MTN CHRO Paul Norman shares lessons from his 26 years at the company

The 2019 CHRO of the Year talks about how he's been able to stay at the top of his game for such a long time without ever feeling the need to switch companies.

Twenty-two years ago, a young counselling psychologist was called in to see the management of a burgeoning telecommunications company. The psychologist, Paul Norman, had conducted assessments of potential heads of HR for the company. At the time, HR was still a subsection of finance, and this was the first time that the company was introducing a fully-fledged HR executive. They had assigned the task of finding the right candidate to a headhunter, and the headhunter had sent a shortlist of four people to Paul for assessment.

When the then-CEO, Bob Chaphe received Paul’s report, he asked some questions of the headhunter, who didn’t have the answers, so the headhunter asked Paul to come in and make a recommendation. “Out of the reports, I recommended one person, and went into the detail of why matching their skills to the requirements of the role.” The CEO listened, then said, “You sound like you know what you’re talking about. Why don’t you take the job?’”

Very surprised, Paul went away and considered the offer. He thought, “Why not?” and accepted.

“I thought I would stay for only three or four years. I thought the business would have a relatively limited market, like car phones. But it’s been such a journey. I bought the dream, and here I am today.”

Twenty-two years later, Paul is the MTN Group CHRO, and in 2019, he was declared the CHRO of the Year at the inaugural CHRO Awards. He also scooped the Talent Management and Learning & Development awards.
He says that one of the things that have kept him engaged and enthusiastic has been participating in the growth of a truly African brand. When he joined MTN in 1997, the mobile industry was only three years old. “We operated only in South Africa, with less than one million subscribers, and only 400 people working here. By contrast, today we are in 21 countries in Africa and the Middle East with over 250 million subscribers, and employing roughly 19,000 people.”
 
The evolution of MTN

The expansion into Africa takes place either by bidding for a greenfield licence in a country and starting a mobile network from scratch or by buying or partnering with incumbent operators. “All this activity has a lot to do with people – how you integrate the culture. A lot of mergers and acquisitions fail because the organisations involved don’t realise the synergies that were built into the business case for doing the deal. So we do a lot of work in understanding how you bring these companies together – how you make one plus one equal three. I spend a lot of my time on that.”

In addition to expanding, the telecommunications industry has evolved while Paul has been on people duty. “At first, 100 percent of revenues came from voice calls.

Then of course data started to come in, and where that has ended is with MTN basically positioning itself as a digital operator. We don’t see our selves as a telco or purely a mobile operator; we talk about being an evolving telco on the one end, with data and voice services, and a digital operator on the other, in the sense of fintech, digital services.

While repositioning the company into these streams, Paul is contemplating and acting on the people perspective. “We have to think about organising skills in a different way, evolving our culture to be meaningful, how do we build agility to our advantage, how do we make it easy for the employee, who is our customer in this space, how can we remain future relevant? We have 19,000 people who are moving into a fast-paced digitised world, so all of that is transitioning. In the same light, the business won’t survive if we don’t have the right culture and skills to support it.”

He adds that the organisation is now competing for scarce skills including data science and emerging technology specialisations against global organisations who operate in more sought-after locations, so MTN has to work on its Employer of Choice differentiators.

“They can choose New York, San Francisco or London rather than Joburg or Lagos. So as a company, we have to position ourselves to be the most attractive. That’s not a pay thing purely – people want to work for companies that are purpose-led or meaningful. They want to make a difference.”

To support this, two years ago, Paul and his team redesigned the HR operating model, modelled on building experiences for employees and business alike. “It’s a single view, like what happens with customers in the digital space today. If you are on Amazon, if you make a purchase, it will zoom in on who you are, and recommend other books you might like. So we are using that lens on the people who are working with us – looking at what they prefer, how they could work better, and how we can help them realise their true potential. We use data analytics through an HR data analytics unit populated with data scientists, finance professionals and business architects. We have a central experience unit which comprises customer experience, telco business and experience design professionals. With all of this, close to sixty percent of the department is made up of non-traditional skills – which is not to say that HR skills are not valuable, we up the game when we complement it with a wider breadth of skills.”

In this HR empire, Paul says he operates like he’s the CEO, thinking of it as a business with a balance sheet statement, focusing on how we can grow our assets and improve profitability.

“I have a single view of how I create and make us profitable. We produce products and services that help our employees to do their jobs better. If you are a customer of MTN, we run studies quarterly looking at several dimensions around the network, the product and our pricing, and you can vote on whether you think MTN is better than other operators. That’s how we understand our customers. I do that internally with our employees. I measure the detractors and promoter experiences because we want our people to recommend this as a place where people want to work.”
 
Self-reflection

Because Paul didn’t anticipate staying at MTN for the long haul, he requested that his contract state he is allowed to continue to practise privately as a psychologist. He acknowledges that he can’t consider himself a psychologist anymore and that if he wanted to practise today, he would have to study again. However, he has found an application for his early profession at MTN. “In many ways, a lot of those principles apply to organisations and so my learnings haven’t gone to waste. HR has evolved so that it’s much more integral to the business and central to ensuring that the business succeeds. At the moment, it’s the most exciting time for the HR people who get this new agenda.”

One aspect of this is understanding how HR operates in the digital space, with all the issues of displacement that the Fourth Industrial Revolution and more recently the new social norms of work that the Global Pandemic Covid-19 brings. Paul says he is focusing on how to create people who are relevant for tomorrow, with increasing competition and customer sophistication. MTN, he says, also has a part to play in the digital evolution of the countries in which it operates, and in the transformation of South Africa.

“HR professionals have a role to play in bringing humaneness into work. If you can get diversity and inclusion right – addressing race and gender in South Africa – we will be extremely relevant. We just have to do it. That’s why I am saying it’s an exciting time. I can’t think of a better time for HR, but we have to own that space.”

At MTN, the Diversity and Inclusion agenda sits within the gamut of Paul’s portfolio. As a custodian, he has instituted a comprehensive framework coupled with a strong philosophy that establishes the company’s D&I agenda.

Through this, a host of initiatives have been put in place across the HR value chain ranging from a network of Inclusion-Champions in the markets for cultural focus, bias-free mechanisms in the recruitment and performance lifecycles, unconscious bias learning curriculums for professionals, gender-balanced leadership programmes and other such initiatives, which are underway.

Paul is clearly focused on and enriched by his work, but he does find time for personal pursuits. He says he likes people, food, good wine, art and culture, and travel. “I don’t think I’ve understood a city or a place if I haven’t been to its art galleries and listened to its music. And I must go to restaurants. I travel for food. If there’s a restaurant in a country of the calibre of having gained Michelin Stars, I will always go if I have the time. But I will also hit the bistros and buy street food. I also love architecture and design – so I appreciate all of that in my leisure time, but then I bring all of that back into how I work.”
He says his kitchen at home has been designed especially for him, supporting his love of sharing good food. His signature dishes are curries and French cuisine. “I love slow cooking. I do a lamb dish that takes 12 hours in a slow-roasting oven. You don’t have to carve it. It just falls apart.”

He says that his wife Tracy creates a beautiful table and that he’s happiest sitting with friends, over good food and wine, with great conversation. This causes him to reflect on work once more, saying that the one thing that he doesn’t tolerate in his job is insincerity. “I have to make a lot of hard calls and I don’t sugar coat things. I tell it as it is, and then see how I can help you from there.”
With further personal insight, he says that he is restless and suffers from “FOMO”, which is what keeps him going. “I love knowledge and always want to know more. I never feel like I have arrived. The team says, ‘let’s take ten minutes to celebrate what we did,’ but I am always thinking, ‘what’s next?’ That’s what drives me.

He says that in his later life, he would like to one day be able to watch the CNN weather report and tick off all the cities that he’s been to without missing any. “I love Paris, London, New York and Bangkok. I always say that Africa is amazing. I have a real heart for Africa – I’m an Afro-optimist. I think that ‘Africa rising’ is still coming. I think that we will be a place that people look to in the future. A lot of innovation is going to come out of this continent. MTN is driving a lot of that, and it’s a story that’s still going to be written.”