Lonmin's Khaya Ngcwembe on fostering a team spirit


Executives have to find a way to sing from the same hymn book even if their roles seem to have competing demands.

Khaya Ngcwembe, Executive Vice President of Human Resources at Lonmin, says that, in many organisations, the CFO tends to have the ear of the CEO as this role is critical in driving the numbers that reflect business performance over any given reporting period. This is the perspective that the CFO has to drive in evaluating activities within the organisation. This role is instrumental in informing decisions regarding spending and investment, which means other executives may feel that they are not getting the same level of influence when it comes to investment or spending decisions. That said, Khaya says senior teams have to make it work.


 “I’ve come to realise that, in an ideal environment, you want an executive team that is tight, that speaks with one voice in all areas of the business to an extent that the role of each executive is to ensure that, despite their functional  leadership responsibility,  they are  aligned with each member of the team and have confidence in what each member does so that there is no negative competition,” says Khaya.  This, he says, drives unity and common purpose in the rest of the organisation.


“In the past, I’ve sat in those painful sessions where representatives of different functions compete for limited funds through proposed initiatives that, in their opinions can drive efficiencies within their respective areas. Everybody had to work very hard to sell their ideas. It all comes down to being able to articulate the value and contributions that your proposed initiatives will add to the organisation. Therefore, the need to think broader than just your function is critical.”


He says nothing is wrong with having what he calls ‘healthy tension’ in the boardroom. But it is when one person is seen to be steamrolling ideas or unfairly ignoring the views of others that tension becomes problematic. If the tension is driven by the need to hold each other accountable in a constructive way and results in improved quality of decisions and performance of the organisation, it is a healthy and positive tension.  He says it is often the CFO who is closest to that tension because it is ultimately his responsibility, together with the CEO, to make sure that the decisions that the business makes are good, that the numbers add up at the end of the day, and that the business gets a return on any investment it makes.


That said, the boardroom discussions should not be and are not only about the numbers but also the broader health of the organisation, which must align and unite the executive team.


“And the funny thing is that the HR person has some responsibility for keeping a watchful eye on team spirit and alert/advise the CEO accordingly when things do not look good. They must get the CEO aligned with that thinking. So they also have to compete for the CEO’s ear and use every tactic in the book to get into that highly contested space.”


Use facts to support your case


On the issue of transformation, for example, Khaya says there has to be buy-in from the board and across all levels of the organisation for this to work well. There has to be a deep commitment from people across different levels despite the reality that transformation can be threatening to some of the people. People have to understand why this has to be done, why it is important, why we can’t do without it and how it affects them. Ideally, they have to buy into it rationally and emotionally and, finally, act on it to make a difference.


Says Khaya: “ In my past roles we made some progress with that over time and I think that it came with being very honest with individuals about the fact that it may mean some people needed to wind down or think differently about their careers or simply get involved in assisting others.  It has also meant addressing some of the generalised perceptions that often develop in the workplace when a company is driving transformation.  As an example, one of the things that we were able to disprove or negate was the view that driving diversity or equity always has negative consequences for the careers of other people. By simply comparing our recruitment requirements against our annual targets, we found there was always a bigger recruitment need than our targets due to the rate of change in our organisation at that time. So we were able to show that there was room for everybody even if we were driving a specific focus. We were just more deliberate about how we shared or distributed the opportunities that were coming up. .”


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Listen to people you don’t agree with


In business in general, and I think in the mining sector where things are tougher at this stage, finding ways of saving costs are always top of mind and these include the issue of headcount reduction. This is always a tough one and you can see that in the number of companies that have had some form of restructuring in recent years. Khaya says that, while this is a difficult task that everyone would rather avoid at all costs, there are times when it becomes unavoidable and there can be instances where you have to lose a few jobs to save many more. In those situations, how this is done becomes very important. Khaya believes that it has to be done with compassion and that it is important that everybody in the organisation is on the same page with regards to how the company should run and why certain things need to be done.


“These are very challenging situations that have to be well managed from a change management point of view. Ultimately, unions like management have a critical role to play in driving stability and sustainability of the organisation. As such, the relationship between management and unions is very important. Unions have a very important role in supporting productivity initiatives that ultimately impact on organisational success,” says Khaya.


At the end of the day, there will always be conflicting objectives within an organisation because there is a variety of stakeholders who want different things.  As an HR executive, one has to be malleable and learn to deal with all the leaders within the organisation. That means engaging one another about difficult issues.


“That means you have to be very open-minded, listen to the other person’s argument and point of view. I believe strongly that you learn more from people that disagree with you because those that agree with you tend to confirm what you already know. So being open minded and willing to listen to different perspectives in order to get to the truth is critical. A one-sided view of reality is never the full truth. It is only when you engage and understand deeply the other person do you tend to get a better grasp of the issue and move forward more effectively,”  he says.


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