You need to have your CEO's ear, says Pioneer Foods group HR executive Nandipha Ngumbela

Nandi says this is crucial to aligning the people agenda with the organisational strategy.

”Unless the chief executive and his or her HR counterpart are singing from the same hymn sheet, the people strategy will never be aligned with the organisational strategy,” says Nandipha Ngumbela, Group HR Executive at Pioneer Foods. Nandi, as she is more affectionately known, says that, as an HR leader serving on an Executive Committee, you have to have the ear of the CEO.

All executive committee members wish to have the ear of the CEO in order to ensure that their functional needs are appropriately prioritised. However, having a seat at the table comes with great responsibility. As part of the executive committee, Nandi is required to provide valuable people-related input to shape the organisation, while keeping the people strategy and organisational strategy aligned. 

Nandi, who joined Pioneer Foods just over a year ago, with extensive experience as an HR professional spanning 20 years, believes there has to be a certain chemistry and mutual respect between the HR leader and the CEO to be able to have very open and frank discussions with each other. Sometimes, as the HR leader, for example, you have to bring things to the CEO’s attention that he or she might not prefer to hear, Nandi says. You have to be able to have difficult conversations with the CEO, as uncomfortable as they may sometimes be.  

“I have to be able to say, ‘this is the sentiment I’m receiving from our employees and it’s not good for the business to allow the situation to continue. Here’s how I think we can improve the situation’,” says Nandi.

Fortunately, Pioneer Foods is led by a chief executive and broader executive committee that understand the importance of prioritising people, allowing Nandi and her team to drive the people strategy across many different platforms and organisational forums. 

Talk to the other executives

While varying definitions of the role and purpose of HR exist amongst CEOs, whether viewed as a strategic partner or an implementation partner of strategic decisions, Nandi says an opportunity exists in all organisations to highlight the unseen value of the HR function and shape perceptions of the executive leadership. 

“Using one-on-one sessions with the chief executive to showcase how the short and long term performance of a company correlates to the talent, motivation and accomplishments of its people is a great way to remain aligned,” she says, adding that she often encourages HR leaders to take initiative by influencing executives’ approach to people. 

“You have to ask the right questions and speak their language, understanding what is important to them and what they regard success to be. By entrenching yourself in their world, you can easily use data to convey how HR can help them achieve their functional objectives."

Linking culture to organisational strategy

Often culture can be outweighed by the commercial imperatives of an organisational strategy, but can they co-exist? Yes, they can. By investing in developing a strong organisational culture, landing the long term strategy can become less challenging. The culture of an organisation is something that is shaped, first and foremost by the top leadership within the organisation. Together with the CEO, HR encourages the senior leadership to be accessible, visible and to lead by example. 

“Despite having numerous factories and plants throughout the country, as well as abroad, our executives and senior managers are encouraged by the CEO, as well as myself, to frequently engage with our employees across all sites. This simple action is invaluable to our people and assists to affirm the culture that already exists,” Nandi adds. “Pioneer Foods has recently embarked on a culture and values refresh project wherein we define and embrace what it is that makes us unique, what sets us apart from our peers and what drives us to perform,” says Nandi, “We believe this will help us to strengthen the kind of culture that is a catalyst for the execution of strategy, sustained and superior performance that differentiates the company as a preferred place to work.”