By Fiona Wakelin & Koketso Mamabolo

How do your employees experience working in your organisation? Asking and answering that question at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) is Human Resources Director Palesa Ntoagae, whose approach exemplifies the close link between what’s going on in society, and how employees experience an organisation.

Palesa recognises the influence and impact the JSE has on its employees and society and she strives to impart a sense of hope on those around her. Here the JSE’s “Chief Dealer of Hope” walks us through her role, what the JSE has been doing to create a diverse and inclusive workplace and how it ties into the new world we’re living in.

A changing role

Palesa is responsible for ensuring that the JSE has a strong talent strategy – one that retains the right talent and ensures that employees have the skills that are needed in our changing world. The world is not the same as it used to be, and the JSE recognises that. Palesa mentions how people often go to the JSE’s offices expecting to see the trading floor, which no longer exists. A new world means new people and leaders need to know who will be next in line. 

“People grow,” says Palesa, speaking to Top HR Leaders. “I’m older, and  I’ve had to look at my team and say, ‘who’s the person that can take over from me?’ So leadership and succession is probably one of the most critical areas of focus as well for me at this point in time.”

Compared to other major financial institutions which employ thousands of people, the JSE is quite small, says Palesa. “The responsibility across the different functions of departments starts and ends with me.”

“It’s been quite interesting to lead a team of people that are so competent across different areas of specialisation and HR. Before the JSE, I managed HR managers; now I’m managing an L&D [learning and development] specialist – among others!”

Palesa sees her role as extending outside of the organisation – playing her part in developing the country and addressing its challenges. “I think we forget how our jobs and our roles give us that respect, naturally. I don’t have to ask for it. People listen to what you say and a big part of our responsibility, as the JSE, is contributing towards the national agenda.”

This goes beyond run-of-the-mill corporate social investment – it speaks to the JSE’s awareness of itself as an institution with the power and influence to make a difference. Whether it be allowing masters students to conduct research, or empowering women, every effort can affect change. 

“Leila doesn’t expect us to sit in our offices for the full year. She expects us to contribute and do good towards society. And we’ve certainly opened up our doors and availed ourselves, and that’s been really meaningful for me.”

Palesa knows that, outside the offices of executives, life is happening. “Sometimes we sit in our head offices and forget about the world around us,” she says, showing how in touch she is with the lived experiences of people who aren’t at the c-suite level.


Starting from the top

In any organisation, the leaders drive the culture and drive the policies. Within any organisation, the human resources component is no different: diversity and inclusion starts from the top.

“We’ve been blessed to have a CEO who has strong views around prioritising the development of women,” says Palesa. 

One of the JSE’s initiatives are leader-led conversations around diversity and inclusion, which is an effort to deal with the bias that can tend to creep into decision-making and how employees are treated and engaged with. They also directly ask employees for their feedback on their experience.

“We run an annual employee engagement survey to gauge employee sentiment about how they feel in the organisation. And for the first time we actually had targeted questions so that we could have a gender audit because we want to hear from staff what they’re experience in the organisation is in terms of how they are treated. Because it was never about creating an environment that accommodates just women. It was about ‘how do we recognise the contributions and the roles of everybody at the JSE?’”

One of the policies they have in place is for new parents, regardless of their gender. “We’ve got a gender neutral parental leave policy that allows new parents to take four months paid leave and they can take it all at once or in installments,” explains Palesa.

The JSE has an unique policy “no gender-based violence policy” which seeks to help victims of gender-based violence.

“We’ve also partnered with organisations that give victims help and the help looks like paid leave in addition to your standard leave benefits. Should you be in that unfortunate position, and you need to get help, we give you added time off as well if you need to sort out kids who may be affected. We partner you with an organisation that takes you to a place of safety and connects you with legal support.”

By putting in place such policies, employers can show their employees that they recognise them as people first. And by partnering with other organisations, the JSE is ensuring that they can extend their reach and deepen the impact of their initiatives.

“We look at NPOs and say, ‘these are people that we want to support and add our voice behind because we believe that they’re doing the right thing in creating that equal society.”

Chief Dealer of Hope

It’s a new world we’re living in. The world the JSE finds itself in is in stark contrast to the days when trading floors were the image everyone had in mind when they thought of stock exchanges. And with the changing work environments have also come with new, more caring approaches to how employees are treated and engaged with.

“I know everybody talks about COVID but I think more than anything it reminded us to be human first, to appreciate that we all had different things to deal with; to appreciate that some people had to make big life decisions. Some people lost everything,” notes Palesa.

She recalls a time when people dealing with mental health issues were “completely disregarded”. Which is why it’s important for her to instil a sense of hope for employees.

“When I first heard ‘chief dealer of hope’ it was really about being honest about the influence and impact that you have in just being a little bit more empathetic.”

“I think our job is to say how do I become the dealer of hope and say it’s okay, and make people feel heard?”

Human resources professionals now have a duty to assist leaders in being able to better respond to the personal challenges that their employees are facing.

“It’s the so-called ‘soft’ stuff that I think we really need to get better at so that we ensure that we create an environment that allows people to thrive and to show up fully as they are,” says Palesa. 

By showing empathy and support, employees are given room to flourish, and employers will get more buy-in and have employees who are willing to go further than expected. Palesa’s role is to be the one that asks leaders to not disregard the feelings and experiences of the people in their organisation.

The new world of work

It’s not only empathy and support that employees need. They also need a workplace model which allows for more flexibility and that enhances their experience and workplace culture. This is why the JSE’s office building includes features specifically geared towards making the experience of working there better.

With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the push for work-from-home policies, the JSE has adapted their own to allow employees to choose which days of the week they want to come to the office. They’ve done away with private offices, even for executives, choosing instead to have pods, couches and other alternative workspaces.

 But a hybrid work model doesn’t mean the different teams within the organisation are working in silos. “We have enough events to get people to collaborate, to connect, to socialise – because that’s an important part of the fabric and DNA of the organisation.”

Technology allows for this hybrid model and Palesa is acutely aware of how technology is going to have an impact on the next generation of employees. She uses the example of her 15-year old son, who plays video games online with three of his friends who are on three different continents. By the time he joins the workforce, he will have had extensive experience communicating, and even collaborating with people in far flung locations.

“And that’s where I think diversity and inclusion – and this future role that we’re moving into – exists because we used to play physically. Our kids don’t play like that,” says Palesa.

“So they are going to come into the workplace. If we are not ready to deal with those groups of people, we are going to struggle to get them to stay there.”

What is her message to other leaders? 

“When you look at your job, your work, dig deep and see what’s in it for you. What legacy do you want to leave behind –  one that transcends beyond the corporate world?”

This is HR in the new world.