HR leaders discuss what it takes to make a real difference

The key is to remember that the people you employ come from the communities you serve.

Many HR practitioners are drawn to the field because they know it allows them to make a real difference for both organisations and the lives of the people in them. At the HR Indaba in Sandton last week, Fergus Marupen (Sappi Group head of HR), Malisha Awunor (BHBW South Africa HR director), and Abey Kgotle (Mercedes Benz executive director of HR) shared personal stories about from their long and varied careers, offering some nuggets of advice for other practitioners.

Malisha made the point that the people in an organisation come from communities who feel the impact of HR. Abey had a unique and harrowing experience of that relationship between the company, the staff and the community when he was tasked with helping Lonmin to help them through the tragedy of the Marikana shootings. It was an intensely painful and difficult job. 

He said: “I saw horrific pictures of people who had been killed, some which I knew personally. The lady at switchboard told me that her cousin had been killed. I was asking a lot of questions about what we could have done. The nation was in pain. And in fact, there was a personal risk to me. I was grappling with the pain of the tragedy, but amidst that, I was called upon to find solutions. My job was to help the organisation resolve the strike and go through a process of healing. I needed to work with people and navigate that space.

“I first asked myself ‘why me?’ and then I asked ‘why not me?’. What helped was that the Chairman had asked for me specifically and my wife was behind me. Knowing I had this confidence and support helped me.” 

It was about as complex and painful a situation as one can imagine having to face as an HR person. Nevertheless, painful as it was, Abey said that the experience had a profound effect on him and he is proud of the fact that, by the time he left Lonmin a few years later, the relationship with the union had been repaired.

Mentorship

Malisha said that she viewed sponsoring and mentoring is a critical part of her role, becuase HR is a people-oriented business.

“It’s important to make yourself available and to create avenues for exposure, like including someone in a meeting even if it’s for a higher level, or letting a team member do the presentation instead of yourself. In every situation, we can either leave a person worse off or better off. There’s a saying that people forget what you say, but they never forget how you made them feel. That’s the care and compassion in HR,” she said.

Fergus made a related point: “Part of our legacy is developing the next generation of HR professionals who are able to step up after us. We need to encourage and empower them. HR often needs to fight for their space, for recognition of the value we add. It’s how you work with your CEO, your board, your management team, how you go into the business with solutions and make a difference.”

Exposing HR professionals to different aspects of the business and community is essential too. The panel felt strongly that people in HR need to get out of the office and be familiar with what’s happening in different aspects of the business - in the plants and factories, underground, at shift change - to understand what people are going through.

Women in business

The group acknowledged the very real need to have more women in more roles, particularly where the patriarchal system has closed those roles to them historically.

Fergus said: “The average profile of a person in forestry, working outside, working in communities, is a black woman from rural KwaZulu Natal, who studied forestry at technical college or at Stellenbosch University. They are tough and make a real difference in the business. It’s not difficult if there’s a commitment from everyone to enhance and empower women.”

The panel agreed that it’s crucial to create an environment where women can thrive - starting with facilities like changerooms.

Win-win

"The company and the community can benefit simultaneously from intiatives like The Mercedes Benz Learning Academy, which Abey said was created to develop skills needed for both the company's needs and those of the community.

"An energetic, exciting group of youngsters have been through various learnership programmes over many years. This year 123 of them have jobs and can provide for their families. This is the kind of outcome that makes the people-oriented business of HR so worthwhile," said Abey.