In the rapidly evolving workplace environment, the spotlight often shines on employer branding. This spotlight, intensified by the global reshuffle post-COVID-19, has forced a pivotal question into the open:

Do leaders genuinely embody the values they adopt or is the employer brand just another corporate buzzword?

In this informative Thought Leaders Spotlight conversation with Norah Sehunoe, a champion in employer branding at Santam, we talk about the intricacies of leadership in these transformative times.


Leadership in the Modern Era

In our shift towards remote work, Norah highlights a crucial oversight: employer branding often falls solely under HR’s domain. Yet, true leadership involves a shared responsibility in embedding employer branding into our core operations. It’s rare to see employer branding on scorecards, and when it is, it’s given minimal emphasis.

Norah’s stance is clear: “What doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done.” She advocates for the inclusion of employer branding metrics from the beginning. However, as it becomes part of our culture, we should ensure it doesn’t turn into a numbers game.

Leaders are in a unique position, aiming to drive employer branding while navigating their roles within the organization. The solution? Education, information, alignment, and measurement. These are key to transforming employer branding into a visible, lived experience, ensuring it becomes an integral part of our organizational fabric.

The Dual Mandate: Leading and Living the Brand

Norah emphasizes the importance of embodying non-negotiable company values, which too often become mere words on a wall. She points out the missing link: defining and demonstrating the behaviours that bring these values to life. At Santam, they value care, integrity, collaboration, and innovation. Currently, they’re focused on defining these values through tangible behaviours and examples within their unique environment.

Leaders play a crucial role in this process; they must exemplify these behaviours to credibly advocate for them. The visibility of these actions breeds a culture of ownership and commitment. Norah draws inspiration from the story of a NASA sweeper who, when asked about his job, said he was helping put a man on the moon. This story captures the essence of a strong employer brand, where every individual’s contributions are aligned with the organization’s overarching mission and employer brand.

However, Norah observes a common pitfall: the initial enthusiasm for nurturing these values often wanes as leaders revert to prioritizing performance and numbers. She stresses the need for a balance between driving results and maintaining a lived experience of the company’s values. In the era of remote work, leaders are learning to adapt their leadership styles, and HR has a pivotal role in equipping them to foster a positive employer brand alongside performance.

Navigating Employer Branding: A Leadership Challenge

In a country as diverse as South Africa, famously known as The Rainbow Nation, embracing diversity is a continual challenge. Norah highlights that while racial diversity is a known factor, generational diversity within the workplace presents its own set of challenges for employer branding. For instance, a millennial’s expectations from an employer’s brand vastly differ from those of an individual nearing retirement. This scenario places leaders in a complex position, navigating the intricate dynamics of race, generation, and tenure differences.

At Sanlam, there’s an initiative to segment employees based on their life stages to better understand and cater to these diverse needs. Celeste points out the importance of being more intentional and precise in shaping the Employer Value Proposition (EVP) to resonate with employees at various stages of their lives.

Norah agrees, emphasizing the essence of addressing basic human needs and ensuring everyone is treated with respect. It involves educating leaders on the importance of being human first—valuing care, dignity, and respect in every interaction.

Overcoming Silos and Driving Collaboration

When Celeste inquired about the strategies Norah uses to ensure a unified employer brand message throughout Santam, Norah shared that they’re navigating this challenge with a combined top-down and bottom-up approach. Last year marked the start of what they called the CEO roadshows, where the executive team visits various business units to discuss strategy, values, and the essence of what makes Sanlam unique. The goal was clear: to have every employee hear the same core messages directly from the CEO, ensuring these messages are consistently relayed throughout every level of the organization.

This year, the focus has shifted towards amplifying employee voices and understanding their experiences of the company culture. Norah emphasizes the importance of moving beyond surveys to engage in meaningful conversations. There’s a special power in storytelling and actively listening to employees share their personal experiences with the employer brand. It’s about uncovering lived experiences, identifying gaps, and strategizing on how to bridge them, all within a safe space where employees feel comfortable sharing honest feedback.

The transition to remote work has presented challenges, notably the loss of informal water cooler and corridor conversations. As companies gradually encourage a return to the office, Celeste and Norah highlight the importance of questioning the rationale behind this move. It’s essential to tailor the value proposition to fit each individual’s role and circumstances, ensuring that the employer brand remains tangible and meaningful, regardless of where work is being done.

From Success Stories to Actioning

Norah acknowledges that while employer branding at Santam is a continuous effort, there’s a crucial insight she shares: the initiative cannot begin with middle management. This level often acts as a barrier, where those below may engage with the brand, but middle managers themselves might miss experiencing its impact from the top.

She recalls an impactful example from a previous role, where leadership by example was not just a phrase but a practice. She describes a leader who not only knew the security guard by name but also made every interaction count, making individuals feel valued across all levels of the organization. His presence in conversations was not just physical but deeply attentive, setting a standard for how leaders should engage.

This leader extended his approach beyond formal settings, actively participating in the canteen’s daily life, genuinely interested in employees’ well-being and openly discussing the company’s aspirations. This approach did more than just bring more people into the canteen; it set a precedent for leadership behaviour, demonstrating the profound effect of leading by example on employer branding. For Norah, this story underscores the power of actionable leadership in cultivating a vibrant employer brand.

Closing Thoughts and Key Takeaways: A Celebration of Progress

Norah reminds us of the importance of celebration in our professional lives. Recognizing and appreciating achievements not only reinforces positive behaviours but also builds a culture of celebration. It’s essential, however, to pair this celebration with the courage to address when expectations aren’t met. The key to this balance is bravery—having the courage to call out the shortcomings while also recognizing the strides made.

She also highlights the need for grace in our interactions. As we navigate the changes brought on by a global pandemic, it’s crucial to acknowledge the resilience and adaptability that have defined our journey to a hybrid working world. This period has tested us, yet it has also shown our capacity to adapt and thrive amidst uncertainty.

Leadership in employer branding, as Norah sees it, demands more from us than ever before. It’s about building and repairing, learning as we go, and fostering a culture where celebrating achievements inspires everyone. This contagious spirit of celebration can transform the workplace into a space where everyone is excited to contribute, eagerly anticipating Monday mornings with a song in their heart.

In essence, Norah’s insights encourage us to strive for a workplace where recognition, bravery, grace, and celebration converge, creating an environment where everyone feels valued and motivated.

We challenge Leaders to shift their employer brand from hype to reality and start walking the talk!