Q& A with Paramount Group HR Director Martie Baumgardt

Martie's career journey has been tough, but at the centre of it all is empathy.

Overseeing large-scale retrenchments is arguably one of the most unpleasant projects an HR leader can undertake. And Paramount Group HR Director Martie Baumgardt has had more than her fair share of those. With over 20 years’ experience in HR, Martie spent much of her career at SAA where she built the resilience that made her the leader she is today. She is also an undercover author, nervous to publish a book that she finished writing years ago. CHRO South Africa got in touch with Martie to find out more about what makes her tick. 

It is not common for a young girl to grow up wanting to work in HR. What did you want to be growing up and how did you end up in the profession?

I have always had a deep-rooted passion for people and wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. I still do. It is something my dad awakened in me. He accepted people unconditionally and his compassion for others was so inspirational that, from a very young age, I developed a tendency to make friends with the misunderstood kids at school. You know, the underdogs. At the age of 18, my dad died and I felt very lost. I didn’t know what my place in the world was and I couldn’t decide what to study.

It was eventually my brother who reminded of that intrinsic empathy for others that I got from my dad, and he suggested that I go into HR. It was then, and still is now, something that I considered to be my calling.

Who were your role models growing up and why? 

I don’t believe in role models. I think you can learn something from every person you meet. In my view, the people that we should regard as role models are every single parent trying to raise kids on their own, or any parent that has lost a child, or any person that has gone through real hardship and still stayed hopeful. I just want to be a better person today than what I was yesterday. 

Over your career, which company did you work at where you achieved the most growth both personally and professionally?

I worked for SAA for almost 10 years and I learned a lot during that time. I was part of the wage negotiation team, often negotiating with the unions until 3am. It was tough. We would often receive death threats and I even had to have my own bodyguard but it taught me resilience. I was also involved in the large-scale retrenchment process where more than 2,200 people lost their livelihood. That was my first large-scale retrenchment and, although it was traumatic, I am glad that I could be there to support the people that needed me.

That said, I still feel that I have learned the most, both personally and professionally, at Paramount. Our Chairman, Ivor Ichikowitz, has an eye for talent and he must have seen something in me when he asked me to join the Holding company in 2013. Paramount is a very entrepreneurial company and it is fast-paced. As part of the executive committee, I had to hit the ground running. I had to learn to articulate HR’s value proposition in a language that our leaders understood, to build trust and alliances, to adapt to change quickly, and to guide the business to manage change effectively. I have never been more stretched both personally and professionally but I believe that, as human beings, we grow the most when we are out of our comfort zones. 

Is there a person that really stands out as being crucial to your development? Who are they and how have they made an impact on your life?  

I learned a lot from the former General Manager of HR of SAA, Bhabalazi Bulunga. He was a master chess player and always one move ahead of everyone. His tactics were off the wall at the best of times, but he always had a method in his madness. He challenged me to be the best version of myself and to trust my instincts. That advice alone has helped me tremendously in my professional and private life. Other than him, I am very fortunate to have been able to work with very professional and highly talented people who I learn from, even to this day.

I try to learn something from everyone that I encounter because that’s what excites and fuels me. I am very open to learning and do not have a problem saying “I don’t know, but I can learn or I can find out”. That is something I think is important for all people to be able to do, even if they are leaders.

The Paramount Group, like any other organisation, is ever evolving and keeps re-inventing itself to stay relevant.  As a result, Paramount experienced a lot of changes in the last five years, such as acquisitions, mergers, divestments, rightsizing, reorganisation etc.  How have these changes impacted the people in the organisation and you both personally and professionally?

As they say, the only thing that stays constant is change and, at Paramount, we have had our fair share of change. The group went on an aggressive acquisition drive from 2013 and grew from two subsidiaries in 2013 to 17 subsidiaries today. We also expanded our global footprint and now have offices in 13 countries. 

In retrospect, we grew too quickly and didn’t properly integrate the newly acquired businesses into the group. In 2017, we re-evaluated our business model and divested in the non-core businesses, rightsized and reorganised the business to ensure the long-term sustainability of the group.

I think the most important thing for any organisation, when they are going through change, is to talk about the elephant in the room. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Because in the absence of communication, people fill the void with assumptions and those are usually worse than the reality. So I often encouraged our executives to communicate frequently and honestly. That meant telling it like it was when it came to sharing what are our challenges were, what are our dreams were, where are were going, and where we needed support.

During the rightsizing exercise, how did you balance the needs of the organisations with those of the people who would be losing their livelihoods? Also, how does one have those difficult conversations in which you have let employees go?

That is the most challenging part of the HR profession, balancing the needs of the organisation and the impact on employees. I have been involved in 10 large-scale retrenchments in my 24-year career in HR and it does not get any easier. Nor should it. It should never be easy to take someone’s livelihood away, but unfortunately, it is a reality. 

I have always found that if you treat people with respect and dignity and show them empathy and compassion, it is easier for them to accept the reality. Losing one’s livelihood is traumatic and I, therefore, give people my time and energy. I allow them time to process their hurt, disappointment, anger and fear.  

What was the most difficult thing about that whole experience and what have you learned from it?

The most difficult thing is to see a grown man cry because he feels he has failed his family. I have learned to acknowledge what people are going through, but try and get them to start thinking about solutions and not let their current reality paralyse them. The human spirit is inspiring. It has humbled me to witness how people remain hopeful and grateful in spite of the misfortunes that befall them.

What HR projects are you involved with Paramount that you are most proud of? Why? 

I am very proud of all our achievements as an HR Team. I have a great team of professionals and I could not have achieved the success that we have achieved without them. 

We have made great strides in implementing our five-year HR strategy. Our focus is the same as any other progressive organisation, to attract, engage, develop, and retain our talent. Over the last two years, in particular, we have implemented a number of high-impact interventions and the return is evident in our energy and engagement levels and improved performance. 

I am exceptionally proud of the Paramount Academy that has been established, which offers a 46-course curriculum consisting of generic, domain-specific, and leadership training courses, as well as some self-actualisation courses on things like mindfulness.                   

We revamped our entire induction and orientation program and I honestly believe it is now world class. We also decided to re-orientate all our employees last year, which was the best decision we have made as it instilled employees’ passion for and pride in Paramount.  We implemented a fit for purpose wellness strategy to augment our EAP that has been running successfully for a number of years and we now have monthly themes such as addition awareness or mental wellness month and we then get specialist psychologists and/or thought leaders to come and talk to our employees about these topics.  

Lastly, we focused on our employee value proposition by rolling out a ‘Good to Great’ cultural intervention and the “Art of the Possible” reward and recognition scheme. 

We also have a jam-packed agenda for 2019 that I am very excited about!

What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing HR and how do you think the profession should be tackling it?

I think our biggest challenge, in HR, is to adapt to the rapidly changing world of work. From the legislative, technological, and social to the economic and political environment, all of these factors have an impact on workplace trends such as generational diversity, AI, gig economy, 4IR, flexible work arrangements and so forth. The employee experience has taken centre stage and as HR professionals we need to guide leadership because I do not think all our leaders are prepared for the age of disruption.

I also think that we as HR professionals need to wake up, embrace the change, find our voice, stay relevant, and learn to learn to speak the truth to leadership. A large part of our role involves challenging the status quo and having the tough conversations when they are necessary to achieve a greater good.

Tell us about the book you have written. What is it about, what inspired you to write it and how would you like it to impact the world?

I have been writing poetry since I was 15 years old. I have always had a passion for writing, so I decided a couple of years ago to start writing a book. I have had an interesting and colourful life so I decided to put it in a book. I have not built up the courage to publish it yet because I am still a bit worried that it may shock a few people.

Essentially, I would like the book to be a reminder for people that we all have our own map of the world that is shaped by our experiences so we should never judge one another. We must just accept and love each other. Be fascinated with people, you might learn something.

Lastly, who is Martie outside the world of work? What do you enjoy doing with your time? 

I’m a wife, a mother of two amazing boys and my family is very close to me.  I enjoy travelling, interior design, writing, reading. I also enjoy the simple pleasures in life - good company, good food, good wine, some music, that's all I need to get to my happy place.