Put people first, says Capitec CHRO Nathan Motjuwadi

Nathan feels fortunate to have worked in companies that place high value on their people.

"HR plays a central role in business success, but the extent to which HR can make an impact in that regard is determined by the CEO. It is absolutely crucial that as the top HR leader in an organisation, you are involved in decision-making at the board-level and not at the background whereby they only get called when there are operational issues or threats of industrial action," says Capitec chief human resource officer Nathan Motjuwadi, adding that he has been fortunate to work in companies where people are at the centre of everything they do. 

"In fact, I would much rather prefer it if we moved away from calling it HR to something along the lines of 'people centre' because HR only represents the functional and technical aspects of what we do."

Nathan says he has been fortunate to have worked in companies that place a high value on their people. He worked at Coca-Cola where the CHRO, who was based in Atlanta, was part of the main board and didn't report anyone other than the group CEO. When he was at Danone, it was the same. Now that he’s at Capitec, he’s found a company with a similar model in terms of the way it approaches people as being critical to success and a core business focus. 

For him, it's important whether the company sees people as central to the achievement of revenue and profits, or as a means to end and a mere expense that must be accepted as part of the business process.

Take people into your confidence

To make his point, Nathan refers to a business case he recently read where the CEO had a philosophy of not retrenching and stuck to it despite a difficult financial period in which the company had lost one of their biggest accounts. The CEO was told by the board that he had to reduce his operating expenses and, more often than not, that meant people had to be retrenched. But he refused to do that. Instead, he called all his employees and explained the situation to them, saying that company would go out of business unless it cut costs. He proposed that the company reduce op-ex by increasing the amount of leave that employees take and because employees don't get paid for going on leave in the US, that reduced costs significantly. When it came to implementation, there were some people that didn't have leave days left and employees began transferring their days to their colleagues.

Don't get bogged down on any single issue 

Regarding his views on what the most pressing challenge facing the profession is, Nathan prefers not to single any single topic out.  He strongly believes that, as an HR leader, it is important to have one's pulse on all the HR challenges and make decisions that will have a positive impact for the future of the business at a strategic level. 

He refers to the term VUCA, which is an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity - all of the things that define the times that we're living in. That makes it difficult to know how to approach a challenging situation and easy to use VUCA as an excuse to not focus on strategy and planning, because, in essence, it is practically impossible to be completely prepared for the VUCA world. 

Says Nathan:

"Among that various issues that have to be tackled by HR are diversity, digitization, and transformation, which is specific to the South African context. However, at the top, HR's role should be based on whether the leader is adding to the bottom line.  Do I understand what is driving the bottom line of the organisation? Is diversity important? Absolutely. Do injustices of the past have to be addressed? Absolutely. Is artificial intelligence going to change the way we work in call centres? One hundred per cent. Do we need to start thinking about having bots that can respond to questions from our staff? Of course."

But Nathan believes all those things have to fit in with the overall purpose and objective of the business, which is to make a meaningful contribution to society while creating value for shareholders. That's what has to be top of mind for top HR leaders, irrespective of what people issue they are dealing with. Because, ultimately, there will be other people in the organisations whose responsibility it is to tackle the nitty-gritty of what should be implemented at a strategic level. 

“I sit on a variety of committees that tackle issues affecting the future of the organisation. I sit on the digitization, business transformation, executive, and credit committees. I also visit a lot of our branches and talk to our staff to get a sense of the feeling in the organisation. But I do that as a conduit for the executive team and as a representative of the business’s interests,” he says.