Up-close and personal with Sun International’s Verna Robson

Verna says they have amended their EVP to create deeper connections with their employees.

CHRO SA interviewed Verna Robson, group executive: human resources about life, and her career journey Sun International.

Who is Verna Robson? Tell us a bit about yourself professionally and personally?
I am a legal graduate. I moved into the HR environment due to wanting to ensure that the labour laws are interpreted in a simple manner and for both employees and employers to understand their rights and obligations. I have been the group human resources director for Sun International for the last six years.

I am also a wife and mother of two boys, who are much taller than me. They have blessed me with many proud parent moments. My husband is very supportive and keeps me grounded.

What difference has Sun International made in your career?
Sun International has created many opportunities for me to excel and to stretch my skills, knowledge and experience into many areas of the business. The environment is receptive to new ideas and it allows me to explore, innovate, debut and collaborate.

What difference have you made at Sun International during your affiliation?
In my own bias, I would say I have made a significant difference within the business. The fact that the business immediately recognises that every possible change no matter how small has an impact on our employees results in advice and collaboration with HR.

You've been at Sun International for a while now. What keeps you motivated?
I am motivated by the people of Sun International, its values and culture and the fact that it is a fun place to work in. The daily challenges are always different, and one does not linger too long on the same challenge as solutions must be implemented very quickly.

What challenges have you had to deal with, if any, in your career?
I’m not sure I have enough space to set these out! Essentially, I have led a few projects pertaining to large redesigns of the business, changing our remuneration methodology and benefits structures and assisting in the digitisation of the business, and this is not only related to HR technology.

What keeps you going/grounded?
My personal passion is to learn and improve my skills and to gain deep experience. I am a firm believer in “change happens by one person at a time”. This is extremely rewarding, and one needs to remain firmly on the ground to achieve these.

What do you love the most about your job?
The independence I am allowed and the fact that I have gained immense credibility in my profession.

What metrics would you use to measure success at Sun International?
I love the fact that employees make their voices heard when it comes to a change or decision. We measure this metric through our digital employee engagement platform. This translates into knowing that our employees are paying attention, listening and interpreting the information. There is nothing as demoralising as a workforce that is just silent and never voices its opinions. This means that I am doing my job effectively. Just putting this in writing brought a glowing smile to my face.

What is high on the agenda at the moment at Sun International?
Due to the fact that our industry has been worst hit by the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry was only permitted as from the 29 December 2021 to revert to staggered normal trading hours. This places our focus on our employees who have suffered trauma in the form of financial challenges, loss of family members and colleagues, continuous changes in the business to align with the regulations, and their medical health. We have amended our EVP to ensure we create a deeper connection with our employees and the communities that they live in.

If you were not in HR where would you be, and why?
I would possibly be a labour lawyer in a law firm. The thought of this after so many years in HR is not appealing.

How important is mentorship in your early career years?
Considering how long ago I started my career, mentoring was not a thing. You just had to watch, observe, and learn from your mistakes. However, this is not always fun, which is why I am a firm believer in mentoring and the path of mentorship as one does not want to see others making the same mistakes. It’s good when you can actually guide them differently, give valuable insights and allow them to ask those difficult questions and have those difficult conversations in a safe space. This ultimately makes the mentee a better individual and a successful one.

HR is very broad. Which space are you most passionate about and why?
Even though I was a specialist in the employee relations field, I have learned since becoming an HRD that you must never fall back into your comfort zone and I have maintained this for the last six years.

I do believe that you choose to limit your abilities by doing so. I strive to become knowledgeable in all areas of HR. I set myself a personal goal by picking an area of HR that I learn to deeply understand and can confidently operate in.

How do you unwind after a long day of work?
I unwind with a nice glass of wine, the couch and the TV. Sometimes it will be fiction, as unwinding with a leadership book is considered work.

Who inspires you and why?
People from all walks of life inspire me. I like to observe people and I feel inspired by their smiles and laughter, their sense of happiness and stories of those that are willing to share.

The greatest thing about being South African and living in this country is our ability to smile and be happy with the little things: our ability to talk to strangers at the bus stop, in a queue at the licensing department and realise how much we all have in common.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave for future generations in HR?
The legacy of empathy and enjoyment of your career. If you do not love it, do not do it. Make a contribution that you will be proud of and do not always take for yourself.

What is most important to your organisation – mission, vision or values?
Our values are most important as these were chosen by the employees themselves: they know it and live it and observing how our employees hold each other accountable is mind-blowing and rewarding.

What superpower do you wish you would have and why?
Invisible man – that is an awesome superpower. Now you see and then you don’t! Sometimes, I just need to be invisible to breathe and steal some free time. To possibly spy on my kids while at school, as nothing ever seems to happen at school when you ask. It is always fine and you wonder whether they have as much fun as you did when at school.

Would you rather have no phone access for a year or no car access?
I would, after this pandemic, rather not have phone access for a year. I think I have gone slightly deaf from being on the phone too much. My ears need a break!

If you could master any skill overnight, what would it be?
I would like to master some kind of artistic talent. I love art and especially African art, and at times I am disappointed that I cannot create by ways of drawing or painting. I guess I will remain the one who appreciates it and purchases it. I am also fine with that!