TransUnion's Ndivhu Nepfumbada says building relationships with business leaders is key
It has been a mantra that has held her in good stead throughout her career.
“The value of an HR leader rests highly on his or her ability to support other leaders while bringing them along in devising and executing a people strategy aligned with the business vision,” says TransUnion HR director for Africa Ndivhu Nepfumbada, adding that her approach to work has always been to try and make life easier for the CEO and business heads to execute through their people. It is a mantra that she says has held her in very good stead throughout her career because, when an organisation is facing challenges and difficult decisions have to be made, it helps leaders to know they have an HR counterpart that shares their vision and has a good grasp of the issues at play so that they can advise them properly with both the interests of the business and the employees in mind.
“You have to remember that you are a business leader first, without sacrificing the needs and wellbeing of employees. This is a very difficult balancing act but getting it right is what makes the difference between a good HR leader and a great one,” she says.
Cutting her teeth in the mining sector
Ndivhu initially wanted to be a doctor and one of the subjects she did in the first year of her pre-med studies was Psychology, and she realised that she loved it. It was then that her head was turned away from medicine. But it was after consulting with a career counsellor at university that she realised that HR, which has a strong link with psychology, was her calling.
After completing a post-graduate business programme in HR, she was thrown straight into the deep end and was the first black female to be put through AngloGold’s management trainee programme on one of their mines in Carletonville in 1994 during a period when South Africa was undergoing its own transition. She was appointed at head office and deployed to the Carletonville operation where she faced resistance from almost everyone.
“There was a sense among employees that anybody who had been sent from head office had come to spy on them and report back to head office. Add to that the fact that I was a black woman who was younger than all of the people that reported to me and the view that, as a graduate, I earned a lot of money for nothing, and you get a sense of the uphill battle that I faced.”
Ndivhu says she faced resistance from men and women of all races, not least because she was viewed as an “affirmative action” appointee but also because she was an outsider.
Straight into the deep end
Says Ndivhu: “When you go into a position after graduating from business school, you have a chip on your shoulder. I went into that role thinking I knew it all and that I was going to change the world but boy was I wrong…The pushback I faced was so demoralising that I remember spending nights crying in my small flat because of the way I was being treated.
“Mining was an insensitive environment back then. I would go into a shift boss or foreman’s office and they would deliberately leave their pornographic magazines like Hustler and Penthouse open on the table for me to see. In another horrifying incident, a white apprentice exposed his genitals to me, and when I laid a sexual harassment complaint, I was told that it was my word against his and the company did nothing about it. Those were the kinds of things that I had to put up with and, to be honest, it was an experience that almost broke me.“
But it didn’t break her. Instead, Ndivhu’s spirit drove her to stick it out with stubborn and disrespectful colleagues, and after six months in the role, both colleagues and employees who would flat out ignore her presence in a room had come to terms with the fact that she was not going to be forced out of the organisation and that she was there to stay. It eventually became evident to people that any efforts to prevent her from getting work done were futile and only result in wasting their own time as well. Having a really great mentor, also helped her navigate all these difficulties and eventually win people over.
Drawn to transformative projects
Speaking at the CHRO SA summit last year, Ndivhu said that she is never one to leave a role simply because a more lucrative offer comes along. That’s why she seldom engages head-hunters, unless she has decided it is time for a change. Rather, Ndivhu picks the organisations she chooses to work for based on the size of the challenge and amount of value she feels she can bring to the table. Never one to shy away from a tough task, she has always preferred to jump into roles where the company is undergoing a massive transition or there is a need for a cultural or operational transformative overhaul in one sense or another.
She joined Nedbank as the head of organisational transformation at a time when the company had just undergone business rescue and been subsequently acquired by Old Mutual. When she joined PPC, it was also after a turbulent time for the company.
“I prefer to go to companies where there is something that is in desperate need of fixing. Other people run away from those types of situations and prefer to steer a ship that is already steady but I would find that quite boring to be honest.”
When she joined TransUnion, her mandate was to partner with the leadership to improve employee engagement and support the digital and business transformation that was underway, and 18 months down the line, so much has been achieved that both the leadership and staff are quite energised and highly engaged, though the journey continues.
HR and ministry a match made in heaven
When she is not being a powerhouse HR leader, Ndivhu is an associate pastor at a local church. Her relationship with the Lord has been the foundation for everything that she has done and continues to do. Her spirituality has been a beacon of light that shines through even at the organisations where she has worked. In some instances, after finding out about her being in ministry, employees have opened up to Ndivhu asking for guidance not only on work-related issues but also regarding other private matters. This invariably tends to have an impact on the wellbeing and hence the performance of people at work.
“I guess you could say that, in that sense, HR and ministry are a match made in heaven,” she says, adding that her spirituality is closely linked to the way she approaches her work. At its core, she believes Christianity is about loving others and wanting what is best for them and that is why, in her career, she has already groomed seven people who today are HR directors in other organisations.
It also guides her leadership style, which is inclusive and welcoming. And when it comes to the way she develops people, she prefers to shine a light on their achievements and shoulder the blame for their mistakes.
“I will take responsibility for it at boardroom level and reprimand that individual in private. But if they do well, I make sure I shower them with praise in public, because I believe that’s how you get people to keep trying to do their best,” says Ndivhu.