By Howard Wallack

Since we arrived a week ago, we’ve gone from the general to the very specific with our last day of organizational meetings, visiting two large South African corporations.

Sanlam Investments is a subsidiary of multinational insurance and financial services firm Sanlam. Media 24 is a major newspaper and magazine outfit now making the transition from being a print-media publisher to being a diversified print and online communications and e-commerce operation.  Values dominate their operations.

Sanlam, with 61,000 employees, began in 1918 as a life insurance firm servicing the country’s Afrikaners.  Today, it has broadened to being an “empowerment organization,” now providing financial services to all South Africans. And if the diversity of the  HR team we met with is any indication, they’ve made quite a bit of progress in reflecting the country’s demographics.  For them, diversity and inclusion were very top of mind, and we had a healthy dialogue that touched on similarities between the U.S. and South Africa and how they have moved their diversity agendas forward and fulfilled them.

Under the theme “Living Passionate Ownership,” the organization has a values-based approach to drive the business forward. It encourages employees to be passionate, transparent and innovative.  At Sanlam Investments, with 30 members of the HR team servicing 2,500 employees, we heard its HR director explain how “the tactical is also the strategic.” By focusing on the basics, they can lift their operational game to a higher level.  We were joined by the HR manager of another Sanlam corporation, Santam, which has 2,900 employees and 39 members on its HR team. Critical HR issues for that company currently include managing talent, corporate culture, and achieving efficiencies.  With that context, the Sanlam team agreed that the best preparation for HR was by being part of—and knowing—the business first.

With operations in India and the U.K., Sanlam encountered challenges. First, making money in Indian rupees or British pounds, for a business based in South African Rands, posed an operational hurdle they had to overcome. They also had to learn how to engage and apply HR practices and governance across borders. For example, instead of imposing solutions on their Indian operations (as some US-based companies have done), they discovered Indians wanted a package of corporate HR policies and prescribed practices presented to them for implementation.

Each day Media24 faces the  blurring (going on worldwide) between print publishing, online media, and e-commerce.  With 7,200 employees and 74 HR practitioners working under magazine and newspaper brands, the challenges now include maintaining a volume-based business where losses can spell disaster, achieving effective diversity  to meet long-term transformation, and evolving from a group of siloed businesses to a culture of accountability, collaboration and innovation.  Under the new leadership of a female CEO, Media24 has embarked on a massive internal cultural shift. HR is tasked with sustaining four key values: respect, integrity, courage, and accountability.  All of those values are explicitly linked to an “I am Media24” campaign as well as an online performance appraisal system, supported by “values champions” throughout the organization who guide each division in making the campaign their own.

Howard Wallack is SHRM’s Director of Global Member Programs and Global Business Development. Senior HR professionals participated in the HR management delegation to South Africa. Howard’s adventures in South Africa continue Friday, Nov. 9.