Nolo Thobejane on coming full circle in leadership and success at KFC


KFC’s new chief people officer has leveraged both HR and operational acumen to advance her career.

Having started in HR at Yum! Brands 18 years ago, Nolo Thobejane’s journey has come full circle. She first started in the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) industry 24 years ago with a stint as an operator at Mcdonald’s during her university years. “That's how I got exposed to this industry. But I worked my way up with Famous Brands and Woolworths, and then I came to Yum! Brands,” she explains.

Although she has spent many years at Yum! Brands in a variety of roles, it has always encompassed moving between HR and operations. One of her standout moments was when she moved into the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in both her HR and operations capacities, culminating in a position as head of sub-Saharan Africa at KFC Africa. Now three months into her role as CPO, Nolo is savouring this new milestone.

This is a far cry from the girl who grew up in Hammanskraal, standing in a queue trying to decide what to study after finishing high school. She’d had no career guidance and was rather unsure:, “I was looking at the points I had in terms of what I could study. So I blindly chose to do library and information science,” she says. “If you know my personality, you will know that there is no way I can be a librarian,” she laughs.

However, she went on to study HR, training and development and eventually an MBA at Gordon Institute of Business Science, propelling her to become the business leader she is today.

She initially struggled to choose between being an operator or an HR person until it evolved into being central to her journey:, “You can’t run a business without people, right?” she says. So this was ultimately about being in the business of people selling chicken and chips. “I grew in my leadership journey and then understood that I didn't have to choose between the two – I can do both – and now I've ended up in the people space again,” she says.

Passion, growth, and fulfillment

Nolo is enjoying being back in HR. “I feel fulfilled and it is like coming back home,” she says. She also relishes working for an organisation that is intentional about people's development and growth. Her journey at KFC, spanning 18 years, is a testament to that. “I saw how much I can grow. And I saw my career path very clearly. We do that very well here,” she says.

Some of the key things ahead of her in this new role are furthering the transformation journey and cementing and propelling development programmes for talent. Another major focus for her is developing the field.

“Our brand is big on leading with smart, heart and courage and with my journey as a team member I am really looking forward to taking the heart to the field,” she says. “It’s about building capability of our franchisees and our biggest advocates, our front line champions, our team members. Supporting them in executing an easy, distinctive and relevant number one brand across the continent,” she says.

“I want our 40,000 team members across the continent to be proud of being part of this amazing brand and its culture: the culture that has kept me engaged and excited all these years.”

She is also involved in “Women On The Move”, which develops and empowers women in the business. As a product of the programme herself, she is well poised to make a mark. “I'm sitting on the board internally on that programme, making sure that we lift others as we go up and grow the programme not only internally for our restaurant support centre, but also our franchisees,” she says.

Conquering challenges

Her career journey has not been without its challenges, some of which include not knowing what to pursue and having very little exposure in the beginning. There were also representation issues: “The challenge was getting into a boardroom and not seeing anyone who looks like me and wondering where I belong and if I can do it,” she says.

She sees her ability to overcome that as a marker of growth: “It’s about learning that I deserve it, knowing I can do it and pushing through. I’m going to let my voice be heard,” she says. She also believes the support and empathy of her organisation went a long way and is so pleased to see the extent of transformation since.

She also found navigating the business models of sub-Saharan Africa to be a learning curve. “The business is not as mature as in South Africa. Having to learn to do things differently, work with different markets and cultures and understand the value chain completely differently to South Africa, I went from a functional leader to becoming a business leader,” she explains.

But amid challenges there are so many milestones, largely informed by YUM’s leadership philosophy of smart, heart and courage. “We are a heart-led, high-performance organisation, driven by focusing on personal and character development to drive high performance,” she says.

Another key to Nolo’s success is work-life integration. As a mom of two, she is a family-orientated and spiritual person with a penchant for music, fine wine and good conversation. She has also developed a passion for hockey and rugby, supporting her daughter and son’s sporting careers.

For her, it’s all about partnership, allyship in her networks and a supportive family that encourages and anchors her, especially her husband, who boosts her confidence during bouts of imposter syndrome, and is hands-on with their children.

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