Meet Didi Sehume

CHRO's executive manager has been involved in every step of the burgeoning HR community.

Didi Sehume, executive manager of CHRO South Africa, came into her current role through CFO South Africa, for which she hosted a panel discussion about Finance in Africa at the Finance Indaba last year. With a background is in treasury and finance, as well as project management, she is an MC and a moderator, and was able to command the attention of CFOs, which is something that impressed the organisers.

CFO SA is the brother company of CHRO SA, both of which are based on models that have been successful in the Netherlands and are being replicated for building communities of South African finance and human resource executives.

CFO SA connects finance professionals online and off in order to share knowledge, exchange interests and open up business opportunities. Through building the community CFO South Africa contributes to the growth of the country, and over 3000 finance professionals have already joined CFO South Africa. CHRO aims to develop a similar network for chief human resource officers.

CFO SA director Melle Eijckelhoff and Alex van Groningen, the founder of the Dutch CFO and the South African platforms, approached Didi to consider overseeing the introduction of CHRO to the local market.

We sat with Didi to find out why she joined the company and how she sees CHRO growing in South Africa.

Q. What drove you to take advantage of the opportunity to be the executive manager of CHRO South Africa?

I didn't have an in-depth understanding of the field. I started speaking to some of my peers that were already in the profession and I was quite fascinated by the challenges and opportunities within the sector. I was sold.  

There is a big humanitarian in me. I always want the best for people and for them to do well in everything that they do, and I feel that not matter how good a business's offering is, success will invariably be dependent on the people within that organisation.

Melle and Alex were looking for was someone who is young enough to have the energy to go around meeting various executives at their offices, while also having a forward-looking approach in making sure the new HR community and it's platforms remain current and fresh. 

Q. Did you ever see yourself becoming involved in HR?

Not really, but that seems to be the trend amongst most of the HR executives we’ve spoken to. When I finished grade 11, the school that I went to required us to go for career counselling with the school principal, and he thought I should study B.Com Law. At the time I thought, “why on earth would he think I'd want to do that?” But, in hindsight, I think his character analysis of me was not too far off the mark because I'm a person who very direct and wants to understand the justification for the choices people make.  I also have people skills. I enjoy being around and interacting with people and I think anyone that wants to be a project manager or a project lead has to enjoy engaging with their stakeholders. 

Q. Why is there a need for chief human resource officers to have a community like the chief financial officers have in CFO SA?

As much as it is a line manager's responsibility to make sure that their team works well, the culture and the morale levels have to be conducive to getting the best out of those people.

I've had the privilege of working at Investec and their human resource department is very much up to scratch. The attitude that an employee has towards a company when they are approached is reflective of that company's HR. 

Whether it is simply ensuring that an interview starts on time or improving the onboarding process once a person employed, HR activities can add to or reduce an employee’s sense of pride about working at a particular firm.

I've been to a company where the onboarding was really shoddy resulting in ‘self-orientation’. When people overlook those kinds of things it has an impact. 

When we spoke to Candice Watson, the head of talent management at British American Tobacco, for example, she said that she received a bouquet of flowers on her first day at the company. That tells an employee that the company appreciates them. That speaks to the culture of the company. At another company, she arrived and already had an allocated space, an email address, and a working phone and laptop ready so that she could begin work immediately. 

It's little things like that which resonate with me. Change management is also something that I identify with. Having met someone like Bahle Matsho, who is a consultant that has done a lot of work in that space, I now have an appreciation for the need to realise that the world is changing and companies that do not evolve with the times are sure to get left behind. 

South Africans are warm. A lot of the HR executives that we've approached have been very receptive and forthcoming with information. Whenever I've asked them what topics they would like to see discussed at our roundtables, they haven't been shy to say, “Didi, I've written a paper on this topic and I'm willing for you to give it a read”, or “this is where my passion lies”. Many of them say they never expected to become HR professionals but are still very passionate about it nonetheless. I think the HR community will really take off.

Q. What have been the highlights in your journey with CHRO so far? 

Meeting people who are senior and who are seasoned professionals has been a big highlight and a source of inspiration for me. Their success stories give me the push to do better because they have proven that it's possible to reach the top level of success in whatever field they are in.

Kgomotso Molobye, the managing executive of HR at Openserve, spoke to us about how she lead an initiative to get more women into mining underground and how that involved changing machinery in making it lighter, and how it improved the company's vehicle maintenance expense because it women drove the vehicles less aggressively and than their male counterparts at her former company.

I really enjoyed how the people we speak to have done things to empower others. I think that helpings others is at the heart of human resources and that's something that really resonates with me. 

From a strategy point of view, I commend HR execs that approach their CFOs and fight to keep people in the company as the economic environment sees budgets get more hamstrung. For instance, instead of affording employees 10% increases, they try to save jobs by asking that there is a much smaller salary increase in order to retain their workforce.

Q. And the lowlights?

One of the lowlights has been hearing the misfortunes that people have gone through because of HR. HR employees who are perceived as those who police annual leave and are involved in hiring and firing people. They are viewed as those who predominantly handle admin issues like leave, medical aid and disciplinary issues. But there's a lot more to it than that. HR practitioners nowadays have business degrees and are involved in the strategic aspects of the business.

Also, some people are so narrowly focussed one function - let's say, benefits - and they don't venture to learn anything else within their roles. That’s why I think HR departments need to start rotating their staff more in order to give their staff more experience and exposure within the company.