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How to get a job (and excel) in HR – Career Advice

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Beverly Chahonyo

We talked to Beverly Chahonyo from Mode. Beverly has had over 4 years of experience working in the HR department of Mode and began with them from the very beginning. This means that she has had many insights about how companies shift over time from large to small – and how that affects their internal operations.

In case you didn’t know, Mode is an innovation Company that specializes in providing revolutionary technological Value Added Service (VAS) solutions to Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) across the Globe.

Here are the key take aways from her interview that you can apply to your career in HR, if you are a job seeker looking for what an HR Manager is thinking when you walk into an interview, OR, if you are looking to start your own consultancy (Beverly has done that too!)

Tell me a little more about your career path. What has your experience been?

Well, I went to the US for my Undergraduate and Masters. Then, when I got back to Kenya, people told me I was overqualified and couldn’t give me a job.

So, at the end, I had my masters degree, but started with an entry level position after a year and a half of looking for a job. My starting salary was 25K as an executive assistant. I was making more selling clothes at Lane Bryant on nights and weekends in the US while in school than I was after graduating.

Honestly, that was my biggest frustration. And my challenge with Generation Y is that a lot of them expect to start at the top and are not willing to work their way to success. The flip side is that they are brilliant and they know it. They are innovative and confident and highly skilled. They just need to learn to be patient.

What types of jobs did you apply for when you got back?

I tried the banking sector, but I couldn’t do it. I even had my first job offer letter from a bank offering 22,000KSH. He said, take it or leave it – we’re a great bank. But I just knew I couldn’t work for him.

So I worked as executive assistant at a local Embassy here in Nairobi. My main tasks were fixing tea and collecting data by reading papers because they didn’t trust me to do anything else. Mostly I highlighted news and left it on their desks.

Then, I moved to Mombasa and started doing client relations management at an ICT company.

When I came back to Nairobi, that ICT company offered me a position in HR. I said – I’ve never done a position in HR.

Plus, that was November 2007 and we were going through post-election violence, and I had just gotten hit by a matatu…I wasn’t really thinking about applying to this new position. Luckily, my boss chased me to make sure I applied for the HR position and I got selected by the 3rd party conducting interviews.

Wow! So you got started in a position that you never had experience with…how did that go?

It was baptism by fire – I got the job one week and the next week was payroll…So after beginning, it was running running running. After 8 months I actually quit because I felt that while this organization trained me so well and had given me such great opportunities, where they were as an organization the learning curve was very steep. It was an amicable parting as both parties agreed on it. I have maintained a great relationship with them.

This is my advice to Gen Y – Don’t burn bridges. Quit respectfully. I’m still in touch with my former boss.

Don’t quit in a way you see someone on the street and want to cross to the other side. You never know where you will meet them 5-10 years from now. Do it with honor, grace, dignity, and don’t offend anyone.

Have you ever run your own company?

I ran an HR consultancy for 2-3 years. That was an amazing experience. Kenyans do business in a very peculiar way. At least at the time they did. I believe it was Michael Joseph who said that Kenyans have “peculiar” habits. Peculiar isn’t always bad, it can be unique and positive and used as a strength or it can be unique and negative and seen as a weakness.

Our culture sometimes doesn’t allow us to say what we mean for fear of being rude / impolite. You can chase a contract for months and then realize it will never happen. But no one would ever say that to your face from the word go. Or, you do the work and chase payments for months as if you owe the company you did work for. It’s a lot of hard work. But over the past years the environment has changed and it’s getting easier to do business.

One rule of thumb / business is that if you will start doing business with friends, be prepared to lose the friendship, – what if they don’t pay you? Do you lose the friendship or give up the money owed? Another rule is that don’t take something at face value until you have signed a contract.

I also learned that if you have a good idea, stick with it, because it will pay off. At some point I was driving and living on fumes. But I knew I had a heart for what I was doing and I was doing it.

What do you think was your greatest strength that helped you with this HR consultancy?

Mainly, my strength is in coaching and mentoring – that’s where my passion is.

I know I have a gift with people, and I know how to identify someone’s gift from within and pull it out of them.

I am looking to build my brand there and branch out into mentoring even more. June 15th was my 4 year anniversary at Mode. It’s been a long journey, but one that I have enjoyed immensely.

How do you stay up to date with your field?

I read a lot, and I had a mentor who was fabulous – she pushed me and challenged me and rebuked me when I needed it, cheered me on when I needed it. I also read a lot so I go out and get the skills I need. I currently have a mentor who believes in me and sees the next level and pushes me to achieve it no matter what.

I also work at an amazing organization where the company visionaries have faith in you.

So what is your main task in HR at Mode?

From the start, it was building systems from scratch: employee files, building JDs, and enforcing the employee manual. The company was also small at the time, so there was less involved with HR.

The company has grown. I currently handle HR – The admin side, travel and logistics, and learning and development. We also provide a hot lunch for employees every single day so I handle that as well.

Now that the company is multinational, we travel a lot across the globe. If someone loses their passport in West Africa for example, , my team and I have to figure out how to get them back into country (which has happened before!)

In HR, you look at where the issue is and think – where do I come into fix it?

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Arielle Sandor
Arielle Sandor is the cofounder and CEO of DumaWorks.com, a leading online an SMS-based job matching platform in East Africa that helps connect job seekers and employers in a fast and simple way.