Crisis-driven growth: Insights from Tiger Brands’ CHRO
Human Resources Officers

Crisis-driven growth: Insights from Tiger Brands’ CHRO

S'ne Magagula, CHRO at South Africa’s Tiger Brands, discusses the process of creating a new set of values for an organization and supporting the workforce through challenging times.
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In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Marianne Hill speaks to S'ne Magagula, chief human resources officer at Tiger Brands, a leading fast-moving consumer foods company in South Africa. Magagula shares her experiences leading the company through various crises, the lessons she learned from doing so, and the importance of using the opportunities created by a crisis. She also shares her insights on the process of creating a new set of values for the company and how diversity and inclusion in the workplace both benefits the company culture as well as helps the company better understand its consumers’ needs.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:14) How have you been guiding the business and workforce through these challenging times?
  • (7:58) Throughout all of these difficulties, how have you kept the staff morale up during these times?
  • (10:02) Please take us through the culture transformation journey that you have been driving. Why is it so important to the business?
  • (15:38) What does it mean in the Tiger Brands world to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion?
  • (22:58) What does it take to be a successful CHRO in the rapidly changing world we live in today?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Marianne Hill: Hello, I'm Marianne Hill, a principal in the Heidrick & Struggles Johannesburg office and a member of the firm’s Financial Services and Corporate Officers practices. In today’s podcast, I'm speaking to S'ne Magagula, Chief Human Resources Officer at Tiger Brands, a leading fast-moving consumer foods company in South Africa. Prior to joining Tiger Brands, S'ne held various HR leadership positions at Sasol and Shell.

S'ne, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

S’ne Magagula: Thank you for the opportunity, Marianne. It’s an absolute pleasure to be engaging with you today and I really look forward to the conversation.

Marianne Hill: Thank you. I think we should kick off with a little bit of background. Since joining Tiger Brands in 2018, the organization has been faced with many headwinds, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as recent riots in South Africa, which have caused Tiger Brands to see massive losses. You also joined the business when it was recovering from a Listeria outbreak. How have you been guiding the business and workforce through these challenging times?

S’ne Magagula: Yes, it’s been a very challenging few years for Tiger Brands indeed, considering that it's a business that has been around for a hundred years and it’s a business that is part and parcel of the tapestry of South Africa and the continent. I think there's lots of pressure to always be doing well, to be performing, to be part of building the country. So these challenges have been very difficult, obviously, for the business. But I've been quite impressed with the way we have risen to the challenge. And I say “we” because I think there's a lot of collaboration and teamwork that's come to the fore as a result of the crises that we've had to resolve.

You ask how I’ve been guiding the business; I can't say I've done that individually. I think I joined a leadership team that really was very clear that, first of all, it didn't want to waste a crisis, having just come out of that reputational crisis in 2018. The business was looking to renew itself and therefore the business strategy was being reviewed and the growth agenda, particularly from an innovation perspective, was very much top of mind for the whole business. When you review a business strategy, it goes without saying that you need the people, the leaders, and the culture to support that. And that's exactly what the leadership team and I, as well as other leaders across the organization, are doing. We defined a very simple people strategy that looked mainly at three things: talent—and that was about bringing in capability but also building capability from within the organization, which is why we talk a lot about growing our own timber. Second, it was about building leadership capability so that leaders could create conditions for the people that we were developing to thrive and to perform and to grow in the organization. And third, it was about creating a great place to work that would almost invite people to bring their best game—to how they performed, how they grew the business, and how they innovated. So, our people strategy is as simple as that: it’s talent, leadership, and a great place to work, and the whole business has bought into it. Our leaders take accountability for driving it, whether they are sourcing talent, ensuring their teams are diverse, developing themselves as leaders, or creating the conditions for our people to perform, succeed, innovate, and grow.

Marianne Hill: On a more personal note, S’ne, what would you say were the lessons learned from each crisis that helped you face the next one? Because they just kept on coming.

S’ne Magagula: When it rains it pours, right? I think the first lesson is what I've already mentioned: don't waste a crisis. What that means is, take the opportunity to re-jig and reshape your business, and change direction if the lesson learned from the crisis is that perhaps you were headed in not such a great direction. I think we took the lessons that we needed, and we've learned from them. And the business in a sense is on a road to renewal of its purpose. We nourish and nurture more lives every day—that is our purpose. Through the crisis, all of us have rallied around the true meaning of that purpose and considered how we collaborate and work together to ensure that we, in everything that we do, are bringing that purpose to life. But also, we use it to liberate a greater performance across our team. So that's the one lesson. Don't waste a crisis; use it as an opportunity for renewal.

The other lesson has been about collaboration. Tiger, as you know, grew through acquisitions, and so we have a lot of different businesses that had different ways of doing things when we bought them, and we didn't consistently create a one way of doing things. In the last few years, it’s been a big focus for us, to create those guardrails that define what the one Tiger organization looks and feels like and how do we do things around here, whether it’s manufacturing or quality or even innovation. It’s been about creating those guardrails and almost creating that sandpit within which people can operate and execute but in the one Tiger way. And, of course, our culture has been a big part of that in terms of creating that one way of interfacing and collaborating with each other, as well as partnering with stakeholders, whether it’s internally or externally.

But I think these crises have also taught us about the importance of consumer obsession, which is really about focusing our minds and all our resources and everything that we have on really truly understanding the consumer intimately, to the point where we anticipate their needs before they even know they have them so that we can innovate and grow this business and create our own longevity and sustainability—by innovating and, I suppose, outpacing our competitors.

Marianne Hill: As an HR leader, I'm sure you would agree that people are your most valuable resource. Throughout all these difficulties we’ve spoken about, how have you kept the staff morale up during these times?

S’ne Magagula: Even during COVID-19, what we've kept very top of mind as an organization is that we have been here for a long time; we have a strong legacy and we are going to be here for a long time to come. So, we focused everybody on our purpose and our future as an organization, which we believe is robust and really something to look forward to. I think we've been very good with respect to keeping everyone connected, even if some of our people have had to work from other locations—from home, remotely, and so on. We've kept the lines of communication and engagement very open and a lot of it has been about our strategy, our future, and driving the execution of that strategy to ensure that our future is indeed sustainable. Lots of conversation about how we grow by focusing on meeting the needs of the consumer, as I said. But, of course, in order to meet the needs of the consumer your people have to be happy and experienced. Your environment has to be one that inspires them, lets them bring their A-game, and really lets them innovate. So those are the things that we've really focused on.

One of the things that we've also done very well is upping our game with respect to employee wellbeing. As people have worked from home or gotten used to working remotely, we've really supported them not only from a physical wellbeing perspective but also from a mental health perspective. We've created conversations specifically about mental health, and we've brought in experts to just give people some coping mechanisms for some of the stresses—the work-life harmony issues that a lot of people were struggling with. So, in addition to our normal wellbeing program, which we call Thrive, we've had to augment all those things with some of this additional support, so that the conversations around stress and mental health and anxiety and depression are not hidden but open.

Marianne Hill: You mentioned that Tiger Brands celebrated its hundred-year anniversary this year, which is a massive achievement. One would assume that with this history, the organization has a well-defined culture that has been created over these many years. But please take us through the culture transformation journey that you have been driving. Why is it so important to the business?

S’ne Magagula: It’s true that our culture has evolved over many years and, as I said, we’re a company that's grown through acquisition, so we haven’t necessarily had one culture. Previously, we managed the organization and the different businesses quite independently. So we had quite a federal system and it was only around 2017 that we started talking about creating one Tiger organization with one way of doing things and one set of values.

When I got here in 2018, we started talking about supporting our new strategy through culture. Asking what kind of culture we needed in order to ensure that we not only performed well in the moment but created a future business that was robust, sustainable, and growing. We started by a process of defining a set of values. Initially, it was about refreshing our values, but we ended up with a new set of values just based on some of the feedback we'd received from some of our sites. Employee feedback we’d gained through engagement sessions went into a conversation at the executive leadership level. We defined five values very roughly and then we took that initial rough picture to a group of about 80 leaders in the organization. We all got into a big room for a full day and had a facilitated conversation to narrow down what things are critical to how we behave and how we should do business as Tiger Brands going forward. We defined the five values which care and respect, passion and excellence, safety and quality, diversity and inclusivity, and integrity and accountability. Those became the anchors for what we wanted people who interacted with every single Tiger to experience. Those things defined how we should show up.

Some people felt that we needed to settle on something else that would really define how we showed up, each one of us. So we defined the winning behaviors that would bring our values to life; those were consumer obsession, teamwork, empowered accountability, and focused execution. In a sense, we defined what our true north was, which is our values, and then we defined how we would bring those to life.

Then we went into conversations in each natural team. We called those conversations Heart of the Tiger Dialogues. For the year 2019 (financial year 2019), each team defined what their business priorities were, and we called those the must-win battles. And together with the must-win battles, they defined how they were going to bring our values and winning behaviors to life. Each team came out with a pledge that said, “This is how we are going to treat each other. This is how we're going to behave with our customers and with our stakeholders, based on our values and winning behaviors, and these are the things that we are going to deliver to drive performance and growth in the business.” Culture is, in a sense, is an enabler of that. And more recently we've gotten into a Voice of Tiger survey, which is our engagement and employee experience survey, to start measuring whether we are actually living up to these values and winning behaviors. And we've been enabling our leaders through a program called Game-Changer to actually create the conditions for people to live these values and winning behaviors. It’s about our leaders really transitioning from the very command-and-control style that we used to have in the organization (a style that's quite prevalent in our country) to a more inspiring and engaging style that we call multiplying, which means that you really get the best intelligence out of your team.

Marianne Hill: What does it mean in the Tiger Brands world to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion? You have mentioned that it’s at the core of your HR strategy but I also know it’s very close to your heart.

S’ne Magagula: It is close to my heart and it’s in our people strategy. The talent leg of our people strategy, which I mentioned earlier, is about building a diverse talent base and core capabilities to deliver on our growth strategy. So diversity is part of our people strategy and without it we wouldn't really be able to deliver on our strategy. But over and above that, it’s also part of our values. One of our values is the fact that we embrace diversity and inclusivity as a company. But the people who buy our products are very diverse, and they are mainly women. When you innovate as an organization, you have to have the consumer in mind. And if we do not have the critical mass of diversity, whether it’s racial diversity, gender diversity, generational diversity, or people with disabilities in the organization, we are likely to miss certain insights about our consumers. And chances are if we miss those insights, we don't get our innovation right, and therefore our performance from a business perspective is affected. So, it is so critical, in my view, to have an organization that is not only diverse from a demographics perspective but diverse in its mindset. If you are diverse and inclusive as an organization, you create a sense of belonging for all your people.

Marianne Hill: Throughout your career, you’ve worked with many executives with diverse backgrounds and personalities. In your view, what makes a successful CEO/CHRO relationship?

S’ne Magagula: That's a tough question. I think they have to buy into the same vision at the start—the same vision for the organization, the same commitment to the purpose of the organization. The reason I've stayed at Tiger and have been inspired to continue to make the changes and bold moves we've made from a people agenda perspective is because there was quite a big connection between me and both the CEOs that we've had, in terms of the people agenda driving the business agenda. You can have the best assets, you can have the best brands, but if you don't have the people and the right capabilities and the right culture to execute that strategy and continue to innovate, you're dead in the water. At Tiger, there's an understanding of the fact that our competitive advantage sits with our brand and our people. So, I think there has to be that common commitment to the organization’s purpose and strategy, and I think there needs to be a very open but respectful relationship. I'm able to be in my role and operate in my role because I know I can be very open and honest and robust with my CEO about things that are not going the way that they should or about behavior that I notice from him and other leaders in the organization that is not supporting the agenda. At the same time, I can be open about things that are really going well. There needs to be that chemistry and that open and respectful relationship, where I am respected as well for what I bring from an expertise perspective. My voice really matters. I'm not just a people executive but a business leader in the leadership team and I am respected for that.

From an HR or CHRO perspective, you also need to be quite confident in your own knowledge of the business. I spend a lot of time going to our sites and working to understand what they do, and also spending time with people. I don't only speak to leaders; I talk to an operator as well, and so I have quite an intimate understanding of our people and I have a genuine respect for Tigers as very resilient, innovative people who have grit and a lot of passion and pride for the organization. As a CHRO, I think one also has to have a very intimate understanding of what the business is about and how the business makes money, but also what makes the business tick.

Marianne Hill: You mentioned when we spoke previously that Tiger Brands is adopting a hybrid working model, what does this mean in the Tiger Brands world going forward?

S’ne Magagula: What we've seen over the last 18 months or so is that as people have worked remotely, they've never worked harder and they've never been more productive. We recently reviewed our flexible working practices and we have allowed for more of a hybrid model. Some people may decide going forward, even after all the lockdowns and so on, that they want to work part of their time in the office and part of their time at home. Some people might decide to work more from home or from another site that might be closer to where they need to be. And so we've created some very clear guidelines based on benchmarking, based on some of our learnings, which means that not everybody has to be a Tiger One, which is what we call our head office or our office building, in order to produce their work; they can do it anywhere. Obviously, it gets harder for people who work in a plant on a particular line, so we've had to make sure that those people stay safe, even if they continue to work on those lines and at those sites. But for people in the offices, certainly, we know that we will be a much more hybrid workplace going forward.

Marianne Hill: Now S’ne, the million-dollar question: what does it take to be a successful CHRO in the rapidly changing world we live in today?

S’ne Magagula: I think you have to have, I suppose, a higher purpose—and I know that sounds a little bit too philosophical—about what difference you need to make in the organization in order to ensure that it continues to perform, thrive, and grow, and about how to deliver that through the people agenda. My purpose is about igniting people, teams, and the organization’s potential, and it’s about ensuring that all of that works together to create organizational success. I think that's what I've always kept in mind and that's what really inspires me to continue to do the work that I do.

You also always have to have an open and flexible mindset and always be looking outside the organization in terms of what's changing so that you can adjust the organization and anticipate upcoming challenges before they even reach the organization so that the organization is prepared to meet them head-on. And that takes a certain mindset; not being only focused on what you are doing today but always having an external, future-facing mindset and anticipating what might change in the environment and how it might affect the organization, and preparing the organization to address that. I suppose you become the eyes and ears to the outside world for the organization, but you must very quickly translate that into solutions that are fit for purpose for the organization and continue to drive business performance or change.

I think you do need to have a lot of grit, and when I talk about grit, I’m talking about that resilience and the ability to bounce back. Because I think HR professionals and leaders have been really challenged in the last two years to step into a big leadership role in terms of the changing conditions. People are dealing with grief, people are dealing with loss, people are dealing with anxiety, and we’re having to restructure big chunks of the work that gets done so that it can be done differently, CHROs have even had to restructure whole organizations during this pandemic.

Last, I'm going to say something extremely clichéd: you need to have agility, which is about moving with speed to change things, execute and get things right, and fail fast and fail forward. If you try something and it doesn't work then, you know, try something else.

And I guess the last thing I would say is that you need to bring the humanity back into the business; you really do need leaders to almost rise above the fray and bring their hearts and the human part of leading to the fore. They need to support people, be empathetic. And, I guess, as the CHRO, you need to be the conscience of the business from that respect.

Marianne Hill: S’ne, in closing, what is the most important way Tiger Brands is building on the lessons of 2020? Is there one highlight you would like to mention?

S’ne Magagula: It’s probably this need to be agile and innovative as an FMCG company, because in the last year consumer needs and spending patterns have changed so rapidly. We need an organization that's alive to those changes constantly and an organization that's always thinking on its feet in terms of how to be agile and innovative in responding to those trends as they happen. And organizations need to be consumer-obsessed and in the face of the consumer and bringing the solutions and products forward that are up to date with all the rapidly changing things in our environment.

Marianne Hill: S’ne, thank you so much for making the time to speak with us today and for sharing your experiences and your pearls of wisdom. It’s been an absolute pleasure spending this time with you.

S’ne Magagula: Thank you, Marianne, I really appreciate the opportunity. It’s been great chatting with you.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Marianne Hill ( is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ Johannesburg office and a member of the global Financial Services Practice.

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