Lessons from abroad: a chat with Orica's Rhona Moodly

Interim Head of HR for Africa at Orica Mining Services talks about her return to South Africa after seven years in the Middle East.

As a country, South Africans need to embrace change and diverse thinking within multinationals that have regional offices operating out of South Africa. This is according to Rhona Moodly, Interim Head of HR for Africa at Orica Mining Services, who has spent seven years abroad, working as an HR Executive in the Middle East. Rhona says it was a big paradigm shift when she returned home in 2014.

“It felt as though the country had become repressed as a nation... there was a tangible fear that the teams operated out of,” says Rhona, adding that the mining sector has struggled most to evolve, because it’s still steeped in traditional business methodology and patriarchy, simply by the virtue of its design.

She says that, while many in top management have sincere intent, it’s difficult for them to see beyond their immediate reality. As an example, she says she’s heard many times that there is no talent in Africa, but the talent profiles of multinationals around the world have many African people in top positions so that cannot be the case.

“We need to be more self-aware in our thinking to truly tap into our potential. “

Recognition based on output
In the Middle East, Rhona worked for a subsidiary of Mubadala, one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds. Rhona was part of a team that laid the foundation for the first semiconductor foundry in the Middle East. She worked with some of the best talent in the world, and she says her opinion and contributions were always valued, even though it was in a region commonly perceived to deride the role of women in business.

“I was this South African woman, sitting with team members coming out of Ivy League schools - some of the best talent in the world … yet I have always had a seat at the table, primarily because of my ability to transmute my understanding of a business problem into a proposition for what HR is doing or should be doing to design and execute on the appropriate strategy."

“There was no judgement. It wasn't about the colour of your skin, or how you spoke, it was about what you delivered. The CEO would speak to a business dilemma, look at you as the HR exec, and say, 'What are your thoughts?'  HR was given an equal footing at the table, which is how it should be.” 

Too much politics
Locally, however, she feels that the work environment is a more politicised, primarily because of the cultural dynamics that drive people to mobilise communities of similar thinking as a sense of protection. She says that in some organisations this is very obvious, especially if there has been disparate leadership where the approach to a diverse team has not been fair and consistent

Her observations are that people are afraid of losing their position in the organisation and the stealth of underhand politics does raise its head. "The difference between working here and abroad is the level of being recognised for the work you delivered. There weren't all these other shenanigans. There was no politics. There was no drama. It was just about delivering to a mandate.”

Let go of the fear
On what it would take to resolve this issue, Rhona advises South Africans to let go of the fear they have of losing their jobs or being supplanted by a team member. “South Africa will have to resolve its culture issues if it is to move forward. Because, even with all our weaknesses, as South African people we are stronger together. We all come from the same tapestry, but at the same time, we are intrinsically different. We can either leverage off that or we can struggle amongst ourselves.”