Ole! Media has a brand new Group Talent Manager,Capetonian Shireen McWhite. We asked her how she found her way to a career in talent management.
“Actually, I always wanted to be a chef,” says Shireen. “But I ended up choosing personnel management subjects at UCT, and later did a Master’s in Organisational Psychology.”
Shireen has worked in sport science, restaurants, recruitment – even on the ski slopes of Colorado, when she hopped across the Atlantic to work at a ski resort, teaching kids to slalom without breaking a leg.
“My work in the ad industry started back in South Africa,” she says, “At Saatchi & Saatchi, followed by HR positions at Publicis Machine, Travelstart, Primedia and Liquorice”.
So what’s rewarding about her job?
She says it’s the people. “I love career stories, hearing about how someone got to where they are, and helping people get to a better place. I love meeting people I’ve worked with and hearing how they’ve grown.”
What’s the most difficult part of her job?
“Firing people, albeit for a good reason,” she says. “And retrenchments – those are heartbreaking. I did my first mass retrenchment when I was 20. It was tough but I learned a lot.”
As a talent professional, what are some common complaints you hear from employees?
“ ‘What does person X actually do?’ is a common gripe, as well as ‘I am leaving because of person X’. And management frustrations include complacent employees and those who don’t have a sense of urgency or of purpose.”
Thoughts on dealing with day-to-day HR problems?
“HR should be integrated into leadership, not separated. It should be part of the day-to-day conversations. For example, the knee-jerk reaction to lateness from most managers (note, not leaders) is that the employee is lazy and not making the effort. We should, however, look at the reason why. In Cape Town, for example, trains are unreliable. It can now take people three hours as opposed to 45 minutes to get to work. If someone is often sick, maybe they are really bored or uninspired, so we need to address that.”
Are most employees aware of their rights? Shireen says not all employees are but adds that there is no excuse. ”If you’re online, you can download an act or do some research.” And their responsibilities? “Providing you applied for the position, then signed a job description or KPIs, you definitely should know your responsibilities.”
Apart from financial remuneration, what keeps employees happy and satisfied? Is there anything to talk of new work cultures built around flexible hours, free ice cream or bringing your dog to work? Shireen says training development is important, as well as clear career goal facilitation, and good communication.
“Flexible hours are also a perk, and employees are much happier when leadership is really good; people leave people, not companies.
“Group opportunities are another thing employees appreciate. Could I move to a different city or country in the same group? Still, some people would be over the moon with a Mac computer and great coffee!”
How well treated are SA workers compared to those in other countries?
Shireen says this is a tough one to answer because global comparisons are difficult. “Change is on the horizon and for me it’s exciting. We have a national minimum wage coming out; 10 days paternity leave; a goal of 1 million internships in a few years – I am super excited.
“I think Scandinavian countries get up to 2 years paid maternity leave. In the USA there is a lot of flexibility, like unlimited leave with some tech companies who trust that you’ll do what is required, when it is required, and be dedicated. But in the USA you could also return to your desk after lunch to a pink slip (termination notice) and not have a job – that’s pretty hardcore.”
“There’s also progress on the transformation front, even if it’s slow,” she says. “Some SA corporates are lagging, especially at executive and senior level. I look forward to seeing a diverse boardroom table.
“There are still companies who budget for EE non-compliance fines. And there are some scary fly-by-night companies promising that agreements between learners, schools and companies are in place – when they aren’t. This burns the learner and the company. It is disgraceful.”
But there are some excellent companies out there, she concludes. “They’re doing great things, like offering full bursaries including housing, mentoring and more. Marshall Foundation and Allan Gray Orbis are two examples and more companies are moving into this space, which is really amazing.” In our own small yet determined way, we at Ole! Media Group are also making a contribution to the development of fresh talent in the digital media space.
Launched in 2015, the Ole! Media Digital Academy has so far trained 14 individuals through our 6-month and 3-month programmes. Working in collaboration with the Western Cape government we offered training positions (which were also remunerated) in 2015 and 2016, teaching our cadets – who, despite tertiary qualifications, were unable to secure employment – how to enter the modern working world. Skills acquired included: introduction to social media as a marketing tool (the cadets even got to build their own website and Facebook pages and to manage these), basic copywriting and data collation skills, image and video editing, telephone and other communication skills as well as coping with the do’s and dont’s of office life. In 2017 we trained five recruits in customer support, including teaching them a range of technical skills required to trouble shoot around web and hosting issues. Several of our graduates went on to obtain employment within the industry or to tackle advanced courses in the areas that interested them most. Four joined our permanent ranks and today rate amongst our most enthusiastic and dedicated employees. In 2018 our focus will be on developing talent in the creative and account management fields.“
How does she find an ad agency environment compared to a more formal one like a financial institution?
“The cultural environment can make a big difference,” says Shireen. “In hierarchical, bureaucratic companies, things can take forever to happen. Ad agencies can be more informal, but you’re sometimes dealing with some serious egos that ruin it for everyone. For me, it depends on who is leading. For example, at Ole! Media Group it is great having a direct line to the top table, which is easier within smaller, independently owned companies like ours, where there is less red tape and the decision-making process is quicker.”
What does she like to know about an employee before hiring them – apart from their qualifications? “Depending on the level, we like to know where they’ve worked before and what they have achieved. From a practical perspective, their notice period and current earnings.”
Interviews alone are not the best way to hire candidates, she says. “They need to be combined with assessments, personal reviews and personality- and culture fit – and reference checks are essential, too. At Ole! Media we consider attitude to be just as important as aptitude.”
A good CV is important, says Shireen. “It is your foot in the door. Sometimes we look at over 200 CVs for one role, but they’re the bane of my existence. Yes, that’s dramatic, but I wonder where job seekers get these outdated templates, or why a selfie is taking up the full first page.”
Any other tips for job seekers? “Answer the phone when the recruiter calls, and arrive at the interview on time and prepared,” she says. “Be your best self at the interview; remember the interview is equally important for you, the candidate, to determine if this is the company for YOU.”
Welcome Shireen, and may you do great things here!