Creating chemistry between HR and business
“People and their development has always been my passion – I love the diversity of what people bring to an organization, from their thinking and their approach to solving problems. It is the diversity of the debates and discussions that gets me thinking about how I can work with them to create sustainable solutions. This has always been my philosophy in terms of how I manage the HR function and partner with the broader organization to deliver on business results,” says BASF Head of HR Market Area Africa, Sharmila Govind.
Sharmila has completed a BA in Social Sciences, majoring in Psychology and Sociology and an Honours degree in Sociology through the University of KwaZulu-Natal and an MBA through the University of Wales, Cardiff.
She has always been interested in societies, how they operate and the impact she can have on them. Aligned to these interests, she started her career as a Social Policy Researcher. “I was very interested in the link between corporates and society and the bigger role that corporates should play in building a better society,” she explains.
Sharmila has a natural curiosity for business. Her break into the corporate world came when she accepted a position at Liberty Life; this was the start of a seventeen-year career in the financial services, and a career, which has spanned South Africa, Africa and Europe.
While at Liberty she did a lot of research on HR benchmarking and put together their Balanced Score Card, which was “a big thing at the time.” She later moved into the position of junior HR business partner and then HR Business Partner.
Her next career move was into corporate and investment banking: “It was the glory days of investment banking. Investment banking was everyone’s preferred career choice. It was a very exciting time to be working for ABN AMRO, particularly when the bank made front page news in the Business Day and the Financial Times for its role in big deals, mergers, and acquisitions,” she recalls.
One of her career highlights at the time was being selected as one of twelve high potential people in the banking sector in South Africa and being chosen for the prestigious Bankseta’s Executive Leadership Development Programme. While on the programme, she was transferred to Amsterdam. “It was quite an achievement for someone of my age. You realize that through these processes you can make an impact in conversations that you have and in terms of wanting to know more about the business,” she observes.
She did a lot of work in HR but started working closely with the executive team. They told her they liked her thinking and how she worked and they wanted her to move to the business side. “It was a great acknowledgment and recognition of who I am as a person, my abilities and what my contribution could be to the wider organization,” she reveals.
The Royal Bank of Scotland Group, the Santander Group, and Fortis acquired ABN AMRO in 2007. “I was in the eye of the storm. Part of my work was the separation of this big bank into which parts were going to move into Royal Bank of Scotland, which was still considered wholesale banking. I worked on client optimization projects. I looked at revenue targets for relationship bankers, countries where we had a dual presence, and what was going to close and what was going to stay open. These decisions had an underpinning of HR, but you were looked at it very much from a business perspective,” she explains.
Upon her return to South Africa, Sharmila worked at Citibank, the Standard Bank Group, and HSBC. However, after spending so many years in the financial services sector, it was time for a career change. She joined BASF as Head of HR Market Area Africa at BASF in September 2017.
“What a wonderful change it has been to work for a company like BASF that touches the lives, of so many people every single day. We look at everything from the manufacturing of catalytic converters, to the production of paint, to work that goes into animal nutrition, to agricultural products, to construction chemicals etc. Each time you speak to the Business Heads and you try to understand what their business is I am awestruck by what BASF can do,” she informs.
When she joined BASF she was told the company views HR as being at the very heart of what it does: “When something touches close to your own value system there is a natural fit for an organization and a person. I am very grateful to have a leadership team that encourages and supports HR’s role within the organization. I sit on the African leadership team and the South African Exco. I play that same role in terms of how we drive the business, understanding the strategy, what we want to do on the African continent and how HR can enable the business to get there.”
Anticipating the skills that BASF will need in the future, BASF has launched a variety of Young Talent Programmes such as the Market Area Africa Graduate Programme: “We have on-boarded 26 young individuals, who we believe can be key contributors, not only to our business but also to the future of South Africa. to our business in the future. It is about having a forward-looking view and saying: ‘If we are going to be sustainable as an organization into the future, what are the skills that we need to get there?’ The skills that we have used have worked for us thus far and this shows as part of our 153-year- history, but if we are going to be relevant in the future we need to start changing some of our key competencies, some of the profiles of individuals that we bring into the organization. Gearing our business for the future requires a different level of thinking, organizational and environmental awareness regarding how we operate in these markets.”
Sharmila considers herself fortunate to be working on the African continent: “The future is bright, exciting and filled with opportunities. It is such an exciting place to be. Africa is that continent that has the potential in 5-10 years’ time to supersede some of the current, developed world economies.”
In addition to her role at BASF, Sharmila sits on the Board of the Institute of Bankers, member of an Academic Board as well as a Board Member of the Endangered Wildlife Trust. She enjoys traveling to different countries, exploring different cultures and people. Today, her twin boys aged two, are her passion outside the workplace.