Old Mutual's Celiwe Ross on the importance of focusing on adding value 

It's an approach that has held her in good stead since the very beginning of her professional career.

Old Mutual human capital director Celiwe Ross has a twin sister and both of them are qualified engineers. While her sister remained in the profession, Celiwe’s career traversed the mining and financial sectors. She considers herself lucky to have started at BHP Billiton, where she worked under an open-minded HR manager – Mike Teke, who is now a very well-known and successful figure in the mining sector – who indulged her when she told him she was happy to join the company but that she wanted to see different things and wasn’t looking for a traditional mining company where the mainstream career path was to build someone towards becoming a mine manager. She was appointed as a mine planner, which gave her the opportunity to work both underground and in an office, which was not typical for a mining engineer.

“I’m not sure they knew what to do with me in practical terms. I needed to find a way to make myself relevant to a lot of technical guys who were running sections underground, given that I was a mining engineer, but I wasn’t going to follow that track,” says Celiwe, adding that, in order make herself valuable to the them, she found a piece of software in a small derelict office and used it to make the team more efficient. 

“I wasn’t as physically strong as they were and I was still figuring my way underground where I was working with guys that were my dad’s age. Being a fresh graduate, mine planning software was fresh in my mind and nobody was using it so I played around with it and, after spending time with the guys underground, I realised that they were still doing a lot of processes manually. So I created a system that made life easier for them and increased the productivity of the whole team.”

Expatriation opens your mind

After completing her MBA full time, Celiwe joined Standard Bank in the Project Finance team, structuring and executing mining transactions. Then, because of her experience in coal mining and coal-fired power at BHP, she started working in the energy sector as well, specifically coal-fired power projects in Botswana and Mozambique.

That’s when the Africa bug first bit. In 2011, on the back of some oil and gas discoveries in West Africa, the bank asked her to relocate to Ghana help them build out their investment banking offering, specifically in mining, energy and infrastructure finance. She spent almost four years living in Ghana and worked across all of West Africa, from the DRC to Senegal. She completely fell in love with the continent and its people, but also her own ‘African-ness.’ During that time, she says she became so much more aware and appreciative of herself as an African woman living outside South Africa. 

Expatriation opens your mind. When you live in a country where race is not a dynamic, the only things that concern people are performance, experience and what you bring to the table in terms of being able to add value, instead of all these other things that have nothing to do with your actual work,” says Celiwe.

Coming back different

When she returned to South Africa in 2015, she had fundamentally changed. She saw herself and the continent differently. She was very frustrated by the fact that South Africa was still dealing with its racial challenges, and that she was one of a select few black women in a senior management role at the bank. Also, she had become less risk-averse and agitated about what she felt needed to be done to advance South Africa and the rest of the continent. 

Moreover, her ability to mentor the people below her was limited to her business whereas she felt like she needed to have a broader impact. At that point, she had been in conversation with Egon Zehnder, a leadership advisory and executive search firm, which partners with organisations to help them make leadership decisions, whether it is to hire C-suite executives and board members or get those teams to perform more effectively. 

Her path to Old Mutual

Old Mutual became a client at a time when the company was preparing to list on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. She initially worked with their executive management team and the Board. They asked her to join the company, initially as the executive assistant to the chairman, Trevor Manuel. The current CEO, Peter Moyo, joined soon afterwards and asked Celiwe to become his Chief of Staff. 

That was the role that gave her an umbrella view of the organisation. She worked on everything from senior-level recruitment to bespoke strategic projects, many of which had to do with the company’s readiness for listing. When the HR director resigned, they began designing the role specifications for his replacement.

“We were quite particular about not looking for traditional HR skills. I think the HR practices within Old Mutual are very mature and well run, which is why the Top Employers Institute named Old Mutual as Top Employer in 2017 for being a company that creates the best employment conditions for its staff. We wanted someone to approach the function differently and to bring a different thought process to the role,” says Celiwe.

“I applied to the role for a number of reasons. Firstly, I felt I had the ear and the support of the CEO and the EXCO. I knew they trusted my delivery and my way of thinking because we had spent a year together. I also felt that our people strategy needed to come much closer to the business strategy which is something I knew I’d be able to deliver.” 

The first six months

Celiwe is approaching the role much like any other engineer would do. She spent the first few months assessing the organisation from the outside in, spending time with all the strategic teams within the business, HR executives and their immediate teams, service providers as well as some of the executive search and advisory firms, just to get a sense of what everyone's experience of working with Old Mutual had been and whether there were areas on which they could improve. She has also spent time analysing and understanding future trends impacting the world of work. 

“It's about getting a sense for where HR is heading in the future and whether we're set up to deliver against that. Specifically for me, it has been a real passion to align the people agenda with the strategic agenda of the company,” she says, adding that she believes the human capital space has changed drastically, with most companies starting to realise that people are the primary asset upon which the success of their strategies is hinged.

What worries Celiwe in the current environment is that there is a mass of young people who are yet to enter some form of income-generating activity, whether it is in the formal or informal economy.

Says Celiwe: “You can feel their frustration. Young people have a way of expressing themselves.  The future workforce will be supplemented by technology, elevating their role in the organisation to one of value – adding, revenue growing and purposeful work. Our role is to equip our organisations to deal with this significant change. The successful companies of the future will be the ones who are putting a significant amount of their funds towards employee training, upskilling, and recruiting new people with the desired skill sets. The war for talent has been redefined.”