TFG's Senta Morley on the value of early engagement

She says that, as soon as people have been engaged, they start talking to each other and preparing for change.

“When a line manager calls a meeting and asks an HR manager to be present, I step in and ask them why,” says Senta Morley, HR executive at TFG, formerly – and perhaps better – known as The Foschini Group. “Line managers ARE people managers,” she says, describing a salient example from Retail Apparel Group (RAG), the Australian business that TFG acquired in 2017. “Payroll falls under the CFO there and there is no HR department. Their line managers are people managers who never have more than five people reporting to them. They recruit, they train, they mentor and they coach.”

Senta joined the TFG board in 2016, after a long career in various HR roles in the group. “To sit on the board is absolutely a highlight,” she says, in one breath admitting that the learning curve is steep and the responsibility of overseeing the 400-people-strong function sometimes stressful. “The role brings extra meetings and a lot of reading. I am completely immersed in the nuts and bolts of running the company. That is really exciting.”

Born in Pretoria to parents who had immigrated by ship from The Netherlands, Senta aspired to be an actress. Her father, who was a hairdresser just like his own father, didn’t think much of that and – told his “meisje” that was not going to happen. “I then looked at retail and thought buying was a glamorous job,” says Senta, who moved to UCT to study industrial psychology and has mostly stayed put in the Mother City ever since.

How not to treat people

A series of bad experiences early in her career tested and shaped Senta’s resolve and resilience, but also inspired her priorities as a leader later on. Her first job as a trainee manager at Edcon in Adderley street was “six months of absolute pure hell”, she recalls. As a young and bright manager-to-be, she received no training or mentorship and was basically just left on the floor as a salesperson.

“It taught me a lot about how not to treat people and the destructive power of really poor leadership.”

Although she had kept applying for buying jobs at Truworths and Foschini, Senta eventually ended up in HR and says this is exactly where she belonged. “At the time, HR people all came out of a particular mould,” she says. “They had gone through private girls school, UCT and were on the Dean’s merit list. There was no gender diversity, and the senior roles were taken up by men. It was so backward.”

Senta teamed up with Brent Curry – TFG’s current CIO – early in her career and their professional partnership accelerated her exposure and allowed her to grow faster than most of her peers. “Brent was running distribution centres and nobody from HR wanted to work there. There were a number of facilities including a large facility in Johannesburg which was heavily unionised. It was militant, there was no technology involved and the educational level of employees was very low. The managers were also very old school. I put my hand up and we started a big turnaround together. We could basically do our thing, as nobody else wanted to be involved. We moved all facilities to Cape Town, put technology in place and turned it around.”

After that, Senta ran various projects, became head of HR for IT and then Head of HR for the Sports division, which includes TotalSports, Sportscene and Due South. Her next role, as head of Talent Management, turned out to be a make-or-break role. Needless to say, Senta made it.

Painful change

“Until then, we did everything in silos,” she says. “I put in best practice and we started doing talent planning across the group. For brands that don’t compete, we put in learning academies centrally. When you take the emotion out of it, it all makes sense, but that change was unbelievably painful and we lost a few people going through this process. From then on, we prescribed how we do performance management, recruitment and training.”

It caused many sleepless nights. “I was extremely unpopular and people can get ugly in those circumstances. When someone starts attacking you personally, it is very hard. To get everybody on board, I did a lot of one on ones, a lot of communication. I sat with the heads of HR of the brands many, many times, but at some stage, I had to say: “you need to get over yourself.”

One of Senta’s biggest lessons, and one that she applies on a daily basis as HR boss is the importance of involving and listening to alternate voices early on, as it helps the organisation to prepare for change as a collective. Partly thanks to this, lesson, the current implementation of shared services, still in its early stages, is not encountering any significant resistance and is seen as an admin-reducing blessing by most brands.

“People are social animals. If you can engage them as early as possible with your thinking, with your big ideas, you can bounce those off people, get more ideas and meet less resistance. As soon as people have been engaged, they start talking to each other and preparing for change.”

People without a voice

Senta makes a point of stating in her LinkedIn profile that she values humility and cares about people who don’t have a voice. “Head office people already have their voice,” she explains. “People here in the office in Parow should be able to help themselves with transactional activities. As HR, our job is to write the policy and make it easily accessible to all through various channels. You don’t need the HR department to find a policy. Look it up yourself! I want to move more resources to support people without a voice, particularly in our stores nationally.”

For Senta, that is the essence of one of the values of TFG that she holds high: making profit decently. “You can’t make a profit when stores somewhere in the country don’t have proper leave or overtime practices in place. That is when HR needs to step in. Shopping centres change their trading times all the time, but some employees take three taxis and then still have to walk just to get home. They are vulnerable. We need to be cognisant of that when we deal with situations like that and target our selection strategies.”

As part of living those values, Senta is driving a Leading Change programme within TFG, aligning the senior executives with the company’s strategies and values in a practical way. “How do you build a sustainable business? What is your responsibility as an executive? What questions do you ask your people? Do you care? In the last few years, there have been many examples of greed in corporate South Africa, which shows the value of a values-based approach like this.” To make sure the discussions have a lasting effect that is directly linked to KPIs, this is always followed up with the introduction of “a lot of metrics”, says Senta, giving examples like measuring late take-on data, labour turnover and voice of employee (employee engagement) scores.

Another conscious change that Senta has initiated recently is a move away from expensive recruitment agencies and the creation of an in-house search function. “For jobs that occur across the business, we can map talent,” she says. “In HR, we used to only recruit from social sciences down to people with an HR diploma. Now I have five CAs and business science graduates. I also see data scientists playing a bigger role.” This is true for functions across the business where new skills such as data science will be critical for our future.

The answer is in the data

Traditionally, HR people haven’t been taught to ask the questions that data should make you ask, Senta admits. “Why is the labour turnover high somewhere? The answer is in the data. We are forcing the data onto the teams now from head office. We push the data through. We are teaching the brand heads to ask the questions. It is the role of HR to put the data in front of the line managers and help them make better decisions to improve the business.” 

Senta mentions her previous boss Shani Naidoo as a great teacher and also refers to Brent Curry as a mentor. “They have given me exposure and have. They have always been a sounding board. 

The best way to learn is when you have someone who is grappling with something similar, she says. “Don’t go at it solo, that is what I have learned. I have benefited so much from people giving me time and throwing me in the deep end. Never think you have all the answers. That links back to humility, which is an extremely important one for me.”