Mars Africa’s Nerisha Charlton is never demoralised by adversity

Nerisha says she has always found the strength to overcome even the most strenuous of life’s challenges.

Mars Africa director of people and organisation Nerisha Charlton’s story is one of perseverance, endurance and staying true to the things that really matter in life. In the face of every adversity in both her private and professional life, Nerisha has always paid more attention to what was still in her glass rather than what was needed to fill it. She has never seen it as empty.

The theme that has endured from the beginning of her career has been her dedication to her special-needs son, Tanvir, whom she has always fought for and prioritised while also pursuing an incredibly challenging and often emotionally taxing career.

Nerisha’s father wanted her to be a lawyer, but she wasn’t sure that it was the path for her, so in her first year at university, she picked subjects that were quite neutral and general. She found herself being more interested in psychology and decided to explore it. After graduating, she worked at sugar company Illovo for three months in the HR team – for free – just to get some working experience.

That stint led to the start of her career in HR, a role at Pick n Pay where she really cut her teeth. It’s an environment she describes as second to none when it comes to testing oneself in the field of industrial relations, due to active trade unionism in retail.

Leaving Pick n Pay

She spent five years at Pick n Pay, where she was mentored and fast-tracked to greater roles – responsibilities she welcomed and carried out excellently because she believed in the work she was doing.

But it was during that time that her son had a near-drowning accident that left him disabled and it was then that her approach to work changed.

“Mrs Ackerman and the leadership team were extremely supportive when I told them I needed to move to Johannesburg to be close to the specialists that could treat my son. I was so fortunate that the organisation didn’t want to lose me, and – thinking about it now – it’s no surprise that the only other company I have fully resonated with is Mars, another family business with values that make me feel at home.”

Nerisha was transferred to the Northgate Hypermarket, where she managed HR in one of the most difficult stores in the group because the trade union was quite militant at the time. She later asked to leave the company, as she had an offer from AfriSam, which she took because it was very close to her home and because the working hours were attractive. This meant she could spend more time with Tanvir and assist more with his rehabilitation.

“It was one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my career because that organisation really showed me it cared for me as a human being and not only as a top performer. I had a phone call with Mrs Ackerman wishing me well and telling me the door would remain open for my return, which was extremely humbling.”

Why not me?

Nerisha has always kept her family close because that’s where she draws her strength. Her family (along with her nanny) moved to Johannesburg and provided the much-needed support as she went about delivering on the human capital agenda for her respective employers. And, while she found certain aspects of the Pick n Pay environment to be tough, AfriSam was in a different league.

She was part of a team tasked with restructuring the business and had to let go of 100 people. She handled every consultation herself although her own role was affected by the restructuring. It was important to her to show empathy for the affected employees. In the midst of all this, her father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away six weeks later.

“In total, we consulted with every single person four times during the restructure. So I had about 400 meetings in three months. When my dad passed away, it was the straw that broke the camel's back, because it happened at the end of a difficult few years that included divorcing from Tanvir’s father.”

Nerisha felt she needed to take some time off to regroup. She started consulting and appreciated the flexibility to work at her own pace. She was also able to play a bigger role in Tanvir’s rehabilitation, and support her mother through the grieving process.

She says her parents instilled resilience in her when she was a young girl growing up in Umzinto.

“I have never been the type of person to wallow in self-pity, thinking ‘Why me?’ Instead, I would ask myself ‘Why not me?’ People face circumstances far more difficult than mine and they too have overcome them, so I really make an effort not to allow life’s pitfalls to dampen my spirit. My positive attitude and outlook have helped me to transcend many barriers,” says Nerisha, adding that the first doctor she consulted with after Tanvir’s incident told her that he had four years to live.

“I was not having any of that. Tanvir survived way beyond prognosis and is a happy 15-year-old who lights up any environment with his smile! He still has physiotherapy weekly, enjoys good humour and has a sweet tooth like his mum. Thanks to my family’s support and consistent encouragement, we have come this far together.”

Nerisha is often invited as a speaker at leadership conferences where she always speaks candidly about the challenges life has thrown at her, because that is her story and she strongly believes in “being absolutely authentic in my endeavour to deliver business results through people practices.

“The woe-is-me approach is not in my DNA whatsoever. I guess you could say, ‘woe is not me’.”

Covid-19 curveball

Nerisha joined Mars in November 2017 because, while she thoroughly enjoyed the flexibility of being a self-employed consultant, she needed a bigger challenge.

When she joined the company, she asked the general manager what keeps him awake at night and he said that, while the business was on track, engagement was not where it should be. “My work started with the leadership team and the results followed,” she says.

However, Covid has thrown a real curveball for Mars because, while they offer an essential service, the organisation has had to adapt to new ways of working.

Says Nerisha: “In a recent open letter to employees, our global CEO said our priority has been to ‘do everything in our power to protect the health and wellbeing of Mars associates. That included trying to provide peace of mind by putting pay and benefit continuity principles in place while giving people time off due to illness, quarantine, temporary site closures or reductions in working hours.’ And that’s been synonymous with our response locally.”

Mutual respect recognition for our profession

Nerisha believes that the most impactful way that HR can drive change is by showing the corporate world that we play a critical role and that this has never been more true than it is now.

“We already understand the significance of our profession and the value in putting people at the centre of business strategy. It's the rest of the C-suite that, in far too many cases, still need to be convinced,” she says.

“We need to ensure that senior leaders understand that, when it comes to business strategy, people are a piece of the puzzle they simply cannot do without. There needs to be mutual respect.

“More than ever, the recent pandemic has shown us that the HR function plays a pivotal role in determining the future of business. CEOs depend on strong, capable CHROs to be co-pilots to help steer and shape the future of work, enabling business strategies to deliver sustainable, positive results.