Sasol Executive Charlotte Mokoena on leading through service to others

As a former teacher and nurse, service to others has been a common thread throughout her career.

Humility; a sense of fairness; passion to see people develop and organisations succeed; open-mindedness; hunger for continuous learning; and stamina to stay the course. These are some of the traits that Charlotte Mokoena (53), the Executive Vice President for Human Resources and Corporate Affairs at Sasol, believes one needs to be an upstanding, inspiring manager and a senior executive.

Mokoena joined Sasol in February 2017. In her role, she has global responsibility for Sasol’s Human Resources and Corporate Affairs functions. The international integrated chemicals and energy company recruited her from Tongaat Hulett, an agricultural and agri-processing business, where she spent three-and-a-half years as HR executive.

Under her stewardship, one of the key initiatives Sasol has undertaken is enhancing the company’s employee value proposition, as well as driving a companywide culture transformation programme.

The enhanced employee value proposition, dubbed Sasol Cares, kicked-off with employees’ participating in a quality of life survey to further Sasol’s understanding of its South African workforce’s living standards and financial circumstances. More than 7,000 responses were received, providing invaluable data that was used to design the programme. 

“The survey enabled Sasol to develop locally relevant, data-driven people management solutions,” Mokoena says, “to meaningfully enhance the value Sasol offers our employees.”

In South Africa, she says, the survey revealed immediate challenges its workforce faced in respect to their financial well-being and quality of life related to debt levels, the cost of education and housing, ability to save and invest, and other obligations. In response, the company launched the Sasol Cares programme comprising several options to help alleviate some of the socio-economic pressures confronting its employees.

These options include monetary contributions to either out-of-pocket medical expenses, schools fees or servicing formal debt, among others. While only a few months in operation, Mokoena is proud that Sasol Cares has already contributed to schools fees for 14,000 dependents of employees and distributed school bags and stationery packs across 28 towns and cities.   

Corporate Affairs, the other half of Mokoena’s portfolio, comprises stakeholder relations, communications, brand and reputation management, and social investment. Through the company’s social programmes, ensuring Sasol genuinely and positively impacts the lives of its fenceline communities is a particular focus and deep passion of Mokoena’s. She views social investment as more than just the distribution of funds and resources. “CSI is not a gift, it is a catalyst for change that drives our contribution to inclusive growth and development for beneficiaries,” she explains.  

She notes that the strategic intent of Sasol’s Corporate Affairs function rests on three pillars: the first is to make a measurable socio-economic impact as a force for good. The next is reputation, to understand stakeholder expectations and respond effectively, and the third is advocacy, to proactively influence the internal and external environment to drive mutually beneficial outcomes.

Owing to Sasol’s deep historical ties to the towns of Sasolburg and Secunda in South Africa, the company plays an active role in creating an environment where communities, which include its employees, can flourish, by enhancing the capacity of local government to effectively deliver services.

“Our footprint spans both developed and emerging economies, so we understand that our stakeholders are diverse and localised solutions, supported by data, are important to remain relevant and have the required impact,” says Mokoena.

She explains that communities expect Sasol to contribute towards improving their quality of life, by enabling them to become economically active participants in society.

“To realise their ambitions, we direct a substantial portion of our social investment funding towards education, skills and entrepreneurial development programmes. This is in addition to infrastructure programmes we support to ensure our local municipalities have stable, thriving communities.”

Sasol, for example, has played a direct role in assisting the Govan Mbeki Municipality in Mpumalanga with infrastructure upgrade projects targeting sewer systems, wastewater treatment, water reticulation and clearing of stormwater channels.

Where it all started

Mokoena was born in 1965 in Pimville, Soweto as the eldest of four girls in what she describes as a “regular upbringing at that time in South Africa”. Following the 1976 Soweto uprisings, she and her sisters relocated to Rustenburg to stay with their grandparents and, upon their passing, attended boarding school to complete their schooling.

Matriculating in a then homeland high school prevented Mokoena from gaining entry to Wits University. She trained as a nurse and worked at Baragwanath Hospital in the mid-1980s. This experience gave her direct exposure to the violence and trauma of apartheid, while the system’s brutality also directly affected and claimed the lives of her family members.

Her other vocation is teaching. “I believe I was born to teach and develop people,” she says. Mokoena practised as a guidance teacher at a school in Mahikeng for about a year before returning to work for a youth development NGO in Soweto, while working in conflict resolution in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands when violence in the province was rife in the early 1990s.

An intrinsic feature of her life and work is a sense of caring, listening and learning. On travels, she takes time to talk to waiters, taxi drivers, hotel porters and professionals alike, to hear about their daily lives and struggles, view of their country’s political and economic situation and a sense of their future in it.  

“All my jobs have been a work of service centred on people,” she says, starting with her time as a nurse, which grounded her work ethic and taught her humility as she cared for patients wholly dependent on others for their well-being and comfort. “Teaching also requires a sense of care as a calling, not just a profession.” She also had a short stint as a consultant helping companies devise social labour plans to assist retrenched workers.

Her corporate career started at the Coca-Cola Company as a performance consultant and then as a Manager, Learning and Education for Southern and East Africa. Her role grew to cover the entire continent as the Organisational Capability Manager for Africa supporting leadership teams throughout the continent.

HR is a unique profession

Mokoena joined Telkom in 2002 as Group Executive for Learning before being promoted to Chief of Human Resources. She held two other roles in operations before rounding off her 11-year stint as the Managing Executive, Customer Experience. At Telkom, she sought to improve working conditions and competencies of employees and build organisational capabilities that contribute to company performance.

“We focused on customer-facing or frontline employees,” she says, with the aim being to ensure that employee experiences and expectations are taken care of, and align their work and focus with the company’s performance targets. “We wanted higher performance to achieve customer and company goals, so we needed to understand barriers to performance and adjust the company value proposition while keeping an eye on costs,” she recalls.

At Tongaat Hulett, she sought to understand the company’s operating footprint and therefore its employee social responsibility that spread beyond the communities in which it operated, but also to labour-sending areas. “The challenge was to make all employees at all levels feel cared for. The son of a sugar cane cutter cannot be a sugar cane cutter,” she says.

Her career at Coca-Cola exposed her to knowledge workers, while Telkom exposed her to technical workers and engineers in the consumer goods sector. Tongaat Hulett exposed her to another fast-moving consumer good and agro-processing business with a full spectrum of skills. She now brings that experience to bear in a highly technical, integrated chemicals and energy business at Sasol and remains guided by the same principles.

“Human Resources is a different and unique type of career,” Mokoena says, and describes herself as an “interventionist”, someone “who finds data to develop people management interventions in support of business outcomes”.

“The challenge of an HR practitioner is to balance the needs of an organisation with the expectations of employees. Finding that balance is very key. A critical interventionist mindset of an HR practitioner is to determine if you are an HR executive in business or a business person in HR.”

Mokoena exudes a lot of warmth beneath her polished, professional exterior. Because HR as a senior role entails mentoring, she seems to be stern but fair, gentle yet encouraging, and sees leadership as more of an art than a science.

One of the ways she measures a leader is by the quality of the leaders they produce. “All of the people I have mentored have gone on to become highly accomplished in their own right, and are either heading up departments and organisations or running their own businesses. That is how I measure the value I add,” she says. What she finds most gratifying is that her mentees go on to reach the top of their game and follow their passion and talents. “Great leaders bring out the best in people,” she says.

She believes organisational longevity to ensure the impact of one’s interventions is crucial as a business mentor, senior executive and practitioner. “Stay in a place to learn and intervene and create solutions for one or two things and execute them well. Support and build capable people with a view to building a high-performance organisation. If someone good has to leave, make sure you keep the door open for them to come back. If someone leaves owing to poor performance, follow due process and let them leave with their dignity intact,” she says. “If someone wilfully transgresses company policies, they need to feel the full might of the organisation’s sanction, but must not be humiliated in the process. Organisations care for people, so people must care for these organisations.”

“Finally,” she says, “be humble. The higher up the organisation you go, the more humility you should have.”