How HR director Portia Thokoane is navigating human behaviour complexities

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Portia believes it’s very important for HR leaders to understand and manage how people behave in various situations.

The HR industry continually faces the challenge of understanding and navigating the complexities of human behaviour and extracting the best from individuals for the benefit of themselves, society, and businesses, says Portia Thokoane, HR director for east & southern Africa region at Nestlé.

“There is an increasing focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as organisations recognise the importance of having diverse workforces and creating inclusive cultures.”

Portia, who has been at the forefront of HR at Nestlé since April 2023, adds that managing a diverse workforce in a global company like Nestlé comes with its unique HR challenges and opportunities, particularly around creating an inclusive culture. She does, however, highlight that the world’s largest food and beverage company is committed to fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion.

“There are an array of challenges, which include understanding and addressing barriers to equality, gender balance, and providing support for employees and their families. I have realised that opportunities arise in promoting diversity, which has been shown to lead to more creative and innovative solutions.”

The various opportunities that arise from these challenges include enhanced creativity and innovation, broader talent pool and development, global market insight and agile market responsiveness.

“Diverse teams often bring a wide range of perspectives, ideas, and experiences as well as access to a broader talent pool. HR can tap into the skills and experiences of individuals from various backgrounds, attracting top talent from different regions and industries. A diverse workforce, like ours, is also able to provide valuable insights into global markets and customer preferences. HR leverages this knowledge to make informed decisions about product development and market strategies,” says Portia.

Intentional leadership

Leaders also need to establish cultures and optimise talent, she adds. “The constant evolution of maintaining business stability while fostering an inspiring culture is a key challenge. Once leaders grasp the principles of leading people effectively, other HR challenges become more manageable.”

In South Africa, she says the issue is not so simple, and includes dealing with racism in a courageous and inclusive manner.

“Addressing this issue involves initiating dialogues that ensure everyone feels a sense of belonging and inclusivity. As a leader, it is a moral duty to engage in these conversations, understanding various perspectives and working toward positive change.”

Portia recalls how as a young woman entering the corporate world she found herself struggling with being a black woman in a predominantly male-dominated corporate environment.

“I often found myself as the only female or the only black representative, which required me to exert extra effort to gain credibility and deliver value. This often meant sacrificing time with my family and sleep to earn respect and have a voice in decision-making. While the corporate landscape has improved in terms of inclusivity and diversity, there are still obstacles to overcome, but I believe that progress has been made for young black women entering the corporate world.”

Learning life lessons

She’s come a long way since her humble upbringing in Thohoyandou, Venda. Her persistent pursuit for greatness, along with family support, saw Portia grow from a curious young girl to a lecturer at Vaal University of Technology, the same institution where she had completed a diploma and a BTech.

“My family background was one of supportive structure, but they guided me towards a more corporate career due to their belief that it would provide better opportunities.I initially wanted to study clinical psychology, as I had a deep curiosity and understanding of people. However, my parents encouraged me to choose a path that would lead to a corporate job.”

It was only when she saw a course with “human” in the title, that she decided to take the plunge and pursue a career in HR. “I didn’t even have a clear understanding of HR at the time, but I still went for it.”

While still working as a lecturer at Vaal University of Technology, Portia gradually transitioned into the field of recruitment and gained valuable experience.

“However, it was during my time as a generalist at the Whirlpool factory in Durban that I faced complex HR situations. The environment there was highly unionised, and I was exposed to a wide range of challenges, from handling transactional matters to negotiations with unions and formulating strategies.”

She gives credit to her director at the time, who played a significant role in teaching her to have grit and find solutions in every situation.

“This experience allowed me to handle various HR issues with confidence and expand my capabilities in the field. Throughout my career, there have been numerous highlights. One of the most rewarding aspects has been the ability to engage with people and help them become better leaders. Colleagues have expressed how working with me has been a significant milestone in their careers, which is a source of pride for me. Additionally, I've seen positive changes in my family and children, which motivates me to continue making a difference in people’s lives and contributing to future generations.”

Other challenges facing the industry

According to Portia, the other challenges that are currently facing the HR industry is the skills shortage across the continent, with many young people lacking the necessary skills to be employable, as well as the integration of technology and data analytics in HR processes.

“This issue requires collaboration at all levels, from schools to companies, to align education with industry needs and ensure inclusivity and the development of relevant skills. Partnerships with companies such as Unilever and Vodacom can play a significant role in resolving these challenges and positively impacting society.”

Touching on technology in HR, Portia says adaptation is necessary so as to allow for more data-driven decision-making and improved efficiency. “Additionally, the rise of remote and hybrid work arrangements has become a significant trend in HR, requiring HR professionals to adapt to new ways of managing and engaging with employees. Overall, HR is evolving to meet the changing needs of the workforce and business landscape.”

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