The Human Resource Director for HEINEKEN South Africa leads a busy life. My interview with her is telephonic because she had just landed from a trip.
In response to my question of what she enjoys about her job Njabulo answers: “Many things! I enjoy that it is a start-up with a unique character; the company is a combination of people from brandhouse, Sedibeng Breweries and external. It has been exciting to build a new culture and help establish a new leadership team.” The employees are an interesting combination of South Africans, expats from Nigeria, France and the Nertherlands, which brings great diversity.
In her position of HR Director, she loves being the custodian of the culture. “I perform a fine balancing act of creating a new culture that will work in this continent, and at the same time keeping it linked back to the bigger HEINEKEN world. I have had to learn to trust in my decisions and use my unique context and insight.” she says. “I have focused on building the culture around the values and behaviors that we would like our employees to have. At the same time, though, I have to deal with ambiguity and an unstructured entrepreneurial environment, which makes for an interesting context.”
What has been the most challenging in building the new culture, I ask. “Well, when a new culture is not yet well-defined, people fall back to what they have done before.” she says thoughtfully. “Sometimes un-doing and un-learning a culture is as important as establishing a new one. People are too polite to talk about the real issues and that creates tension. This played out in very practical ways and we have had to be mindful of giving people the platform to raise the issues that bugged them. I remember a session on a Global Culture Survey in September last year – we asked our leadership forum what they thought and the conversation lead to some great moments.”
Looking back, there are a couple of things she would have done differently. “Making hard decisions earlier, I would say. We took for granted that the structures were correct e.g. 10 sales reps in a particular area. When it turned out to be wrong, people were impacted with restructures which we could have sorted out earlier. This was very hard for people and it didn’t help us establishing the new culture.”
Njabulo is proud of what they have achieved in the last 18 months. “HEINEKEN has increased market share and revenue. We had a 3-year plan to establish ourselves in the market, and we managed to get parts of it done much faster.” She chuckles. “South Africa is starting to be the talent hub for HEINEKEN – there’s a saying in the company that “Amsterdam is watching our talent…”, which is a confirmation that we have the right talent. The risks we took with people have paid off.” The next challenge for her is retention. “We need a plan for our people and focus on developing them. There’s a bigger HEINEKEN world out there.” she explains.
Njabulo’s passions are wide-ranging. Her 11-year old daughter is very important to her. So is personal growth and learning. Currently she is reading “Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture” by Stan Slap. She is looking forward to meeting the author at a conference in October this year. “He will be talking about diversity.” she says excitedly. “HR is a great partner to driver diversity – beyond race and gender.” Njabulo loves reading to keep her knowledge current. She also reads a lot about millennials and what their expectations are of employers.
Another passion that comes through clearly in our conversation is the role of HR in the industry. Njabulo would like to see the support functions take ownership of their contribution to business. “Show up as a professional and create your own space,” she advises. “Understand the business and lead the people agenda, but be careful not to let yourself be guided too much by the rules – be flexible and adapt when it’s needed.”
To my question of what would constitute her perfect holiday, she chuckles. “The beach. Somewhere quiet where I can read and recharge. I’m an introvert by nature so I need to be in my own space.”
Her advice for young people is to build the depth of knowledge and experience that they need to succeed. “See things through and finish what you’ve started. Build depth and credibility.” That sounds like a fitting motto that she has applied in her own life and career.