Illovo Sugar HR director Celeste Mdletshe focuses on relentless leadership


Celeste Mdletshe has shaped her career by being curious and leaning into her networks.

The stepping stones of HR director at Illovo Sugar, South Africa, Celeste Mdletshe’s career have all pushed her towards her ultimate faith in the concept of ‘relentless leadership’.

Driven by curiosity every step of the way, Celeste has taken every learning opportunity on board, shaping her ultimate vocation in leadership.

Celeste, who hails from Underberg in the southern Drakensberg, started her HR career with De Beers at Venetia Mine.

“While at De Beers, I had the opportunity to work in various HR functions, including talent management, HR business partnering, HRIS project implementation and L&D.

“I was fortunate to have a very supportive manager who facilitated the learning opportunities but it required me to take accountability for my own development, including the discomfort of the unknown and fear that comes with the first steps of trying something new,” she says.

After De Beers, she moved on to SAB’s Polokwane Brewery, where she was employed as an L&D specialist for the brewery. After only three months in the role, she was given the additional portfolio of HR specialist, essentially heading up HR for the Polokwane Brewery.

She says that her time with SAB was invaluable in her career. It opened her eyes to world-class people processes and among many other things taught her the value of courageous conversations and relentless leadership – a leadership style that ensures a clear purpose, has a bias for action, approaches problem-solving collaboratively and fosters an enabled and empowered workplace.

She learned very quickly the benefit of having a support network – people who are skilled, open to sharing, coaching and challenging for a better workplace and improved business performance.

Change Management
Celeste then moved on to ABI, the soft drink division of SAB, where she was an HR consultant at the Phoenix plant and then transitioned into the head office talent management team.

Towards the end of her time with ABI, there was a merger between The Coca-Cola Company, SABMiller and Coca-Cola SABCO to form Coca-Cola Beverages Africa, which combined the bottling operations of their non-alcoholic ready-to-drink beverages businesses in southern and east Africa.

For any HR person passionate about OD, this was like being a kid in a candy store. Being part of a change of this magnitude provided learning opportunities in organisation design, change management, workforce transition, cultural alignment, and so on.

She then went on to join Illovo Sugar South Africa, in 2017 as the HR director. “While it’s been a steep learning curve, I have loved it!” she says. “Illovo Sugar has great employees who are generous with their knowledge of the business and have a true passion for what they do, which is amazing fertile ground to build on and grow.”

She shares that in trying to figure out the “role of a director”, she took a very deliberate approach of leaning into her network to learn from their experiences, being open to taking advice while still mapping out her own growth journey. We so often believe that we have to go the journey alone.

Illovo Sugar (South Africa) has faced many headwinds in recent years. “As HR director, it was important to recognise that we are a business in transition and find ways for myself, the broader HR team and leadership to effectively understand the people-related implications of that and enable the delivery of the business strategy.”

The greatest learning for her over the past four and half years has been that if the business case makes sense, people are willing to walk the journey with you. “You just need to meet them where they are. This approach has in itself created the learning multiplier effect for our HR team.”

Covid-19 and flexibility
Celeste describes the Covid-19 lockdown experience as “a nightmare we just can’t wake up from”. But there have been some positives, which include the experience of how agile we actually are as a business.

“Within a space of a week, we were able to transition our head office to working from home. We have opened up dialogue about how we accommodate care roles and flexible work arrangements in a post-pandemic workplace.

“And the business has stood behind our value of caring, and this can be seen in our policy development to create a more flexible working environment, ongoing support through our employee assistance programmes and the onsite Covid-19 vaccination drives with our employees, their dependants and the surrounding communities in which we operate.”

The power of networking
Celeste firmly believes in the power of having a solid, supportive network to grow and learn with. “Once we start to realise that we are part of a bigger community, we see that we have an extended support base that we can draw from and deposit into to support our continual growth,” she says.

She also believes in the power of a supportive family, and is married with two children. Her downtime is spent unwinding with them.

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