This week, our Head of HR Business Partners (Corporate Functions), Letoya Mbuthia, shares his journey into HR, demystifies the myths surrounding his job and tells us whether there is more to the profession than hiring and firing.
1. You’ve worked in Germany, the U.K. and Kenya. Can you describe your experience?
It’s been a steep, sometimes daunting, learning curve, but I firmly believe that you create your own future.
I moved to Germany in 2007, fresh out of the University of Nairobi, into my first real job (at DHL). It was the first time I boarded a plane. Moving to another country, where I didn’t speak the language or have family (when international calls were still very expensive), taught me self-reliance and the importance of using your situation to your advantage.
I worked in an office with 200 colleagues representing close to 50 nations, so it was a real melting pot of culture and ways of working. Once I got the hang of corporate life in Germany, I began to really admire the directness, and I developed an appreciation of the outdoors and timekeeping. In Europe, every second counts, so when they say 8.09, they don’t mean 8.15, and I’ve become very strict about keeping time. I also have this quirky habit where I still go to German TV series, documentaries and newspapers to test just how much I retained.
Moving from Bonn in Germany to the DHL office in Liverpool (UK) was a harder transition. I had already embedded myself in the German culture and I was comfortable there, but I need to step out of my comfort zone. By then I was a bit older and much more self-aware, curious and looking for every opportunity to fit in. Luckily, I had great managers who really helped me settle in, and this is where I learned more about personal accountability: delivering outcomes over applauding activities. This is what led to me being noticed by Safaricom, which I joined in July 2014.
Working in Kenya has been a blast. The drive and relentless push for personal and professional growth in Safaricom came at the right time for me. In about five years, I’ve changed roles three times, been stretched beyond my imagination and enjoyed great the mentorship of great leaders.
2. What’s a typical day like for you?
Unpredictable. Each day presents new challenges because there is a great dynamic within the company. I spend most of my day looking at Safaricom’s organisation effectiveness, how well we’re prepared to take on future challenges and whether we have the right team, capability and culture in place to take the business forward. This involves meeting the various team leads and team members to see how well connected they are to the business’ vision.
I try to avoid meetings on Fridays, so that I can spend my day reflecting and connecting the dots on the week/month/quarter that has been, to plan ahead and to do some coaching.
3. Did you always want to work in HR?
It certainly wasn’t by design or by default: circumstance met opportunity. I studied Economics and Sociology at the University of Nairobi. Like everyone at that time, I combined it with ACCA as I wanted to get into one of the Big 4 firms. That didn’t work out, and I ended up at Magadi Soda doing an internship in the HR department, since the Accounts department was full.
My job was to reconcile NSSF records with staff records, then I got the opportunity to assist with System Automation and HR Process Management – and that’s what helped me get into HR. I believe my background in Economics and Accounting gave me appreciation for data driven decision making, which I still rely on.
4. HR is generally considered to be a woman’s profession, why do you think this is so?
Frankly, I don’t know why there are more women than men in HR. What I do know is that in the age of increased scrutiny on inclusion at all levels, gender will become secondary to the capability of the person getting the role.
5. As a talent and people manager, who do you go to when you need HR-related assistance?
My first point of contact is always my line manager, because we are colleagues first, before the hierarchy comes in. He gives me his advice from a mentor perspective. I also turn to my HR peers, both at Safaricom and outside the company, and I’m open to asking for help and views from anyone who I think can guide me. This gives me different perspectives, keeps me grounded and helps me get a 360-degree view of a situation, which encourages informed action.
6. What’s the biggest career risk you’ve taken?
I have taken a number of risks, and I’ve failed, but I choose to see these “failures” as lessons. Moving to a country where I barely knew anyone, with no plan for my future, was the biggest risk. There were dark days in winter when all I longed for was family, sun and a newspaper; but I hang in there.
Leaving the security of Europe to come back to Kenya, where I had never worked, was also a risk. The fear of re-integration failure was real; I thought I was going to be labeled a “failure” for coming back home and leaving the “honeypot”, because everyone thinks life abroad is better than life here.
But these two moves taught me that you can never start by being right and winning: you have to be humble in order to learn, to work on understanding people, earning their trust before they can endorse you. This has played a big role in my approach to leadership; I am a colleague before a leader, and it is imperative to get your team’s buy-in for success.
7. What do you like the least, and the most, about your profession?
I think the external image of HR still has a long way to go. We need to take pride in being HR professionals, the way engineers and pilots do. I think the Institute of HR Management has started the journey and it is for us professionals to rally behind them to make ours an admired profession. Dispelling the myths on what HR is or isn’t is a big part of my day to day interactions. HR guys don’t just hire and fire; we don’t exist to punish people – our focus our focus is enabling people for success, developing people and creating environments for employees to be their best.
I love the impact I have on people’s personal and professional growth. Through coaching, I have been able to see some good traction in people showing up to work different. They own their growth, push for it by creating the habits to reflect, connect the dots and action their plans to become holistic people. This keeps me energized.
8. There’s the saying that HR is interested in protecting the company, not the people that work there. How are you able to balance business interests with people management and earning employees’ confidence? It must be tough.
Every job has its challenges, but I don’t see HR as a tough one. There are ups and downs, but it’s an insanely interactive job, which makes it very interesting!
Confidentiality goes beyond HR to all business functions. I believe it is the role of all professionals to maintain professionalism and to keep in confidence what is meant to be kept in confidence. If an employee confides in me, and makes it clear that what they’ve told me has been said in confidence (as long as it’s legal), then I have to respect this because a big part of my role involved earning people’s trust.
9. If you had a chance to change careers, what would you be?
I would choose the technology/engineering path. I admire the behaviour and competencies they build from early on; their attention to detail and ability to bring the abstract to life from a table or computer is amazing. I like that their work revolves around hard facts: “Please bring the data; all else is opinion”, is one of my favourite quotes. I could attribute this admiration to my German experience. Look at the technology they design and build!
10. What would you recommend to anyone looking to practice as a HR professional?
- Work with ambiguity and be comfortable with the unknown, remembering that the key to successful strategy is in its execution. The role of the HR professional is to take the business plan and bring it to life through people.
- Focus on building relationships – Being able to engage at all levels of an organization is important. You should be just as comfortable around the leadership team as you are with your peers and others in the hierarchy; be good at bringing out the best in people, and know how to challenge the status quo without destroying your credibility.
- Appreciate and learn how to use data – A lot of people assume that HR doesn’t require a love for numbers, but it actually does. You have to know what the business drivers are; you then apply those drivers against the HR metrics to create a compelling story and contribute proactively to the business’ vision.
11. What do you do when you’re not managing talent and coaching your business partners?
Family is everything. Getting home and chilling with the family is always a good way to relax and unwind. Getting to hear what happened during the day in someone else’s life can be both entertaining and humbling.
I also enjoy running and reading, and we’re fortunate to have a vibrant running scene in Kenya that is active on most weekends. I’m inspired by Eliud Kipchoge and all the amazing athletes that can run full and ultra-marathons. I’ve been pushing myself, and I think the half marathon distance is working for me at the moment.
I also enjoy reading diverse genres. I’m currently reading “The Fortunes of Africa” by Martin Meredith.