Mhlo attributes his success to an extremely challenging introduction to working in the HR profession
Mhlo Ntshangase, HR Director at Saint-Gobain, cut is teeth at industrial relations or labour law consulting firm LabourNet. Like any other consulting firm, it was a tough, fast-paced, and a very numbers-driven environment, but it provided Mhlo with exceptional learning and growth opportunities that have positively impacted his career achievements to date.
"Whilst it was a fun and good place to work overall, it was one of those places where you either succeed or you fail, there was very little middle ground. You were given numbers in terms of billing targets that you had to reach. At the same time, we also had targets to grow the organisation, so you also had to become the salesperson and go out and do cold calls, see prospective clients, organise conferences to attract more clientele and close deals. I would not trade that experience for anything as it taught me a lot about business.”
It was a role that involved a lot of self-management. Even though they had supervisors, the onus was always on the individual, when advising clients, to ensure they had studied case law so that they were able to be confident in the advice that they were giving.
"Because the consequences of your advice are immediately felt in that environment, you could cause a strike just by giving the wrong advice and the client could lose millions. So it was important that you keep growing and you know your stuff inside out. The experience was very good and it gave me the confidence to interact with people at the very senior levels of large organisations, and that level of accountability illustrated to me the importance of growing your knowledge."
His first introduction to management and managing people was when he became a team leader and thereafter a branch manager, where he later became the head of the Labour Net's Southern Johannesburg region and was essentially accountable for branch profitability. This was when he received his best training as an HR leader because, while the policies were already very good in terms of salaries and commission structures, he still had to think about the growth of the business.
Said Mhlo: "I actually think that if I had just started off just as an HR officer, I probably would not have enjoyed HR that much because I would have been very far from the numbers and managing staff according to business performance. LabourNet was where I first learned about how important one-on-one's are, how important vision is, how important a sense of team is, and, lastly, how important it is to create a culture that works for the business."
When he joined Saint Gobain as an employee relations manager, he was already more than prepared for the role. He was already accustomed to dealing with big clients and having top-level discussions with senior management. One of his first assignments was to scale down one of the company's operations and so he had to have frequent meetings with the MD.
"Even though I was young, I had already dealt with MD's of other companies and knew that business is about numbers, so I was able to have a proper solid discussion with the MD and credibly challenge him on his thoughts," says Mhlo.
He quickly worked his way up the ranks by taking charge as the HR business partner of the company's subsidiaries, from Webber and then Gyproc where he also sat on the Exco and began his training for his current role.
On why he believes he was able to grow so quickly in his career, Mhlo attributes his rise to his curiosity saying he is a person that always asks questions and is rarely satisfied with the way things are.
"I like pushing, and I think I suppose a lot of my superiors recognized that and I'm not afraid to dive into things that are beyond HR. What that then allows me to do is I'm able to come back and ask even more questions about the state of our business."
Transformation is a slow process
He also notes that government's employment equity policies have benefitted him greatly. One of the criticisms of transformation in South Africa is that it has not been widespread and that, at the top level of business, it is unobservable. Mhlo says that while this is true, the country is on the right track as far as the policy is concerned. For while the change has not been immediate in terms of the transferring of economic power to women and previously disadvantaged people, it effects will trickle down.
"When I look at what it has done for me personally, I can honestly say that it has really equipped me for when I eventually start up my own business and began to hire employees and creating opportunities for others. If the government continues with this type of policy, we are probably only going to see a proper, sustainable impact in the next 10 years.”
“That is when we will properly start to see economic power really starting to shift. At the moment, for example, I am still learning and there's a big skills gap with regard to successfully starting, running, and growing large corporations, that we, as young black people are still trying plug. There are now more and more opportunities open to us, which we greatly appreciate. We have to see it as a gradual change process, versus a once-off event that transforms everything overnight."