Bongani pivoted from a career in law when his political heart strings were pulled.
Samela Holdings CEO Bongani Hlophe is a seasoned HR leader whose decision to go into HR came when he was close to completing his undergraduate BA law degree. He didn't know anything about HR until he did an industrial relations module that fascinated him, firstly, because it had a political slant that was particularly relevant in a South African context and, secondly, because it resonated with him as a field of study that could affect real change in the lives of real people.
It awoke the young political animal within him while civil law, criminal law, and other law courses simply failed to pull at his political heart strings. He then decided to abandon his plan to pursue an LLB qualification and studied HR at postgraduate level where he majored in employment relations management with specialisations in advanced labour law.
Academically, that’s what drew Bongani to HR. Practically, what caught his attention were the personalities within the HR profession. In his first HR role at cosmetics company Justine, he noted the way HR colleagues carried themselves and was impressed with the manner in which HR people tended to be the ones that had the most organisational awareness. They had a stronger organisational instinct about them in the sense that they were able to grasp the bigger picture whereas professionals within other functions tended to narrow their thinking and strategic focus around their specific areas of expertise and objectives.
“What I learned from the first HR executive I worked under, Mrs Getty Simelane, was that HR leaders had to entertain a cross section of perspectives before they could even act. They had to measure the blast radius of everything they said and did,” says Bongani.
“I noticed quite early on that there was a certain set of character traits required to be able to do that, which I wanted to cultivate in myself if I were to become a strong leader.”
From curiosity to passion
That's when his curiosity for HR evolved into a passion. He actively pursued experiences in HR that would give him a lot of knowledge and sought out opportunities that would allow him to learn more about HR than what he had studied.
“The first time I joined an external community of HR professionals was when I joined the national employment equity forum, which was headed by a chap called Buyani Zwane who is now a lecturer at a business school and that was my first stint into exploring the broader HR community where he started to share organisational insights from different industries and operational habitats, which enriched my understanding of HR because it wasn't limited to where I worked.”
From that point onwards, Bongani was deep into HR and by the time he joined De Beers, his expertise and passion had only intensified.
He thereafter rose through the ranks, climbing the corporate ladder so quickly that, by the age of 26, he was the youngest member of the Institute of Directors, and went on to become an HR executive by the age of 33.
Ever open to being stretched
On what it takes to ascend at such a rate with an organisation, Bongani says it was his openness to being stretched. He wasn't afraid to take on new challenges and that made him very useful to his senior colleagues. As he began to be given more responsibility, he realised that it wasn’t actually the smartest or most qualified employees that tended to land promotions but rather the ones that were the most useful.
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Says Bongani: “I never backed down from a challenge to do work that hadn't been assigned to anyone. Professionals in general are comfortable in spaces where they are winning and very few people are willing to risk failure. They also would not want to expend energy in an area that is based on an uncontracted output. When something needs to be done but is not contractually required of us, few of us will willingly take it on with the same enthusiasm and effort that they execute their primary roles and responsibilities. But that's what it takes to grow in a corporate environment.”
Bongani says most people will shirk the responsibility and wait for someone else to volunteer to do the work and, more often than not, he would be that guy. The reason he did that was that he has a belief that unchartered territories are a very good avenue for learning because what one discovers in those spaces allows them to leave a footprint.
“A lot of the work in HR has been done before and there's very little room to innovate but allowing myself to be stretched like that enabled me to bring new knowledge into the HR environment.”
That said, Bongani is devouted christrian and attributes all his success to God, saying that he would be remiss of him to not acknoeledge the favour that the Lord has show him despite having worked extremely hard to achieve what he has.
A laughable idea
It is the penchant for thinking outside the box that led to the formation of Samela Holdings which was borne from a conversation with his CEO while serving as the HR director at coal mining company Wescoal.
He went to Waheed Sulaiman with a proposal after a board meeting where he suggested that the executive committee approach the business with the idea of forming “our own management service company and merging all our employment contracts into a service-provider agreement.” The idea, which was laughed off at the time, was for them to run the company for a fixed period.
His thinking was that it would work out cheaper for the business because there wouldn’t have been any need for long and short-term incentives and the executive committee wouldn't be diluting the equity of the business.
Rather, they would receive a management fee for a period of, say, five years after which the board could decide whether to renew the contract or bring in a new team of executives.
“Ultimately it would be us that holds the risk because it would be up to us to set our fees and stretch remuneration based on our impact on the share price. Instead of having to incentivise us with bonuses and the like, it would become a contract wherein our responsibility is to up the share price by a certain percentage, and improve various efficiency ratios and cost savings that are expected with the contract period. It would then be up to us to figure out the number of staff and resources required to make it happen,” says Bongani.
Having initially laughed at the idea, the former CEO came back to Bongani after they had both left the company and Waheed, who was material in mentoring Bongani and the formation of Samela Holdings. The company has since worked with a variety of companies and brownfield projects in the mining sector.
Samela are currently involved in setting up mining projects in Central Africa and, in South Africa are looking at developing mining processing technologies as well as mining health and safety technologies for the local market through their shareholding in smart innovation technologies.