Norah Sehunoe on how she aims to empower minds and build leadership capacity at Santam Insurance

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From overcoming personal adversity to envisioning a future of agile work, Norah Sehunoe, executive head for human capital at Santam Insurance shares more about her 20 years of servant leadership and how she is on a mission to inspire growth and empowerment in others.

Norah Sehunoe, executive head for human capital at Santam Insurance, has set her sights on building further leadership capacity and competency at Santam Insurance.

She has built an impressive career in HR spanning more than 20 years. Armed with a master’s in industrial psychology and a postgraduate diploma in business management, she has served in various areas across the HR value chain.

While growing up in the small mining town of Carletonville, Norah’s initial plan was to become a doctor. But after a squeamish experience in the science lab during her first year, she quickly realised that medicine was not for her.

She has worked at Hollard Insurance, Standard Bank and Etana Insurance before becoming the managing executive for human capital at Sanlam Corporate. Now she sees an opportunity for learning, growth, and the potential of making a significant and lasting impact on others.

Her interest in psychology and learning about human behaviour led her to HR, which she considers a profession that allows her to fully pursue her purpose of making a difference in people’s life.

“HR is a profession in which you get to immerse yourself in understanding human behaviour and use this to guide and support people, while making an impact and adding value to the success of the business,” she says.

Her journey in HR has been both inspiring and challenging. “Starting a new job during lockdown was challenging, especially in Human Capital, where relationships are crucial. My first day at Santam felt surreal like I hadn't left my old job. After 14 years in my previous role, I found myself doubting my decision to change jobs – missing the familiarity of knowing the business and all my stakeholders and there were a couple of times that I thought about going back, especially when Covid started becoming real and affecting very close family members,” she explains.

“There were moments I doubted my decision, especially with the pandemic affecting my family. But I learned perseverance and the importance of making things happen rather than waiting. It taught me to prioritise intentional onboarding for new employees, especially in a hybrid work environment,” she adds.

She does, however, acknowledge that it was during this time that she personally saw the importance of human touch in onboarding. “Onboarding requires human interaction, the first days are crucial to have the new starters in the office to meet and greet and get the feel of the new environment. And most importantly – give them new stationery for their home desk so that they don’t use their old employer's one!,” she advises.

Overcoming adversity

At the CIO/CHRO/CFO Women's Dinner, Norah shared her personal journey to overcoming adversity when she lost her husband. As a mother of three, Norah says it was at this time that she chose to define her bravery through being authentic - not just about the experience, but also how she managed her work.

“As women, I think sometimes we want to be superhuman. You want to leave your pain somewhere so that it’s not shown. Work gave me a world where for a minute I could forget about what was happening.,” she says. However, while work allowed her some reprieve, she also gave herself the time and space to grieve.

“On the days when I was not okay, before I even asked for permission to stay home, I gave myself that permission. So by the time I asked for permission it wasn’t even an ask, it was to say today, I'm not okay, I’m going to stay home.”

She notes that while her family's healing journey is a “work in progress”, it has allowed her to become more empathetic. “As HR people, we are faced with the most difficult decisions. And I do think that sometimes we toughen up so much that we actually don’t realise what people are going through. Life is very unpredictable. I think that’s one thing that I’ve learned; as much as you might have a plan, it’s never your plan.”

A balancing act

For Norah, finding equilibrium between personal and professional life is not just about balance but a healthy integration.

“It's about knowing which aspects to prioritise at any given time while maintaining healthy levels of the other. This prioritisation changes depending on what is happening in your life at that particular time. The key is understanding what criteria you are going to use to decide what is important at any particular time and to do this you need to know what you are willing to compromise in your personal space, given your life stage, and to have open and honest conversations with your leader about these. So when you are faced with a situation where you have to prioritise these aspects of your life over work, it is expected and understandable,” she emphasises.

Recognising the demanding nature of executive roles, she underscores the importance of understanding personal limits and fostering open communication with leaders.

“Knowing when to become a full-time executive and to delegate other aspects of your life versus being present in your personal life and delegating some aspects of your work is critical. Delegation and trusting those around you is an art that you need to master as an executive, both personally and professionally,” she adds.

Norah envisions the future of work evolving in response to recent global events like the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic shifted the world of work by accelerating trends that HR has been debating and studying for years. Employees have always asked for flexibility, focus on wellbeing, reskilling, upgrading and a stronger focus on technology to eliminate manual work, for example. We used to speak about the 4th Industrial Revolution as a trend that will hit us in the future and it was accelerated by the pandemic, it demonstrated the importance of being agile and adaptable and being ready for what might be coming around the corner,” she notes.

She highlights the importance of agility, adaptability, and a stronger focus on employee well-being. "Flexible company culture and leadership capabilities will become a competitive edge for organisations," Norah says.

Servant leader at heart

Describing her leadership style, Norah identifies as an authentic servant leader. “Leadership, for me, is a privilege,” she says. “I aspire to build confidence in others so that they can realise their potential and thrive. I recognised this early in my career and over the years I have strengthened this capability and continue to do so. I recognise the impact that my leadership will have on individuals, and those who are related to them and therefore I aspire to build, encourage and build confidence in others so that they can realise their potential and thrive,” she says.

“I gain great satisfaction from seeing others succeed because of the role I have played in their lives. I strongly believe that as human beings we all want to win and be successful. We just define success differently but we all share a fundamental need to succeed. My aim as a leader is to help those I have been tasked with leading to reach their own success and for us to all win together,” she adds.

Norah reinforces that there is great significance in fostering a culture of learning and development, driven by individual commitment and supported by organisational initiatives.

“Everyone is under immense pressure, juggling various responsibilities,” she notes, “Constant reassurance, recognition, and celebration of milestones, regardless of size, is crucial to keep us all going.”

Norah's passion for making a difference stems from her personal experiences and values. “I want to continue living a purpose-driven life by being in service of others, adding value, and doing more with my life,” she states.

In her downtime, Norah finds solace in celebrating life's special moments and prioritising gratitude. An avid runner, she conquers 10km races and finds therapeutic value in reflection. “I like to run my own race. During that time, I can do a lot of reflecting,” she explains.

With a blend of compassion, determination, and a deep-rooted belief in the potential of every individual, Norah continues to pave the way for transformation and success, both within Santam Insurance and beyond. As she continues to navigate the dynamic landscape of HR, Norah remains committed to empowering hearts and minds, one step at a time.

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