The Story of 52.com

Jane Waters

The Story of 52.com

Tracey and I have know each other professionally for more nearly 15 years and have always had a mutual respect for each other’s abilities and commercial impact.  We have been on the board of SAGEA (The South African Graduate Employers Association) for many years, which was a great place to understand our thinking styles, our powers of persuasion and our humour!  So, after a cumulative 52 years of corporate experience, it was time for us to bring our passion for relevant, commercial people advice, and action to the market under our own name.   I have been involved in three start-ups for large organisations, which I really enjoyed, so I wanted to do one for myself!

I was really keen to rekindle my cross border expereince, particularly my  work experiences across Africa.  I have always worked in international organisations,  and have spent lots of time working in Eastern and Southern African countries, supporting young organisations evolve and grow.  Throughout my career, I have grown professionally and personally  from the people I have lead and worked alongside, and to have done that across cultures has been immensely satisfying (it will come as no surprise to realise that I am an anthropologist by training!).

What has been your most rewarding experience professionally?

For me, to be sought out by the leaders of any business I have worked in has been my reward.  To share my insight, through a people lens, and to coach an organisation to engage their people has been a source of pride to me.  I think the power of a robust and honest conversation is much undervalued in organisations, and I hope I have been able to encourage the people I have worked with to change that.  I have lost count of the number of times I have prepared people for challenging conversations after I have said to them ‘just tell them!’

I have worked with many people to help them realise their potential but one of my favourite memories is sitting on a panel at a University discussion for SAGEA.  I was seated next to a young African student, who was a fellow panel member.  We made polite conversation about cricket as a common interest.  As we got to know each other, I realised he had just graduated with a LLB but had not managed to secure his legal articles because he did not have a complete sets of As.  I value grit, determination and resilience over pure academics, so I invited him to apply to the law firm I worked for at the time.  I am delighted that he was admitted to the partnership last year and was kind enough to remember me in his success.

I place great importance on  kindness and as an HR Director, I have often been involved in conversations with people to help them find their next role.  I believe that there is no such thing as a failure in an organisation (apart from deliberate actions!) , but often people are simply not in the right place at the right time.  I have never run away from those conversations but have always handled them respectfully and kindly and many of those conversations have resulted in people thanking me for helping them to be in the place where they are much better suited.

What do you want 52.com to achieve?

Tracey and I have a shared purpose in our efforts to shift the value of HR in organisational thinking.  Even in organisations that make widgets, people are fundamental to their success and it pains me that people are often only seen as a means to an end.  Kindness and respect, but with a thoughtfulness about how to utilise people’s best talents, is often adrift in organisations.  I know that Tracey and I both want to re-centre people in organisations and help growing, ambitious businesses develop the values, skills and competencies to enable their people to achieve their full potential.

Far too many times, I have heard the groan in colleagues’ conversations, when they talk about “HHHRRRR”.  We want to be able to reframe that, to equip young HR professionals to operate commercially but with a people mindset.  The insight and judgements of HR professionals have to be at the centre of the decision making structures of organisation, rather than as an ‘after thought’.  To do that, HR processes and people have to be agile, responsive and commercial, offering up solutions to enable not disable the achievement of business goals.

Why have you “given up” your HR Director career to do this?

Over the last eight years, I have continued my HR career with a different job title, that of a Chief Operating Officer.  I read an article many years ago in the Harvard Business Review that predicted CEOs and COOs over the next twenty years would be drawn from those with a people, rather than a finance, background.  I am not sure that has materialised but I did give it a try and I realised that by and large if the people were fulfilled, the numbers would follow.  As a COO, I was proud of my people focus and am thrilled I get to be my own COO to enable people in other people’s organisations. 

What is your superpower?

I think I have two but Tracey has nabbed the first one!  My second one is my honesty and ability to problem solve out of difficult situations.  Many years ago, when I had just started at an international law firm in London, I realised that I had made a massive mistake in misreading a global people process timetable, that would have a direct impact on the careers of 15 ambitious young lawyers.  I took a deep breath, walked up and down Cheapside in London, where the solution came to me.  I went back into the office and marched into the Managing Partners’ office and said, ‘ I have messed up big time but here’s how we fix it’,   and fix it we did!