Samsung's Africa head of HR Bess Skosana has a talent for turning things around  

Throughout her career, Bess been involved in massive HR projects that were crucial to the success of the businesses she represented.

Bess has become something of an HR fixer. Somebody renowned for the ability to identify problem areas, and identify staff and solutions best suited to transforming companies, even those with non-existent HR structures and unskilled labour forces. Throughout her career she has taken on massive projects that often involved a total makeover of human capital, invariably leaving those companies far better off than when she joined. 

Her first big project was at a UK-based company called Policy Management Systems Corporation, which was setting up operations in South Africa and needed the HR function to be built into the organisation from scratch. When she joined the company there were only 25 expatriates and she had to recruit the rest of the employees locally, developing HR policies, payroll, systems and processes, while also ensuring that the company observed employment equity requirements. By the time she left, the company had more than 100 employees. 

Madame Bess in the DRC 

In 2001, she took on the mammoth task of setting up Vodacom's operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From the call centres to the main business, she had to find and place every single employee. Despite her having very limited command of the French language, Vodacom DRC went from having zero employees to launching within three months of her arrival. 

Says Bess:

"The DRC does not have resources like we do so I couldn't exactly call a recruitment agency to help me find people. I was basically recruiting by word of mouth. I would headhunt bank managers and I went to churches to recruit because it was impossible to do a proper reference check in the DRC. The best way of recruiting someone that you can trust, whose record was clean, would be to find someone working in a financial institution or someone with strong moral beliefs, which I could best check by getting a reference from the pastor."

Before long, word spread and she became known throughout Kinshasa as 'Madame Bess from Vodacom'. There was one morning when she woke up to a long queue of people standing outside the gate of her office holding their CVs and hoping to be given a job.   

She also found an HR manager who spoke both French and English and together they set up the policies and procedures for the organisation based on the models that Vodacom used in South Africa and tweaked them to suit the local legislation.

Strong foundation

Bess started as a graduate trainee in HR for a company called Electronic Data Systems (EDS), an IT outsourcing company from the US, that would take over entire technology functions of large corporations. This was the experience that gave her the best foundation as an HR generalist. The company took over the operations of Standard Bank's Card division, FNB’s Cheque division and various departments of other small insurance houses. She had to understand HR in the context of the bigger business objectives straight from the onset of her career. While it has only recently become a widespread notion that HR is one of the most critical functions for business success, Bess has understood the importance of adding value as an HR practitioner and has been practising that principle since she was a graduate.

She says:

"I was thrown right in the deep end and had to quickly learn the entire value chain of HR. The company would do these outsourcing deals whereby I would have to do the due diligence for HR. So I would go to an FNB or a Standard Bank and assess their entire HR function of the company. I would have to understand their policies and procedures, their compensation and benefits, budgets... their whole HR structure. And I would have to put all that into the EDS package that was offered to the company to convince them to outsource that function to us."

Resistance to change

When she joined Samsung South Africa, her primary mandate was to transform the business. Despite having been in the country for many successful years, the company was at B-BBEE level 8 and under threat of losing two of its biggest clients unless it brought that down to at least a level 5.  She immediately implemented skills development and management control initiatives that within 12 months transformed the company's employee base by 15 percent making it now a level 5 B-BBBE company. It's a feat that she has achieved through hard work and a no-nonsense approach that has characterised her entire career. She cancelled contracts with the recruitment service providers and in-house HR personnel that had been responsible for the failure to transform.

"I found a new team of people to partner with. After all, you cannot come into an organisation and use the same processes and systems and think you will achieve different results. You have to change it. As you can imagine, some of the choices are unpopular but I know I’m fulfilling a mandate and transformation is a business imperative." 

There was resistance to the initial changes that were implemented. However, it was soon clear that the decisions were aligned with the company’s greater vision. The leadership were passionate about employment equity and the far-reaching effects it has on both the country and the nation as a whole. The focus was, however, still placed on discovering skilled talent – expertise that would move the company forward in bold new ways. A strong emphasis has now been placed on education. New employees are assessed based on their existing qualifications and executive leadership are held to an even more stringent standard, where an MBA is non-negotiable. 

Making a difference

Unlike most HR leaders who stumbled into HR after having had a different vision for their careers from the onset, Bess is one of the few that had their heart set on HR as long as she can remember. For her, it’s a calling. That is why she is able to undertake even the most challenging of projects and turnaround strategies with the utmost conviction. Buoyed by her faith, she has overcome obstacles placed in front of her by difficult managing directors and senior leaders who have been resistant to change but she has never faltered as she is doing what she believes she has been called to do. And, when she reflects on the lives she has impacted, the people who have become better versions of themselves and have been able to provide for their families because of the role she played, she feels at peace with the way she has gone about her business and is driven to do even more.