Verna Robson's rise from Eldos to Sun International

HR boss Verna Robson's determination and solution-oriented approach to life got her to where she is. 

Coming from a tough neighbourhood like Eldorado Park in the South of Johannesburg, where the streets can be rough and crime is a daily concern, can either crush you or sharpen your wits. Fortunately for Sun International group HR director Verna Robson, it was the latter.  Growing up in this cut-throat environment honed her drive to succeed. It created in her a tenacity that, over time, became her ticket to success.

“I had to be streetwise, confident, and fearless. These traits have served me very well. I often get asked whether anything scares me and my answer is always that I never think about fear. I concentrate on the solution and how I am going to achieve it," says Verna. It was this confidence and boldness that led her to be the head of HR at a major hotel group with a diverse profile of assets including world-class five-star hotels, casinos and resorts.

Verna started her career in a general legal environment working for Rand Water directly after finishing her final exams for her legal degree, even prior to receiving her results. “As a graduate, I was privileged, through hard work and determination, to be the CE management representative on many forums.”

In a serendipitous case of being in the right place at the right time, her maiden career opportunity presented itself just after 1994, when the new Employment Equity Act and other legislation all came into effect. She says, “I suppose the fact that I studied in the field of law was a great advantage. My first year of work, I was part of the team tasked with amending the parastatal’s shift schedule and was first exposed to negotiating with the unions.” This came at a time when South Africa was undergoing massive political transition and the system where the exploitation of workers had been in place for decades had to be overturned. 

Lover of the law

“My passion for labour law and fair processes developed when I began handling the legal aspects for the core business, being engineering and construction. This stretched from the labour matters to normal legal matters.” 

She joined Sun International as group HR manager of employee relations in 2011. She was and still is, the lead negotiator for the company on all matters pertaining to the labour workforce and involving the unions in everything from wages and benefits to business model changes. If it impacts employees, Verna gets involved directly. 

Her foray into leadership started at a very early age. “I was very much a tomboy in my youth and loved to play in the streets with all the neighbourhood kids until late at night,” she says. Being the eldest daughter in the family meant she became accountable for her younger siblings’ safety, a responsibility which taught and prepared her for leadership so well, she could already cook dinner when she was in fourth grade and had household chores from as early as first grade. “Both my parents worked to support the family and I recall when I started first grade, my mom tied the house key around my neck so that I did not lose it and to ensure that I was able to unlock the door and enter the house after school." 

Working at Sun International, with its reach and scope, has allowed her to take up her place as a leader.

For instance, when Sun International reported that it would sell off a portion of its interests in its African assets to a foreign subsidiary, she was part of the team that handled the change of business model, a move that impacted all of the properties across South Africa. At the time, the company directly employed over 10, 000 people with over 50, 000 indirect jobs and she managed the labour part of the project. “It has been, and still is, an exciting journey,” she says.

Recognised by her peers

For her, choosing to show up powerfully while being constructive, honest and fair has resulted in her being regarded as a trusted manager, leader and credible communicator. This is evidenced by how keen stakeholders, as well as individual employees, are to have her take on various issues.

Verna has been recognised by her peers for her impact and expertise, having won the CHRO Employee Value Proposition Award in 2019 and landing on the Employee Engagement Awards 2019 list. During her tenure, the company’s reputation for employee wellness has soared, with a programme that gives employees free access to social workers, debt counsellors, financial advisors, lawyers, nurses, dieticians and biokineticists.

Her go-getting attitude informs her approach to challenges, “I don’t like it when a situation or project takes too long. The reason being that there are so many other challenges to attend to and if one is left too long it has a chain reaction and your entire work situation becomes extremely challenging. When I have developed a solution, I pursue it. The hard part is when it takes too long to reach that solution as I am a quick reactor and quick action kind of person.”

However, being driven comes with its drawbacks and she admits that she isn't quite able to maintain a work-life balance due to the love for her job and commitment to ensuring that every challenging project is a success.

"As a result," she says, "I create this imbalance, which is evident by the late-night work. I want to be more disciplined in my personal life to health and wellness as I am no longer as young as my mind may make me believe.”

Supportive partners make all the difference

Her most meaningful relationships are with her spouse and sons. “I consider the one with my spouse as being particularly significant because he has created the environment for me to succeed. He takes on many of the domestic chores and attends to the boys and makes sure they are seen to. As a determined female in the world of work, this is critical if you want to succeed in your career. I think one only realises the significance of this relationship when you reflect on it. He is a treasure to me and my strongest support to achieving and succeeding.”

She acknowledges that while she is passionate about her family, due to her busy weekday schedule they may hold a different view.

“I ensure that I spend weekends with them, take leave when they are around and do the simple things, like just going to movies or driving around for that unique T-shirts and pair of takkies.”

Her faith is also an important pillar in her life. “I believe that based purely on how people perceive me, as tough and firm in my decisions and very determined, they would be surprised by the fact that I teach the importance of receiving first holy confirmation to kids aged 11 upwards within the Anglican denomination and have been doing so for about five years. This requires patience and understanding and I love doing it.”

Success follows when you add value

Verna’s definition of success is being able to create value for others – no matter who they may be or the size of value add to them. “It's possible that the reason why I chose law as my field of study and later transitioned into human resources.” Verna is passionate about transformation and empowerment and has assisted in driving Sun International to a Level 1 B-BBEE for the past three years. She has worked to digitise the HR processes with the IT department and is currently introducing an e-learning platform.

She explains that as the workplace continues to evolve with new technologies and new innovations. “I aspire to ensure our workforce keeps up with the rapid changes, by creating an environment that ensures our people have the skills needed for the future of work. This country is bleeding jobs and we as HR must assist in helping employees to further strengthen their core skills and gain in-demand skills related to their roles, along with connecting them with opportunities to build their leadership skills.”

For Verna, it’s not always about big gestures, but making a difference where you are. “I believe that any little change is a big change in the world. Many little changes eventually add up to big changes. I also challenge myself to be understanding to people and find solutions that improve the lives of others positively. I apply this both professionally and personally.”