups, tribal segregation and extremism that drew a virtual line through every geography and social engagement, political tension at a constant boiling point, and an overwhelming international military presence visible wherever you go, sincere humility like I have never experienced before, endearing hospitality that left me searching for words.”     

Saving child brides

At the end of her two-and-a-half-year contract, Marlize and the country director of UNOPS negotiated a six-month work contract in Dubai for three Afghan ladies that worked in her HR department.  This was the most heart-warming experience of her entire career.  The three young girls had once had to be hidden in dungeons under their homes, so that they wouldn't be married off as “child brides” to the Taliban. They were denied an education and could hardly read or write. Today they are able to work and earn an income as UN contract workers in Dubai.

“It was arranged that the ladies would stay with an Afghan family in Dubai that was already employed by the UN. They would be transported to work and back by a UN driver as long as they conformed to all cultural and religious practices,” says Marlize, adding that all three ladies are still working for the UN. 

“One of the ladies moved into a HR operations role in Sudan as an asistant HR manager and the last one is working for the UN in Canada. All three of them now have successful careers and have taken up further studies.”       

After Marlize’s UN HR experience in Afghanistan, she worked for Microsoft Dubai as HR Manager for the gulf region on a one-year maternity relief contract.  During this time, she was offered an HR Management role by ES-KO, an engineering and catering service provider for the UN and NATO in the Middle East and Central Africa. With their HR regional office in Dubai and headquarters in Monaco, Marlize worked for ES-KO until 2014 and during this time completed her master’s degree in Strategic Human Resource Management at Wollongong University in Dubai.  Marlize and her family thereafter went to Thailand for 10 months and returned to South Africa in 2015. 

A mindful approach to change and people

Throughout her career, Marlize has never taken her role as a people leader lightly. Her motto over the past 20 years has been to ‘add value, make a difference and leave a legacy.’

“HR is all about people. So if you get into it, you have to get involved, change people’s perception of their own limitations, seek fulfilment and personal growth for people, and put them in the driver's seat of their own success,” she says. 

In her current role, she has focussed primarily on improving engagement to navigate the changing work environment.

“But, when people start experiencing the signs of change without any engagement, it can create an undercurrent of anxiety and fear of being unemployed, fear to risk and make mistakes and may have an adverse effect on performance. It is why I'm is very cautious and mindful of having a rigid approach to HR, unless the merit warrants her to do so.” she says.

“’At the moment, I'm focussed so on early engagement, frequent communication on anticipated change, total transparency on the impact of anticipated change, and a clearly defined strategy that leads change.”

Hellmann’s performance improvement plan

Marlize introduced an open platform where managers and employees can iron out discrepancies and performance concerns. Within Hellmann, they call it an – “off line” approach, in the form of a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), which is an eight-week process of correcting performance discrepancies, changing a work process, or working on skill enhancement.  The most valuable part of this is the people engagement, and to talk things through, and the impact this approach has on people’s morale.  

This process ensures weekly “check ins” and has a structured framework, so “critical matters” are identified and “action points” and a time lines agreed. 

This is a highly engaging and interactive process between manager and employee.  This is not a disciplinary process, rather a remedial and engagement process.  It is well structured, has clearly identifiable action points and a time-line. The frequent engagement and focus on changed behaviours and  skills has made this a very successful process at Hellmann.  

“We have an increased focus on ownership and accountability that supports the successful outcome of our PIP process.”