SAP’s Genevieve Koolen believes people enable organisational success

The HR director reveals how a varied 30-year career prepared her for her current role.

Genevieve Koolen, the human resources director at SAP Africa, was thrown in the deep end at the start of her career in HR. After completing her studies and going through business school, she landed a role as HR business partner at a thriving ad agency.

She describes the advertising industry in the 1990s as crazy: “Much like the ʼ60s, there was a lot of partying, drugs and alcohol. If you didn’t have a solid head on your shoulders, it was easy to get sucked in.”

It was an uncontained environment where people weren’t politically correct and erratic behaviour was the norm, she says, adding that, “Having a video machine thrown at your head was not unheard of in those days!”

Working in such an environment was challenging for her, because as a self-described non-creative, she had to learn how to work with free-spirited individuals who naturally rebelled against the rules and policies she was trying to implement.

Being surrounded by all the eccentricity and wildness was a shock and she had to learn to cope with the ups and downs and develop a huge tolerance for ambiguity.

“Advertising isn’t for the faint-hearted. Trying to create rules and structures was extremely difficult until I realised my role would only work if I made the focus more about relationships, not structure. I realised that as HR professionals our role is to build responsive culture in organisation, through collaboration and not just pushing rules,” she says.

Building bridges
Genevieve says that HR professionals should be relationship builders who navigate between what employees need and what the organisation has to accomplish.

“If you are not naturally artistic or imaginative like me, creative environments are extremely tough,” she says, adding that, “It’s important to pick your battles. You have to figure out what is critical and actually matters. You have to ask yourself if you really want to have every single fight or find one or two areas where your focus will make an impact for the broader organisation.”

After five years, she realised it was time to move on. “Spending lots of time managing what in other environments would be considered misbehaviour got to be like Groundhog Day.”

She joined Re-solve Group, which was a start-up at the time. In post-1994 South Africa, the country was trying to address the technical, social, environmental and economic developmental challenges faced related to service provision, system inefficiencies, application of products, institutional arrangements, organisational structure and capacity development.

As a team, the mission was to take legislation like the revamped Skills Act, Employment Equity Act and others and embed them in the public sector, which needed to be restructured in order to deliver services.

“It was a completely opposite experience from the advertising industry,” says Genevieve. “It was much more organised with the tools of trade at play in a more traditional sense. I was able to practise a more advanced type of HR which was strategic and looked across the organisation.”

There were a multitude of complex issues to address, and a much more intense learning curve. Being involved in co-creating the future of HR in the public sector meant pulling on the golden threads that run through every organisation, and forced her to hone her skills to understand what organisations wanted and needed.

“At the time, the public sector was undergoing massive changes. It was facing a huge skills deficit and was being disrupted, as it was trying to build new models fit for the new South Africa. For example, the City of Joburg was building agencies such as JRA and Pikitup to unbundle services and improve delivery.”

These challenges required a lot of HR thinking around the structuring of new entities, how they would be resourced and governed. “It was in those projects that I got to see what HR meant from cradle to grave,” she reflects.

The power of combining contrasting experiences
Looking back, Genevieve says all the challenges were opportunities for growth. “When you’re in different organisations and situations you learn a lot about yourself and your ability to work with people with different personalities and motivations.”

After a stint at Neotel she was appointed as HR director for SAP Africa in June 2019. “With the experiences I have had, I am able to quickly separate the story, discussions and complaints from root causes. I have an ability to work with people and organisations regardless of idiosyncrasies and have a much easier time balancing my personality in respect of the environment. After 30 years, you are able to moderate who you are so you fit into the organisation better.”

Dealing with people inherently comes with friction, and Genevieve says she has a better understanding of conflicts and what underpins them.

“We all battle with the same things as HR,” she says. “We are faced with challenges around resourcing, budget, time, headcount. All challenges are the same, just articulated differently, it’s about being able to home into the core of the central issues and address those.

She says navigating the complexity of relationships includes being clear about the roles you adopt on the job: “How you avoid taking on roles like the nursemaid, mother or centre of gossip is all about being intentional about how you show up. As a leader you have to make strategic choices and elevate discussions into interactions that make a difference in the organisation.

She says organisational fit is important to having a successful career in HR. The best dynamic occurs when there is consensus in the business that HR matters.

“I have found that organisations that believe that people are an enabler to their success, are the best. At SAP, the focus on employees’ experiences makes it a great place to contribute. You can’t have a successful journey as an HR person in an organisation where people aren’t valued.”

She says SAP demonstrates that they care through the perpetual willingness to have conversations about their people and make adjustments according to that feedback.

“For example, the response to the pandemic was very proactive. As the crisis evolved and impacted people’s ability to work, the company did everything to keep people safe and productive, by enabling them to work remotely.”

She says the company adopted a quick focus on mental health and was one of the first organisations to call for a global mental health day in April 2020 to allow everyone to unplug and take care of themselves.

“At the same time, we understand people want to continue to learn and grow despite the current challenges. This year, we initiated the first global ‘People Day’ as an opportunity for our employees to contemplate their skills, their development needs and their career aspirations.”
She adds, “We don’t get everything right, but we try to have the conversations, and focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t do.”

Outside of work
Genevieve is a mother of three, the oldest of whom is a 26-year-old teacher, followed by a matriculant and Grade 10 learner. An avid reader, she is a fan of fiction and is drawn to fantasy, with stories of mythical creatures, werewolves and fairies.

A very social person, she says she enjoys long lazy lunches with friends as a great way to disconnect. “Relationships are very important to me and I have maintained the same network of friends for 30 years, which is indicative of how much I value close ties.”