Q & A with ABSA's Sungeetha Sewpersad

Outdated notions of a woman's place being in the kitchen are still a stumbling block in the world of work today, says Sungeetha

Sungeetha Sewpersad, HR executive at ABSA, is not an HR practitioner by qualification. She has an LLB degree and intended to fight for the rights of our citizens.  She says people often ask her why she didn’t practice law in South Africa and she says it is mostly because the career was not what she thought it would be. Growing up, she thought practising law would be akin to US courtroom dramas like Ally McBeal but soon realised the South African legal system was nothing like that. She ultimately decided to go into HR because she saw value in helping people grow through the ranks of corporate South Africa so that they could become CEOs and CFOs of the future. That was her vision of how she thought she would contribute to changing the world of work.

CHRO SA caught up with Sungeetha to find out what her challenges have been and how she has dealt with them.

What have you personally struggled with in your journey to becoming a female executive?

Women tend to apologise a lot and for no apparent reason but rather from habit and traditional upbringing. When I sat on executive committees for the first time, I would say ‘sorry, can I make a suggestion,’ or ‘sorry, but I have to disagree with you.’ But I’ve realised with time and age that I actually don't have to apologize for wanting to speak what is on my mind.  I have garnered enough respect as an individual and as a function to speak my mind as and when I see appropriate.

I always encourage women that are entering corporates to stand firm in their position and never to feel apologetic for taking a stance that is contrary to the popular view.  It is okay to be a dissenting voice.

Do you think South Africa has done enough to put career women on par with men?

Sadly, as a country, we have not made great strides in terms of promoting women, giving them equal places in the boardroom, paying them equivocally to their male counterparts or developing them at equal pace because notions that a woman’s place is in the kitchen still exist, largely because we are led by generations of men that are Baby Boomers. I have had closed-door conversations with male executives who looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Sungeetha. a females place is at home and raising their family and not the boardroom – that is a man’s job!.’ This was actually 2 years ago!

Unfortunately, when there is a large proportion of male baby boomers in an organisation it's very hard for them to transition into the new world of work. They feel threatened and hold on to traditional practices for as long as they can.  However this is all changing and we are currently promoting, developing and making every effort to ensure that women are treated as equals.

What are the main challenges, with regards to advancing your company’s transformation agenda?

One of the greatest challenges for us is attraction, retention and rewarding of employees over a wide generation gap. If you look at the workplace today, it's highly unique. There are Generation Xs, Ys, baby boomers and millennials, all occupying the same office space, coupled with this South Africa is in a very interesting space of making sure that we have a transformed workforce.  23 years into democracy and many corporates are far from transformed.

And that’s not looking diversity in the global context where the issues are predominantly about LGBT inclusion. In South Africa, diversity is more about race and gender, and that impacts how companies need to approach their talent attraction strategies. The challenge is that the demographic spread of skilled individuals does not match the country’s population.

Our challenge lies in building a pipeline in terms of succession in our AIC colleagues.  The skills gap is vast between what exists currently versus what we are seeing coming through the ranks.  And this is largely due to our decrease in standards in our education.

In a large company like ABSA, how does one go about managing the culture of the organisation?

Culture is a very interesting subject, especially when managing 12000 people.  Whilst we are trying to build a culture that is all-encompassing given the change we are going through it is difficult to please everyone all of the time.  We are a values-led organisation and use this as the basis to guide our decision making. We also ensure that all colleagues have a voice in building our new EVP either by way of surveys or focus groups.

You mentioned that retention is another challenge. Please elaborate on why that is the case and tell us how ABSA is managing it?

All companies are in the race to finding exceptional talent.  Keeping them happy, fulfilled and content is another story.  Different things appeal to different generations and finding the right balance and mix can be tricky.  Given that we are in a process of separation from Barclays we are rebuilding our EVP and in so doing ensuring that the fundamental blocks of development, benefits, training, mobility, technology etc are all going to be in place. Coupled with this employees have to feel a sense of belonging and personal alignment to the company, we create this by providing employees flexible working options recognising the different life stages of colleagues.

Lest we not forget that reward and recognition play a vital role in retention.  We have a number of recognition programmes in place that reward employees for living our values, performing well and delivering an exceptional service.

In conclusion, the traditional role of HR practitioners is long gone. The role has evolved to become a fully inclusive business role that has earned its place around the boardroom table.  We are living in interesting times and companies are looking to us to navigate through change and ensuring that they emerge successful.