MTN's Paul Norman on the importance of making a difference


It's important to have a culture of caring about others without compromising on performance.

“MTN has subscribers and not all subscribers are equal. There are high-value subscribers, who spend R20 000 a month and low-value subscribers, who might spend only R100. They are not the same and the business needs to know the difference. The same applies to human resources. I need to know who my value creators are,” says Paul Norman, Group Chief HR and Corporate Affairs Officer MTN.

MTN is the largest tax contributor in many of the countries in which it operates, tangibly changing the lives of people in those countries, both directly and indirectly. Norman, who has been there for 20 years of MTN’s 23-year history, says the company built a lot of talent that didn't exist because telecommunications was a new industry in the beginning. They built new infrastructure and invested billions in the African countries they operate in.

They’ve been involved with lots of universities, sponsoring the innovation hub at the UCT business school other partnering up with institutions in Nigeria and Uganda as well. 

Says Norman: “While other multinationals were only there to extract value, we invested in infrastructure and developed our own corporate university. Today we have over 200 expatriates and most of them are African nationals and from the countries that we're operating in where we grew their skills and then started moving them to other countries. That's the essence of our commitment to developing talent.”


Much of what MTN does is centred on the company's culture, which Norman says is key to executing the business strategy. Part of the culture is that they have very explicit behaviours. They provide a very challenging work environment and they're not trying to attract everybody. 

“Even culture evolves over time, top talent joins or stays in a company because of the culture. Even if you're a top talent, your personality has to match the culture of the organisation,” says Norman, adding that one of the things that keeps people at the company is the job rotation that employees get.

A year or so ago, for example, they did a talent auction where all the CEOs were at the head office for a day and given fake money to bid on a talent pool from across the continent. Each of the countries had profiled their key people in terms of those that were the most skilled and those that needed to experience another country. 

Each CEO had the same amount of MTN money and they could bid on those people. We placed about 40 people within a couple of hours across all the countries. If someone had been looking for a radio network engineer, for example, they would bid for that skill and, if more than one CEO wanted them they would have to fight for them. We had one CEO who spent almost all his money on one or two resources, while others got five or six people in. 

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Y’ello Care

Part of the MTN’s employee value proposition is that the company is genuinely making a difference in people’s lives. The company developed a volunteerism programme wherein, every year, in July, they have 21 days of 'Y'ello care', representing the 21 countries MTN operated in.

“Our staff could volunteer for projects in communities in which they did incredible work, from building digital libraries in Cameroon to building computer labs and playgrounds in schools across South Africa,” he says.

MTN staff members get involved in those programs and many of them go beyond the 21 days. After the war in Cote d'Ivoire, for instance, staff went out and cleaned the city and it became a national initiative and the government also got involved.  

Now that the company is in 22 countries, Norman says the company may increase the number of days of Y’ello Care.

Big Data

Although the company has great people and a culture of caring about others, Norman says they don’t compromise on performance, which is also engrained in the company. 

His approach to his role is to view it as a people business that is within MTN Group, and he runs it like a business so he still has to focus on creating value like any other successful business has to do. Recruiting and developing people is an investment decision and he therefore must justify it based the return on investment.

As a forerunner in revolutionising the way people communicate on the continent MTN must also be at the forefront of the foray into digital divide and thus must strive to be a leader in this era of digitisation, which is a big buzzword right now.

Says Norman: “I apply the big data concepts to HR. We need deep human capital analytics. In my department, I've got chartered accounts, ICT specialists, people from marketing... There ’s a lot more to what I do than just HR.

“As I said, it's a business, so we need predictive analytics. I need to be able to predict whether someone is going to be a good hire for MTN or not. If have to be able to tell what characteristics would make for a good CEO, for example, whether I'm looking at external candidates or people that are rising through the ranks. We try to predict employee turnover, because that will determine how I will respond and what HR strategies are put in place for the future.”

He says he has remained at MTN for much longer than had expected because his work has always evolved. Even though his title is similar to what years ago, the job itself has changed dramatically in that time.

“One has to continually reinvent themselves in the sense what worked last year will not be good enough to work this year, so there's got to be a constant improvement,” says Norman.



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