Meet Miriam Hoosain, Stellenbosch University’s new HR head

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Stellenbosch University’s newly appointed chief director of human resources, Miriam Hoosain, says her curious nature thrives in academia.

Miriam Hoosain, chief director of HR at Stellenbosch University, has an impressive resumé. Formerly the executive director of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) HR department, she holds a MA in psychology (research and statistics) from the University of the Western Cape and is an Associate Coach (UCT Centre for Coaching). With more than 20 years of experience in HR in higher education, Hoosain is no stranger to the complexities and demands of managing people in a large and dynamic institution.

Please give us a brief history of your career.

At the start of my career, I lectured psychology and statistics at the psychology department of University of the Western Cape (UWC) and also worked as a researcher at the New York Psychiatric Institute during my fellowship at Columbia University in the United States. I then worked as a researcher at the Centre for Epidemiological Research at the South African Medical Research Council. I have a keen interest in human psychology and women’s health and studied and worked in these areas, as well as in the areas of epidemiology and biostatistics. As a researcher at the Gender Equity Unit at the UWC, I focused on gender and employment equity. In 1999 I joined the UCT HR Department as an employment equity officer. Over the years I had opportunities to serve in various roles including that of head of HR information systems and later senior HR advisor to the Faculty of Health Sciences in 2004. In August 2010 I took over as acting executive director for HR and later applied for and was appointed into the position which I held for over 12 years. In 2023 the opportunity arose to join Stellenbosch University in May of that year. I feel incredibly privileged to have enjoyed working in a diverse range of roles within the higher education and research environment.

How would you describe yourself?

What drives and keeps me interested is complexity and interesting problems. I am known for asking four-million-and-one questions, “Why doe we do this? Have you thought about this…? And what about that…? But what if we try it like this…? I do ask a lot of questions and love complexity and innovating, which is why I love and feel so at home working in higher education.

What are your thoughts on the changing world of work?

The fact that the world of work has changed post-Covid is a given and it has thankfully accelerated the need for a more human centric approach to the world of work. This requires us to understand the complexity of being human where we all have different needs and strengths. From an HR perspective, this translates into balancing the needs and complexity of the environment and of our staff.

Employers are having to think differently about how to achieve the goals of the organisation and at the same time help our staff achieve their life goals. If we can get those aspects as closely aligned as possible, we’ll come up with approaches that work and free our thinking of one-size-fits all solutions. And the best part is that we will be able to attract and retain the best talent to deliver on our goals.

How would you describe your leadership style?

It has been described by colleagues as transformational. I am excited about the challenge of working with colleagues to unlock the true value-add of HR by transforming HR functions from being predominantly administrative and operational to being more strategically focused and aligned with the university’s organisational purpose and goals. I know it might sound cliché, but you’ve got to take people along with you. You have to listen carefully. There’s so much wisdom in each one of us. A university is measured by the success of its people, so my approach is always organisation and human-centred, with a strong emphasis on growth, development and creativity.

What are you most looking forward to in this position?

I thrive in a consultative, collaborative environment and am happiest when I can share ideas and innovate with others. I’m keen to take on the challenge of enabling strategy, streamlining unnecessary bureaucracy and revising burdensome systems. If you don’t focus on organisational core business and development initiatives, you engage at a level that remains operational and transactional, and you won’t really see change. Reviewing business systems and automating processes help academics and researchers to remain focused on their core tasks so they don’t drown in bureaucratic responsibilities. I feel extremely blessed to have this opportunity to be able to contribute. I think Stellenbosch University is a special employer. I’m very excited about my role here. One of the highlights of my life is the amazing people I get to work with. I’ve already met wonderful people at Stellenbosch, colleagues I can learn with and engage in meaningful ways.

You recently commenced on a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca. How was that?

When you go on the Hajj pilgrimage and for the journey to be truly transformational, you need to become more conscious of and strip yourself of any ego issues as well as free yourself of all possible prejudice and ‘isms’ – racism, sexism, ageism… to become one with humanity. Dressed in simple white garb, you’re indistinguishable from the next person, irrespective of your positional status, rank, wealth or nationality. It is a truly beautiful and deeply humbling experience. I returned from the pilgrimage inspired and motivated to tackle
the demands of my new job.

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