How Decision Inc's Tarryn Swemmer was plunged into the deep-end of HR leadership


Tarryn had a Masters in Chemistry and zero HR experience when she became an HR leader.

Decision Inc. Group HR Executive  Tarryn Swemmer started her career at McKinsey while finishing off her Master’s in Chemistry. She joined the research division and worked her way up until she was managing it.  She loved it, but she realised that, in order to get to the next level within that space, she would have had to travel more and focus less on people and more on a niche speciality, which was not what she had in mind for herself.  See, Tarryn is an avid learner and sticking too much within a narrowing scope of research would not have excited her.

“It would have also required me to do quite a bit of travelling, which at the time wasn’t an option as my daughter was a tiny baby,” she says.

As it turned out, when Tarryn went to speak with one of her great mentors, McKinsey partner Adam Kendall, about possibly shifting to another division, the ball was already rolling. The management team had been so impressed with her in the seven years that she had been within company that they had earmarked her to take on the head of administration role for McKinsey Africa. And that’s how she got into HR. No training, no studying, no experience. She was just thrown into the deep end and expected to swim. And swim she did.

“As someone that loves learning new things, I revelled in the challenge.  From my first day on the job, I told my team and my peers openly that I had absolutely no knowledge or experience in HR and needed them to be patient with me,” says Tarryn.

“I told them upfront that I was going to be asking a lot of questions. I said, ‘when you ask me to do something, or when you want to implement a strategy or a programme, I’m going to need all the context. Why are we doing it? What did we do before? Why didn’t it work as well as we intended?’ That kind of thing.” 

She also did a lot of self-studying but didn’t bother with formal education in the early stages. She wanted practical knowledge. On her first day on the job, she printed McKinsey’s contract of employment and studied it word for word. The next day she found a critical part of the HR policy to understand.  She attended every labour law conference that she could and signed up to every newsletter under the sun.

She also called on McKinsey’s external legal counsel, a Director at a leading Law Firm,  and he did (and still does) patiently advise her and help her to access the most relevant learning platforms and resources, and invited her to educational events. And she consumed everything that she possibly could in order to excel in her work. That’s how serious Tarryn is about learning.

“The last thing I did, which was probably the most helpful was, for three months, I spoke to my predecessor,  and my counterparts in the professional development and finance departments every day.  We spoke about the daily operations and the decisions I had made throughout the day and they gave me feedback and on-the-job coaching on everything. That was immense for my development as an HR leader.”

Contrasting differences

On what the biggest learning curves in her career have been, Tarryn names those first months as the head of administration as one of the big ones. The second was when her role was elevated to an extremely strategic one in which she was involved as the leadership representative for Africa, Middle East and Eastern Europe in a team that was shaping and rolling out the new HR strategy of McKinsey global. It was a big step because, at that level, success is less about being good at your job and more about ensuring that a huge, diverse team of talented people are given the direction and support they need to perform well. 

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“I was fortunate to work for an amazing woman, Karen Bates, who was appointed to lead the global HR function. She taught me the value of surrounding myself with a team who know more than me and then creating an environment that helps get the best out of them. I also learned a lot about managing messaging and stakeholders and making impact my primary focus instead of just checking things off a to-do list.”

Now at technology consultancy Decision Inc, Tarryn has had to adjust to a different dynamic and leadership challenge. She now sits at the table with the CEO and drives conversations and decisions that impact the organisation more directly and whose impact are more immediate. 

“At McKinsey, you are a little more removed from the frontline of how the Firm ‘does business’ and many of the directives were coming from more senior people at the in faraway offices. Whereas at Decision Inc, the learning is happening in every conversation with the CEO and regional leadership teams. We can talk about changing a process and the trade-offs of going in a particular direction strategy-wise, and the next day those changes are already starting to happen. It does take some getting used to, to be honest, but it is so exciting and so real.”

An outdoors kind of gal

Since the lockdown, Tarryn has an even greater appreciation for her support system, which has allowed her to continue working as hard as she did before Covid-19 struck South Africa.  Fortunately, her husband is a teacher so adjusting to temporarily home-schooling their six-year-old daughter, Amelia, is smoother sailing than it would otherwise have been. 

“I am lucky to have such strong support systems.  In addition to my husband, both our moms step in to help when we’re busy with work. They do so much more than they could be asked to do., and I appreciate them greatly for that.”

“The sport I most enjoy is golf because it has that element of being in nature and requires a lot of walking. Two of my favourite things,”  

When she’s not immersed in work or being a learn-a-holic, Tarryn thoroughly enjoys the outdoors. Whether it’s bird-watching in the Kruger, hiking and fishing in the Drakensberg or camping in Etosha – as long as it involves being in nature, she’s in. And she can’t wait to get back outside once the pandemic blows over. 

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