"People will follow my lead because of how I make them feel.”

We talk to Olga Coetzee, the founder of the OD Connect Network, who shares some practical advice for HR practitioners as well as her views on the future of human capital management in South Africa.

BY Amanda Mohr (BCom Industrial Psychology, Honours)


Tell us a little bit about yourself… where are you working at the moment and how do you spend most of your work hours?

“I am an Industrial Psychologist and an Executive Coach in private practice. I spend about 60% of my time being a sound board, thinking partner, and facilitator of self-development for executives and senior leaders. Leadership development workshops and team coaching is also a major part of my work. I advise a number of companies on organisational behaviour and I offer organisational development solutions to them. I do some academic work in the field of coaching. My work takes me to various industries such as financial services, manufacturing, retail, business consulting, mining, communications and parastatals. Geographically I work mostly in South Africa and neighbouring countries, but I have had some projects in East and West Africa as well.”

What interested you about the HR field and how did you end up in the profession?

“I was a marketer for a Recruitment Agency that belonged to an Industrial Psychologist when my natural insight into human behaviour was ‘discovered’ by him. He steered me towards my junior degree in Industrial Psychology and Business Economics. I dreamed of having my own Industrial Psychology practice, but took the scenic route, ending up being an HR generalist in two companies for 15 years. It was a great practical learning opportunity while I continued my studies. By the time I started my Masters’ degree I moved on to Organisational Development.”

What HR topic are you most passionate about, and why?

“Organisational Behaviour. Getting a workforce to collaborate and deliver on the strategic intent. This includes leadership, strategic alignment, leveraging diversity, and teamwork. “

Who has been your most inspiring mentor within the HR profession, and why?

“Prof Frans Cilliers is someone I have known for many years through my studies. He was my promoter for my Doctoral thesis and he is still my mentor and psychology supervisor. He helps me to look deeper into organisational dynamics, to understand what goes on below the surface, and to reflect on the impact of my interventions.”

What are some tough lessons you’ve learnt in managing and working with people?

“I will mention three things:

  • I cannot change another person. I can only engage them to try and understand their needs, and then experiment with different approaches to find what works best. I need to get their feedback to know when my approach is working. I also need to be aware of my responses to others that may be helpful or unhelpful.
  • I always have to move towards discomfort when relationships fail. Avoidance doesn’t solve anything, but open conversations do, even if they are sometimes really difficult.
  • People will follow my lead because of how I make them feel. Engagement and getting buy-in is really key in leadership."

You’re the founder of the OD Connect Group, which is responsible for bringing many individuals together and allowing them the opportunity to interact with like-minded individuals. How did you come up with the concept of OD Connect and how do you think it has influenced the IOP community?

“I was working for Absa back in 2007 when the Pretoria OD team had a catch-up breakfast with a few ex-colleagues and other associates. We all enjoyed it tremendously and I took it upon myself to organise a breakfast every second month. We were very inclusive from the outset and soon there were people from many different companies who came to the breakfasts. When I left the corporate world to start my practice I continued organising the breakfasts. We celebrated our 50th breakfast a year ago.“

The identity and structure of the network evolved over time. The name, OD Connect, was chosen because this is intended to be a social network – not a social media network or a mailing list. It is a place for like-minded people to connect and get to know, support and learn from each other.

“The structure is simple. OD Connect is open to Organisational Development specialists, Psychologists, Psychometrists, Executive Coaches, HR Executives, and Executives Suppliers of HR products and services. The breakfasts are informal with no agenda. Each person can therefore go and achieve their own objectives, whether it is a social experience, creating more work, getting help for too much work, learning new practices, or simply to create a network to draw on when necessary. We currently have over 200 members.”

What do you think is the greatest challenge in bringing a company’s workforce together?

“The ‘soft stuff’ is in my opinion actually the ‘hard stuff’ in business. In the words of Peter Drucker, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. If the company’s culture and climate do not allow its workforce to deliver on the strategy, it may fail miserably.

“Company culture is the company’s personality. How things are done needs to be aligned with the strategic intent, which includes the clarity of the strategy to everyone and the engagement of employees.

“Company climate is the company’s mood, or how people are experiencing everyday life in the company. A positive and meaningful experience will enable retention of people. Having a clear strategy and getting culture and climate right are the greatest challenges in bringing a company’s workforce together.”

What is the most practical piece of advice that you have regarding managing people in the workplace?

“Communicate. Remember communication is not a product, but a process. Sending out a well-articulated e-mail or making a professional presentation is not communication in itself. It is an information dump, unless there is a process of making sure the message has landed, getting feedback and actually listening and responding to feedback, etc.”

Any thoughts on the future of human capital management in South Africa?

“The more e-connected the world becomes the more disconnected we become as human beings. At the same time complex and evolving business contexts requires collaboration like never before. HR should ensure that this paradox is managed in business.

“Human Capital management is also increasingly technology enabled, putting HR professionals in the position to automate everything transactional. They will then have the time to keep abreast with business developments and to partner strategically with the business to have the right capacity and capability of human capital to deliver on the strategy. They need to be enablers of strategy implementation, facilitating processes that line management are ultimately responsible for.”

What would be your advice to a graduate just starting out in the HR profession?

Get to understand how HR plays out in practice. Even if you are planning to specialise eventually, getting a broad exposure to the full HR function will serve you well.

“Get to understand how business works. Know the strategic drivers such as the economy, politics, technology and regulations. Know how the strategy is formulated and how the performance management system is used to drive the delivery of the strategy. Understand the operating model, the business cycle, the products and services, and ownership model with its influence on organisational dynamics.“

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