From Ntondozi to Global VP of a $6 billion Hospitality Company

Thank you for your time Bathobile. Can you kindly introduce yourself to our readers? Who is Bathobile Gule?

Bathobile Gule is a proud mother to a 20-year-old son.  I was born in Mbabane and raised in Ntondozi by my grandparents until I reached 6 years of age.  Thereafter, I lived with my uncle in Siteki for 4 years and then relocated to Mbabane to do my High School at Hermann Gmeiner (SOS) and proceeded to study law for 6 years at the University of Eswatini (UNESWA).

In terms of my career, I am a Human Capital Executive with over 20 years of experience across various sectors and countries. I have worked in Eswatini, South Africa, Kenya, and currently in the United States of America. My career began at Sipho Nkosi and Attorneys. After my stint at the aforementioned Law Firm, I joined the Conciliation Mediation & Arbitration Commission (CMAC). I am also privileged to have served at Business Eswatini as Director of Industrial Relations and Social Policy before spending 14 years at Coca-Cola, holding diverse roles in different markets. I currently hold the position of Global Vice President for the Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG) Hotels and Resorts. IHG is a $6bn global Hospitality Company that employs over 325,000 colleagues spanning over 100 countries. The company boasts 19 brands and has over 6,000 hotels and is shy of 1 million rooms.

How does a LiSwati get to be a Senior Executive at a global brand based in the United States of America?

It’s a hard question to answer because half the time I have made decisions not knowing what they will lead to. I have had to fully rely on my inner spirit and trust that God is guiding my path.

The story started when I discovered my passion during a career fair at SOS High School while doing Form 4. My interest in law was sparked by Musa Sibandze, a well-renowned lawyer. This encounter inspired me to pursue a future in Employment and Labour Law.

There is a quote that says ‘Winners are comfortable being uncomfortable’. Now this speaks to the issue of being a risk-taker. When I joined Coca-Cola in 2007, I faced and embraced challenges and sought growth opportunities that spoke to my passion – for example, I took the Employee Relations Africa Consultant role – which exposed me to various Employment and Labour Laws of the continent. That experience was the foundation for the next role – where I was the HR Business Partner for 39 countries across the continent. I truly believe in building a body of work, and perfecting your art – this gives you credibility in future roles. These experiences also solidified my connection to the continent, motivating me to explore global opportunities.

When I moved to the USA I immersed myself in the US and Coca-Cola’s culture and led HR initiatives for Executives. Working closely with key leaders, I honed skills in influencing and driving innovation on a global scale. I went on to serve as the head of HR for the Chief Technical Officer of the Coca-Cola Company, Nancy Quan who had oversight of all technical, quality, and product functions, including the concentrate plants (of which Conco is one of them). I also partnered with the Chief Innovation Officer, Robert Long who led Research & Development (R&D) centres across the world to ensure our company was thinking ahead on areas that were going to be new to the world. I learned a lot in this role, such as how to influence and inspire teams, how to trust your teams, and how to have a seat and voice at the table on a corporate and global scale. I was sitting at the table, driving the people-based agenda that would unlock innovation that propels the company forward on the world stage. I left Coca-Cola in 2021 to explore diverse industries and seek greener pastures. As an avid traveller, the hospitality industry was a great place to start.

When you look back at your professional journey, how does it make you feel?

I have had a squiggly career – which means I have had different experiences that have shaped my career journey. Some routes were predictable and smooth, while others were veiled in uncertainty, requiring unwavering faith to navigate.

Growth doesn’t come to you – you have to go to it. My decision to leave Eswatini as a single mother of a 6-year-old in 2010, was uncertain, scary, unpopular, yet rewarding. I knew I wanted to grow in my career and I did what had to be done. You cannot just stare at the stairs and hope you will land at the top, you have to climb the stairs. Take the steps to grow.

To win, one has to be comfortable with risk. Leaving home meant I was exposed to risk and failure with no backup plan. I had to be uncomfortable, and alone, learn different cultures and adapt to new environments. All in service of growth. Despite what they tell you, your good work does speak for you! With no relations or connections outside of Eswatini, it was the body of work and experience that has opened doors for me. You have to find that one thing that you like, perfect it, and do it in service of your purpose in this life.

It is also important to tell people what you want to become when you grow up, of course not everybody, but the people you trust – to pray, support, and guide you, and people who can do something about it. I remember walking up to the Group CHRO of Coca-Cola Europe introducing myself and asking her to tell me what it would take to be in her role one day. She not only offered me some advice but also her business card. The rest is history.

Who would you credit in your life as a great influence in shaping the woman that you are today?

Life is a beautiful tapestry woven together by the threads of people who touch our hearts and souls. In my journey, there have been many guiding lights and pillars of strength that have helped mold me into the woman I am today. Among them, I owe a great debt of gratitude to two people: my late father: Atwell Gule, and my grandmother, Juliet Zwane. My father taught me this valuable lesson: “Give a child God and Education: God to guide them through this life and next, and education to open their minds to opportunities (includes self-employment, not just a formal job)”. My grandmother’s unwavering love, wisdom, and resilience have been a beacon of inspiration in my life. Her gentle spirit and fierce determination have guided my choices and shaped my character.

Having worked in Eswatini, South Africa, Kenya and now the USA, are there any distinct work-culture differences you’ve experienced in the different countries?

Live linye ngetjani – each country’s culture is different. They also say if you want to learn a culture, study the music, the food, and how people drive on highways! In my mind, the main differences in the work context are around the competitive spirit, the desire for excellence, and the value and respect for boundaries and personal space. Whether it’s the entrepreneurial spirit in South Africa, the strong sense of community in Kenya, or the efficiency-driven work ethic in the USA, each country offers valuable lessons in navigating challenges and seizing opportunities.

Speaking of the USA, what do you enjoy the most about working and living there?

The opportunity, weather, innovative spirit, and diversity. The vibrant energy of this melting pot of cultures, ideas, and dreams fuels my passion and drive to pursue excellence in all aspects of life. In the USA, I’ve learned that no dream is too big and no challenge is insurmountable when fuelled by passion and determination.

Let’s move on and chat about your work as a human capital practitioner. How critical is it for the HR function to be engaged in business strategy?

The significance of HR’s integration into business strategy transcends mere importance – it embodies a vital synergy essential for organizational success. Think of HR not as a mere entity within the company framework, but as the vibrant heartbeat pulsating in sync with the broader business strategy. Its involvement serves as the linchpin, bridging the gap between vision and execution, people and purpose. By weaving HR intricately into the fabric of strategic initiatives we immediately connect our people to the growth algorithm.

One of the biggest drivers for the success of any organisation is a vibrant and happy workforce, which can be achieved with a positive work culture. What do you believe are the key elements that constitute a positive work culture within an organisation?

Great question! The essence of a positive work culture lies in nurturing an environment where employees feel valued, supported, and respected. Here are some key elements that contribute to fostering a vibrant and happy workforce.

Firstly, open communication which encourages transparent and clear communication channels between all levels of the organization cultivates trust and fosters collaboration

Secondly, recognition and appreciation. Acknowledging and rewarding employees for their hard work and achievements promotes motivation and boosts morale.

Thirdly, work-life balance. This speaks to prioritizing employee well-being by offering flexibility and support for maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal life.

The fourth element is professional development. Providing opportunities for growth and advancement through training and skill development programs empowers employees and enhances their job satisfaction.

The fifth element is based on diversity and inclusion: Embracing diversity and creating an inclusive environment where every individual feels accepted and respected for their unique perspectives and contributions.

And then there’s teamwork and collaboration. Promoting a culture of teamwork and collaboration fosters a sense of belonging and strengthens relationships among team members.

Last but not least, organizations need to be intentional in providing leadership support: Employees benefit from strong and empathetic leadership that leads by example, listens to employee feedback, and supports their growth and well-being.

Finally, do you have plans to return to Eswatini in the future, in a professional or business capacity?

Why doesn’t this question surprise me? Having worked across the continent, I soon learned that no matter where I was in the continent, Africa is home for me. Not sure where yet. Let’s put a pin on it.

Ok, great. Thank you very much for your time Bathobile.

Thank you. It has been a pleasure.

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