SASA’s Human Resources Executive, Penny Milner-Smyth, is taking early retirement after 27 years’ service.
1 What made you choose the South African Sugar Association (SASA) as an employer in 1990 and stay here until 2017?
SASA had recently appointed a new Executive Director and Human Resources Executive with a mandate to implement a comprehensive change management programme. The opportunity to support their transformation vision in the role of Human Resources Development Manager was a great one at the time - little did I know that SASA would provide the kind of meaningful environment that captures and sustains one’s commitment over decades.
2 SASA was a very different place at that time – you were one of the first women in a managerial role and women were not allowed to wear trousers… please share that experience with us.
Coming from a far less conservative culture in my previous roles, lecturing in neuropsychology at a university after attaining an MA in Research Psychology, and later in training and development in the textile industry, the prevailing SASA traditions were a bit fear-inducing at the time, although funny in retrospect. Fortunately my boss, Colin Kyle, was ever-willing to champion equality issues. In fact, gender issues were not at the top of the transformation agenda at that time, as our bigger priority was the implementation of employment policies that did not discriminate on the basis of race.
3 Please give us an insight into pre-democracy employment practices in South Africa in general and SASA in particular?
SASA was not much different to other South African businesses of the day. Apartheid era legislation impacting on employment practices meant that positions at the specialist and managerial levels had been in the main reserved for white, male applicants. The unequal education opportunities that had prevailed meant that even when discrimination was removed from recruitment practices, those who were successful were those who had benefited from advantages not available to the majority of our citizens.
What was most striking at the time was the inadvertent discrimination that existed due to a lack of professional Human Resource management practices – employees tended not to have job abstracts and there was no defensible job evaluation system. Consequently there were employees who were not being paid fairly for their contribution, as job grades were by and large race-based.
4 What were your primary objectives in the early 1990s?
The SASA Chairman of the day, Glyn Taylor, who played a key role in bringing in the new SASA leadership, issued us a clear challenge: simultaneously to improve SASA’s performance levels, get SASA to add more value and expand its roles in support of the sugar industry, decrease costs and prepare for a democratic South Africa by increasing the diversity of the SASA workforce. You could say we have been pursuing this challenging combination of objectives ever since!
5 Then just at the time of the first democratic elections in 1994, you were promoted to HR Executive. What were key areas that this post focused on at that time? What was it like operating in an environment whereby the country had just undergone a transition from apartheid to democracy?
For an HR professional it was an exhilarating time. The new South African constitution required that the country review existing and implement new laws, and it was in the area of employment law that a significant amount of legislation with accompanying regulations was enacted, in the period between 1995 and 2005 in particular. Looking back it seems as if at least 10 years of my career were focused on tracking developing legislation that would have implications for the workplace and amending SASA policies to align with these, both in letter and spirit. Fortunately by the time the Employment Equity Act was promulgated in 2000, SASA’s transformation process was well on its way with respect to increasing racial diversity, but it did sharpen our focus on the issues of gender and disability representation.
What many people forget was that the exciting new era that democracy created was closely followed by the development of the HIV and AIDS pandemic. This meant that our early post-democracy years saw a strong focus on HIV awareness education and the need to address the life-threatening stigma that meant that so many refused to get tested or start treatment in those early days. There were many dark days as the number of deaths in service increased markedly. It is such a different situation today, one in which death rates have dropped back to those last seen in the early 1990s and so many employees with the virus are living long and healthy lives.
Penny’s contribution to the South African Sugar Association in the last 27 years is truly outstanding and invaluable. Her vision for the organisation and its people was way ahead of time and has also stood the test of time. Having in mind the best interest of the organisation and understanding how important the contribution of its employees are to its success she has shown unprecedented commitment and dedication to ensuring that the SASA workplace was fair to all and based on the highest ethical standards. She has earned the respect, trust and loyalty of her colleagues and built strong and enduring relationships over the years becoming a confidant and ‘go to’ person for so many.Her steadfast support to the SASA Management team, oftentimes in a very challenging environment, has motivated and stimulated her colleagues to always aim to reach their full potential and see the silver lining in every cloud that may pass.We toast a visionary, exemplary leader, role model and compassionate friend on her retirement!
South African Sugar Association
6 You are known to be passionate about ethics in the workplace. How would you describe your legacy here at SASA in terms of your contribution to ethics in this workplace? What is your take on ethics in the workplace in South Africa? Are there areas of concern and improvement?
From the outset of my career I was driven by the belief that organisations should be places in which people become the best versions of themselves rather than the worst. I have been so fortunate given this to work for leaders at SASA, firstly Colin Kyle, then Michael Mathews and Trix Trikam, who shared a set of personal values that prioritises the treatment of all people with dignity, respect and fairness, and a belief that organisations can and should be run for the good of all who are associated with them. I may have been the individual that delivered SASA’s ethics and values training over the years but it was these leaders that created the environment in which it could be done. Trix has been an inspirational role model in so many ways, including in his uncompromising belief in the importance of honesty.
As for the state of ethics in South Africa, I know that this is a subject that causes a level of despondency right now. My view is that we cannot sit back and expect any government to take full responsibility for the socio-economic repair of the country or for the development of a national ethical identify. Every South African organisation, be it in the public, private, parastatal or public benefit sector must become a microcosm of the South African society that we need to create: one in which social cohesion and integrity are key pillars of economic effort. I am a great believer in focusing one’s energy within one’s own sphere of influence, so my view is that we need to transform South Africa via the workplace.
7 What are your career highlights here at SASA?
Heading the Human Resources division has enabled me to play an active, daily role in contributing to the transformation of SASA from both a people and performance perspective. You will remember that the challenge we took on in 1990 was simultaneously to improve performance levels, reduce costs and increase diversity in the employee demographic profile.
If we just take SASA’s employment equity profile at the specialist and supervisory level as an example, 80% of employees were white males in 1990 and today 85% of employees at this level are black and 40% are female. This change has happened in the context of a policy of merit-based recruitment into permanent roles, supported by a strong black graduate internship programme.
The need to reduce costs and increase performance levels means that throughout the change process, every permanent position has had to be filled with a candidate who is suitably qualified and competent. This approach has meant that relationships across groups in the workplace have tended to be co-operative and harmonious throughout the transformation process, during which general performance levels were not only maintained but enhanced.
8 What advice would you give to all current SASA employees?
Being part of one organisation that in effect gives you exposure to an entire industry value chain while being responsible for specialist services that cross a number of traditional business sectors is a unique, enriching opportunity. I would encourage employees to seize every learning opportunity that being part of such a diverse environment offers and to engage in the life of SASA as a whole rather than focus narrowly on their specific divisional role.
In HR we often hear from former employees who have left SASA to advance their careers in other organisations. The consistent feedback they give is how much in retrospect they appreciate the culture and values in SASA. They emphasize how well SASA equipped them to succeed elsewhere, the high standards of performance expected, the strong co-operation of colleagues that they enjoyed and professional work ethic they learned. It’s up to everyone to play their part in sustaining the SASA values and in particular the strong emphasis on dignity, respect, honesty and collaboration.
9 What are your plans for retirement? Maslow talks of self-actualisation, any plans to unleash some creative talent you might have been suppressing all these years?
It’s correct that I am retiring from employment, but my career is entering a new phase in which I will focus on the aspects of my profession that I find most meaningful: advancing workplace ethics, promoting employee engagement, and the mentorship of younger HR practitioners. Ethicalways, my new business venture, integrates these areas in its tagline, ‘engaging workplace integrity’ and offers research, policy development, training and advisory services to businesses seeking to instil an ethical workplace culture, especially those needing to comply with international anti-bribery legislation. You can follow Ethicalways’ progress on LinkedIn, Facebook and even YouTube. In quiet moments I will be writing for a number of publications. It goes without saying that I will always be available to provide support to the HR team in SASA when they need to know why a particular policy decision was taken in, say, 1996!
10 Can we assume you have mixed emotions as your employment at SASA nears its end?
The nature of one’s role in Human Resources, especially in an organisation so dependent for performance on its people, is that one is never really off-duty. It feels as if SASA’s interests have been a preoccupation since 1990, and this means that I am going to feel the loss of my day-to-day relationships in SASA very keenly.
It’s been an honour to share the professional and often personal trials and triumphs of the SASA employees, in particular those of my colleagues on the SASA Executive Committee and those of the members of the great SASA HR team to whom I am deeply attached. Many will be unaware of the supportive and caring bond that exists amongst the HR professionals across the sugar industry, and I count those relationships as another loss.
At the same time, I am excited about the benefits that a new HR Executive will bring to SASA, and about the opportunity I now have to focus on contributions that are particularly relevant to today’s challenges. SASA’s best interests will never be far from mind, and I know that given the dedication, skill and hard work of the people working in SASA today, that it’s a resilient organisation that will always find a way to overcome the varied challenges that its unique context presents.