HR Indaba delegates get a masterclass in leadership with MTN’s Paul Norman

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Delegates at the 2022 HR Indaba enjoy a rare opportunity to learn from an industry legend.

MTN Group CHRO Paul Norman has been the top HR leader within the organisation since he joined the company in 1997, he’s been involved in the recruitment of more than 100 CEOs, and he has won a CHRO of the Year Award.
In an inspiring and personal conversation with career and executive coach, Phiona Martin, Paul shared how he has been able to maintain his staying power – and how HR professionals can use his lessons learnt to take their own careers forward.

Phiona started the conversation by asking Paul how he’s managed to be successful in the HR world for more than 25 years. He responded that it comes down to having a strong sense of purpose, personally and professionally, as both aspects of one’s life are inevitably intertwined. He added that, early in his career, it was somewhat fortuitous that MTN’s purpose statement – that everyone deserves the benefits of a modern connected life – aligned with Paul having a genuine desire to make a difference in people’s lives.
“When you connect on purpose you step beyond your role because you’re passionate about it to begin with,” said Paul.

Staying relevant through constant reinvention

Paul elaborated on the idea of staying power by saying that relevance is key: the world changes, your organisation changes, and you’ll change as a person, so it’s crucial that you can pivot when needed.
“You have to always be ready for what’s coming, whether that’s updating your skillset or figuring out where you need to shift your focus to,” explained Paul. “You need to constantly reinvent yourself.”

He told Phiona that when he joined corporate in his mid-20s, he got into the habit of creating personal long-term plans – he’d create a vision for the next year and reflect on the year before. He has maintained that habit to this day, and he credits it with helping him focus on where he needs to aim his own learning and development. This habit has helped him articulate what he wants to do, and how he needs to reinvent himself to get there.

The power of observation and pushing back

Paul noted that during his time at MTN he has worked with astute people (and, he added, not-so astute people!); he’s learnt how to handle crises, navigate obstacles, and celebrate achievements by observation and having conversations with them.

Paul added that knowing yourself is a journey, and along with observing and talking to people, honest feedback from those who can challenge you is essential. “Brutal honesty from others helps you better understand who you are – in my experience, the leaders who really stand out have deep insight about themselves.”

For Paul, humility is essential for any leader. He admitted that early in his career he tried to hide his mistakes, but he learnt that by owning up to them resulted in a sense of vulnerability that others could recognise. He added that as an HR leader, you never want to be the smartest person in the room – you should be challenged with sparring partners. But it’s easy to get lost.

“Do you have the courage to speak up? If you push back, your CEO might override you, but are you having that battle? It’s a challenge but people will start respecting you; they might not like you, but they will come to you for advice. To build a lasting impact, you can’t be a people pleaser. You need to stand up for what you believe in – for what aligns to your purpose, and how it relates to the organisation.”

Networking and the light that shines forward

Phiona asked Paul how he approaches networking, and his answer was interesting. He said that once he was clear on his purpose he could find people who could help him realise his objectives – but he emphasised that it’s not how big your network is, it’s the quality of it.

“People who stand out to me have a keen sense of why they are here and what they are doing in an organisation, but it goes beyond the job. They also have a sense of curiosity; they’re always reading, and they’re never satisfied with the status quo – these are people who resonate with me.”

And how does Paul get his ‘ROI’ out of his network? He said he’s met many people, but he’s always had a filter in the back of his mind so he connects with people who have similar values to him, and who can give him deep insights into the world and how it works. Today, Paul has connections he has known for 20 years through business, all over the world, and he can pick up the phone if he has a challenge and, in turn, they connect him with other, like-minded people who can help him. But, he emphasised, it’s a small number of people.

“It all goes back to vision and purpose, what’s your goal in your career and life? When you know that, it’s like a light that shines forward,” he concluded.

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