Media24's Shelagh Goodwin on challenging the status quo

She says making tough calls, courage, and creativity are key to changing a broken system.

Armed with an Afrikaans-English dictionary and a questioning attitude that rattled a few in the corridors of Nasionale Pers, the recently graduated Shelagh Goodwin joined the company where – 25 years later – she is head of HR for Media24. Challenging the status quo and driving change and transformation soon became a common thread in Shelagh’s career – and the reason for her success at what was then a conservative, white-owned media conglomerate.

“I was studying for my industrial psychology honours at UCT in 1993 when Prof Rita Kellerman, a great early role model of a woman in business, came to our class and said Naspers was looking to hire,” recalls Shelagh. “I lived in a white English-speaking area in Cape Town and until then, Naspers had mainly recruited at the University of Stellenbosch. I had no clue about this world,” she admits, before adding with a smile: “But they published FairLady, so it had to be okay.”

Shelagh’s appointment coincided with the beginning of the end of male hegemony in leadership positions and a shift towards diversity in the workplace. “I was in the right place at the right time. I joined at a time when the change was starting,” says Shelagh. That didn’t happen automatically though.

Position yourself

“Never let them know you can type, is what Prof Kellerman had told me,” Shelagh recalls. “Email wasn’t around then and I had taught myself to type. What the professor meant is that it matters how you show up as a woman. A lot of women find themselves in a subservient role at work, even now. You need to position yourself to be taken seriously.”

Shelagh says she struggles to imagine ever leaving the media industry, as she believes that journalists do important work and she loves the creativity, stubbornness and passion that typifies them. It is evident that those are the same characteristics that have made her successful in the – initially alien – world she joined in the 90s. “What I brought in was that I was not afraid to challenge people. The older generations were more accustomed to just doing what they were told. I was often the youngest in the room, but I was the one asking the difficult questions.”

Every now and then, Shelagh becomes a writer and publisher herself, when she pens posts detailing her culinary exploits from around the world on her Waving Cat blog, named after a kitschy, feline statuette from South East Asia with a waving paw that draws good luck (or waves away bad luck) with a battery-operated paw. “I started the blog as a souvenir for myself, but I also enjoy giving travel tips and love to give recommendations.”

In 2014, Shelagh and her husband took a sabbatical and travelled the world for three months, visiting Sydney, New Zealand, Shanghai, Seoul, Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco, with the fascinating mix of tradition and high tech in Japan, standing out as a favourite. “I really love South East Asia. It is such a perfect combination of culture and fantastic food,” says Shelagh. 

Natural leaders tend to want to measure success and for Shelagh that even extended to her personal blogging exploits. “I used to check the visitor stats and became quite obsessive about them,” she admits. I was forever checking: Where do the visits come from? Why are there not more people reading? It is the nature of creative work. You invest something of yourself in it. It is a vulnerable space.”

Courage and integrity

That, once again, is also what makes the HR head feel so personally attached to the employees of Media24, publisher of major titles like News24, City Press and Daily Sun, but also a plethora of magazines and local newspapers. “I appreciate so much about the people here. Many of them are reporting on political issues. They are taking a physical risk and the people who write about crime stories are often known to gangsters, especially in smaller communities. Sometimes we even need to arrange for bodyguards. The courage and integrity with which our people do their jobs is an inspiration to me.”

Tough calls and change have always been par for the course for Shelagh, who started her Naspers career in recruitment at head office and was then assigned to the restructuring of the Van Schaik bookshops. “That was a formative experience for me. I was only 24 or 25 years old and I learnt a lot about business through that process. I also did a masters degree with ‘resistance to change’ as my topic, which tied in with that project.”

Her next job was even more intertwined with the change that Naspers and the country were going through, merging Via Afrika with Nasou, which had been rooted in South Africa’s apartheid past as textbook publishers for black and white schools respectively. “It was a weird change process, because both companies were doing very well. We put them together and then had two of everything (except HR) for another full year. Even two CEOs. We didn’t want to lose any skills. We even kept both names initially.”

A year later the orders didn’t come and the plan to streamline the newly merged company was accelerated. To the surprise of management, Shelagh argued that a separate HR person – essentially her own job – was no longer needed. “I think that was considered brave and it obviously got me noticed,” she reflects. “I was asked to become the head of leadership development back at head office, which suited me because I am naturally nosy and curious.”

Boredom threshold

Before becoming Media24’s head of HR a decade ago, Shelagh also created and filled the role of talent manager, integrating the group’s approach to acquiring and developing talent. “My boredom threshold is about two years,” says Shelagh, who is leading an HR team of 50 who are responsible for 4,000 employees. “I might have been in this HR job for ten years, but there has been so much change that it hasn’t felt like the same role at all.”

HR technology has received a lot of attention in the last few years and Shelagh has overseen the creation of not one, but two, entirely new custom-built employee self-service platforms, with varying degrees of success. “It was actually quite funny,” she says. “We decided to build an online performance management system and put together a list of desired features. They built and it and everyone in HR, inside and outside our company, absolutely loved it. It did everything but brush your teeth. But… the staff hated it.”

Shelagh admits getting defensive when the current – then newly appointed – CEO decreed that the unpopular tool had to go, but she eventually took on the task to redesign the platform. “I sat down with one of our designers and we drew the screen that he – as a user of the tool himself – wanted to see. Together with BSG we built it and it is much more popular. It is easy to use, requires no training and the completion rate of performance reviews is really high.”

Changing a broken system

Together with the performance management system, she also changed how job grading worked. “There had been a lot of noise about pay and job levels. People who did the same job would be on different grades and salaries. We started by exposing the unfairness – making everybody’s job grades visible to everybody else – to build support for changing a broken system. We defined roles, replaced the grading system and did external grading to ensure consistency. It was a bold step, but it took the noise out of the system entirely.”

Although technology is important, transformation has always been central to anything Shelagh has been involved with at Media24 and she says that encouraging more diversity is still a big part of her role, including identifying and attracting top black talent. “Media24 has come a long way in the past 25 years and has transformed from board level downward. It must be one of the few South African companies to be headed by a black woman chair, Professor Rachel Jafta, and a woman CEO, Esmaré Weideman. Their support and commitment to building a diverse, winning team have been key to our success.”