Some would say she sped through life but, for her, it was all pretty normal.
Servest Group HR director Lungile Langa has lived most of her life in the fast lane, not in the classic definition of having a risk-filled, thrill-seeking, hedonistic lifestyle, but rather in the sense that she went through many of life’s traditional milestones rather quickly.
She completed matric at the age of 16 and, by 21, she was a BA graduate, a wife, and a mother. To say she has always been someone that was mature for her age would be an understatement of note. Three years later, she was pregnant with the second born. Lungi, as she is affectionately known, speaks about being a studying, working mom and wife as if it were nothing to write home about.
As a BA graduate, her career in HR took a while to take off. But once it did, it skyrocketed. She had struggled to find work and settled on working in retail in her early twenties and eventually found an administrative job at McDonalds’s where she would sit in a tiny back office of a McDonald’s restaurant to organise payroll and staff schedules.
That was her first ‘office’ job and, although it was not very challenging, she loved it. She was often done with her work by 11 am and would spend the rest of her day selling burgers. It was then that she decided she wanted to pursue a career in HR.
Fast life, fast career
After completing a post-graduate diploma in HR, she joined printing company Heidelberg Graphics as the HR assistant. Along with the HR manager, the two of them were responsible for the HR function of the business, which employed about 3000 people. It was a huge breakthrough for her career because it allowed her to implement everything she had learned about HR while it was still fresh in her mind. Before long she was put in charge of the entire payroll function for 3000 people.
Her big test came at Primedia where she was the HR Manager for @Home and had to build an entire HR framework from scratch.
“When I joined, the files were literally empty. It was as if they didn’t have an HR manager before me. I did everything from writing job descriptions to putting together policies - the full HR value chain. Which was an exciting challenge for me,” says Lungi.
In her next role as an HR consultant at Momentum, her career was fast-tracked and she was promoted four times over a five-year period all the while studying her honours in Industrial Psychology.
“I gave birth to my second born after submitting my last assignment, quite literally. I remember the day I went to into labour because my water broke just moments after pressing the submit button,” she says nonchalantly.
For Lungi, being a working mom, student and wife, was normal. She didn’t know how else to be. Of course, she had a fantastic support system in her family and helper, but it is still quite remarkable how manageable she found it all.
Says Lungi: “Looking back now I realise that I was really taking on a lot but, at the time, it was just normal. I can’t even tell you that I felt under immense pressure or that I dropped any of the balls I was juggling. At work, I was doing well. At school, I finished among the top in my class. And I think I still managed to be a good wife and mother during that period. One thing for sure...it was all by the Grace of God.”
Coming back for a purpose
After Momentum, she spent seven years at Telkom. It was an experience that she describes as both taxing and growth inspiring. More than anything, it was the several restructures that she had to oversee that wore her out.
“Any HR leader will tell you that those are difficult processes and I think we could have handled it much better because, after four years of relative stability at Telkom, we started having to restructure almost annually. The straw that broke the camel’s back came on the day that I had to let go of my PA,” says Lungi, who decided to take a sabbatical and eventually start her own industrial psychology practice.
It was the first time in a long time that she slowed down, spending more time at home, being more accessible to friends and family than she had ever been. She loved every minute it, but after two years she felt it was time for another challenge. She had built up her practice to the point that it was running pretty well without her.
But, even then, she would not have settled for just any role. There was something about Servest that resonated with her.
“We don’t call our people employees. Our chairman, who is the founder of this organisation, is so passionate about people that he insists we refer to them as colleagues. And what he means by that is we are all equals, irrespective of whether one of us is a cleaner and the other is an executive,” says Lungi.
For her, joining Servest was an opportunity to achieve a greater purpose because most of her ‘colleagues’ within the business are low-earning individuals that often do not have a voice in large corporations or even in society for that matter.
“I’m fortunate to be working in a company like this where my CEO and the executive team are immediately tuned in when I start talking about things we can do to fulfil our purpose of improving the lives of our colleagues,” she says, adding that, while CEO Xolile Sizani is an engineer, he is one with a heart of gold.
Similar to her role at Primedia, she is very much responsible for making wholesale changes to the HR function. The difference is that instead of building something from nothing, at Servest she is undertaking a massive consolidation effort.
She says: “I think I am at my best when I have to start building things from scratch. And, although there was already an HR infrastructure when I arrived here, a lot of it was outdated, so we had to review and update it. We have nine different divisions, many of which came from acquisitions so they already had their own framework, which meant there were a lot of inconsistencies.
“My role is to benchmark best practice and integrate everything to ensure that our policies and processes that are applicable to our organisation in its entirety. We have 23 000 colleagues in our organisations but upon interrogating some of the policies, we realised that these were not serving our colleagues, nor the business, very well.”
Ultimately, Lungi considers herself as a being extremely fortunate to be in a position to impact the lives our colleagues and their families. For her, it’s an honour but also a huge responsibility, for which she is grateful and does not take lightly.