Sinqobile Khuluse believes in incorporating women into leadership roles in the private sector

When she is not wearing her corporate hat, the head of human resources reads, and binges on her favourite TV shows.

Like most HR leaders, Sinqobile Khuluse, Sandock Austral Shipyards’ head of human resources, had no plans of getting into HR as she had studied law, but her compassionate nature and her drive to impact many lives rerouted her into the industry.

After finishing high school, she went on to study at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) where she pursued her legal studies. She later became an attorney and after a few years in practice found her passion in employment law.

While she was completing her studies, Sinqobile was also doing part-time work to support her children. She has worked in various retail stores, food chains and in the entertainment industry, and has experienced first-hand the ill-treatment of lower-level personnel – all of which fuelled her passion for fair labour practices.

“I’m a hustler of note,” Sinqobile chuckles. “I was a full-time student, and I would finish lectures at UKZN, go and change in the bathroom, take a taxi and go to work night shift in the casino.” While her fellow students were sleeping, she would be working till the early hours of the morning and would steal time to study in the bathroom in between her breaks.

While she was halfway through her studies towards a master’s in employment law, Sinqobile got a job at one of the specialist labour law firms, Farrell Attorneys in KwaZulu-Natal. The job gave her a platform to gain experience.

While working for the firm, one of their major clients, a manufacturing company, had a vacancy for a senior manager in employee relations and she applied and joined the organisation.

Smiths Manufacturing was her first complete exposure into HR in the workplace, as she was responsible for the industrial relations, disciplinary hearings, union consultations and negotiations – and she really enjoyed it.

“As luck would have it, while at Smiths Manufacturing an opportunity opened at Hesto Harnesses. I was identified as part of the key talent pipeline in the Metair Group and was approached by the then group HR director, Paul Vermaak, to transfer to Hesto Harnesses in Stanger,” says Sinqobile.

Taking the job meant Sinqobile would be driving 200km a day to work, and she did this from 2017 to 2021. “I had found my passion: working with an awesome HR team and highly experienced top management team. My passion and purpose were finally aligned and this is what drove me,” she remarks.

Two years into the role she was promoted to HR director, and continued to enjoy the challenge, fully supported by the leadership team and Paul.

Sinqobile was heading up an HR team servicing approximately 2,500 employees and was responsible for human resources, learning and development, employee relations, organisational development and health and safety. Being in this role, Sinqobile says, was a “massive” test of faith, but she had the support of a capable team. Regrettably, the demands of the role resulted in her sacrificing her postgraduate studies and she never completed her master’s degree.

After five years of commuting between two towns, Sinqobile decided to look for another opportunity closer to home. “I got a call that Sandock Austral was looking for an HR head and I was asked if I was interested. I said, ‘Who is Sandock Austral?’” she recalls.

Subsequent to a conversation with CEO Prasheen Maharaj, Sinqobile was presented with an offer to join Sandock Austral Shipyards. “I really thought to myself, the stars can align when they want to, because Sandock Austral is 4.5km from my house,” Sinqobile says.

Prior to joining the company, she was not aware that there was an organisation in South Africa building ships. Sandock Austral Shipyards is Africa’s leading commercial and naval shipbuilder and ship repair company, which is part of the Sandock Austral Group, and is involved in the marine engineering, aerospace and energy sectors. One of the big projects the company is currently working on is a defence vessel for the South African Navy.

Sinqobile is excited about being part of Sandock Austral as she joined the company at a time when it is going through various organisational changes. “We’ve renewed our strategy and operating model, so there is a lot of shuffling and restructuring that, when I joined, had just started,” Sinqobile shares.

Having the opportunity to lead and to impact so many lives, and to be trusted with such big responsibilities as a business leader, is what makes Sinqobile proud to wear the title of chief people officer. “Working for a company that lives the statement ‘that people are the heartbeat of our business’, and for a visionary CEO, has been a great value-add to my career,” she says..

“Being able to influence the people strategy and the trajectory of people’s careers has left an indelible mark in my heart. Being able to link my purpose with the work that I do never feels like a job, it feels as though I’ve woken up to attend to my calling.”

One of the biggest struggles she’s grappled with is finding that she has a responsibility of paving the way for other women in male-dominated industries. “When I was at Hesto Harnesses, I was the only woman on the board of directors, and I was the only black director. So, when you are pioneering, there are a lot of struggles that you go through.”

Sinqobile has a passion for diversity, equality, inclusion, and transformation. She believes that more women should be incorporated into leadership roles in the private sector.

She initially struggled to process how she got to where she was when she was at Hesto, and whether she deserved to be there. “It’s as though I was experiencing the remnants of the imposter syndrome where I constantly had self-doubt about whether I deserve to be here: I’m not even 35 yet, but I’m a director,” she says.

Sinqobile draws a lot of inspiration from various experts in the industry and is currently being mentored by Cebile Xulu, a top leader in the HR community.

Being a non-HR practitioner by qualification meant she had to equip herself with how she was going to make the organisation better and how she was going to build up the HR strategy and bring the team together.

“I get a lot of fulfilment when I see someone achieve their goals, as well as from seeing my children grow and helping my community,” Sinqobile says.

“I want to pursue an MBA and become more experienced when it comes to operations, because I feel as though a lot of the impact that we make as business partners requires us to have a high degree of business acumen and understanding of the operations environment in our businesses.

“My faith in God has steered me well in all my goals,” she adds, and also credits her mom as the driving force behind her achievements and biggest cheerleader.

When she is not wearing her corporate hat, Sinqobile enjoys travelling and trying out new culinary delights. She is also an avid reader, and says her favourite book of all time is Mteto Nyathi’s Betting on a Darkie.

“At the moment I am following Brené Brown's podcasts. I draw so much inspiration from her motivations on comfort over courage.”

Her favourite quote, which she says she lives by, is: “Life is tough, my darling, but so are you!”