Rand Refinery’s Unathi Sihlahla is a stranger to impostor syndrome

Now in her first executive role, Unathi talks about finding confidence and embracing big opportunities.

Unathi Sihlahla fell in love with HR when she attended an industrial psychology class: studying HR was meant to be a stop gap en route to getting into the undergraduate programme that she thought she wanted to study. Captivated by the subject of people, behaviour and culture in the workplace, however, HR stuck. This led her into a career where she has been able to explore the concept of being the glue between employee and employer.

She was appointed to her current position of executive head: human resources and OD at Rand Refinery in March 2021, in what is her first executive role. While these have been big shoes to step into, she says she hasn’t suffered from impostor syndrome, which is common with first-time executives.

“This is probably because I felt ready for the next level. I had reached the ceiling a long time ago and my previous boss, Sharmila Govind, knew this and she gave me responsibilities that would stretch me enough to be ready to head up an HR function.”

Unathi says the four and half years spent at VW set the tone for her career, the bulk of which were in the talent management and organisational development spaces. “I was also fortunate that my role in the talent and OD space allowed me to interact with the board and division heads at a young age.”

Working in multinational organisations taught Unathi a lot about best practices in the niche HR areas of succession planning, retaining talent, organisational development and culture. These conversations early in her career gave her a deep understanding of the strategic elements of the value chain and the valuable contribution that talent and OD has on the people agenda.

She experienced other periods of rapid growth in roles in multinational companies where she had regional responsibilities in Africa and EMEA. She leveraged the experiences and exposure that she got in the region, connecting with peers globally, and having the opportunity to bring those learnings to Africa and aligning those to the local environment and context.

This was also where she was able to rebut the perception that HR professionals in Africa are not as knowledgeable as their global counterparts, as she was able to contribute to forums on talent management and OD alongside international peers.

Being in the right environment
She says when making a big move, one thing that was an important consideration for her was culture fit. “As a first time executive, I wanted to be surrounded by an executive team that would allow me to acclimatise and would base their expectations on my potential and past experiences and successes.”

She says the Rand Refinery chief executive has been a great mentor, someone who generously gives of his time in an effort to guide and acts as a sounding board. Being part of an organisation whose corporate values aligned with her own moral code and being supported by an incredible executive team has allowed her to hit the ground running, learn and deliver quickly.

Unathi has a keen eye for finding a healthy work environment and says the signs are usually there from the interview process, based on team composition, conversations you have and the kind of people on the board. “I am not willing to stay in an environment that doesn’t value my perspective,” says Unathi.

“This is a critical lesson I’ve learnt in my career, having worked in organisations where there was a culture of saying one thing and doing another and not taking elements such as transformation and DEI seriously,” she adds.

Unathi sees her work as having a greater meaning beyond that of a job. “Because of the lasting impact HR has on people, their families and eventually the community, being in senior roles in the HR profession should be about leaving a legacy and not just about the career aspirations.”

When she’s not working, she enjoys spending time with her son. “Being a mom is great, and I find it extremely rewarding,” she says. “Having a child puts a lot of things into perspective: you realise that life is not always about adulting, but also about creating incredible experiences.”