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Interview with Mxolisi Tyawa CEO of O’Brian - Topic: People management challenges facing SMME’s

Interview with Mxolisi Tyawa CEO of O’Brian - Topic: People management challenges facing SMME’s

By Andrea Vinassa CEO Torch Media who can be contacted at


Like most small companies, O’Brian, a small Johannesburg advertising agency, does not have a fulltime HR director. This job falls on CEO and founder, Mxolisi Tyawa. ANDREA VINASSA spoke to him about the people management challenges facing SMMEs


Q: As CEO of a small advertising agency you end up being the HR director, chief cook and bottle washer. Obviously, you can’t afford and HR person, so what are your secrets for recruiting good staff?

A: Word of mouth and personal references have been a key tool. However, I have frequently relied on the company vision and culture I wanted to build as the key guiding tools for identifying and recruiting good people. More importantly, I have looked at bringing on board highly motivated self-starters, individuals who are looking for more than just a job; people who are looking for working environments that allow them use their individual skills and motivation. O’Brian is a company where staff can contribute to building something new while building and realising their own dreams and aspirations. ‘O’Brian is a company of opportunities’ – this is our motto - and therefore staff have the space to make a difference.

Q: From your point of view, what are the biggest obstacles to good people management in a small company?

A: Not having sufficient time to focus on individual needs and not having a consistent flow or a variety of work to keep the people engaged.

Q: Do you find that you attract only a certain type of person because you are a small company?

A: Not really, although as a small company you tend to attract people who view small companies as stepping stones to bigger things or, more dangerously, as the last resort and an easy place to look for employment when they cannot get into bigger companies.

Q: How do you procure the skills you need when you get a big project?

A: Consistent with the O’Brian networking approach I survey the market on a continuous basis with a view to building a reservoir of possible and relevant skills. This I do long before the project materialises and plan accordingly to have a pool to draw from when the need arises.

Q: At what point in your evolution from an SMME to a bigger company will you consider getting an HR practitioner on board?

A: Again this is a subject that requires careful thought and planning, but I would guess when the balance between business growth and people management becomes a challenge it could be the right time to get help. More importantly, I think one needs to factor this in right at the beginning as part of one’s business planning where targets (turnover and staff complement, etc) and timelines can be set so that amendments are done timeously and per plan.

Q: You are also a black empowerment company, what are your employment equity practices?

A: For small companies this is still a very tricky and often complex exercise, as it’s relevance and need is not always apparent. But to a large extent I have followed a principle of recruiting black females before males. Now most of my staff is female. On the procurement side I always endeavour to work with black empowerment suppliers where possible and relevant.

Q: What advice – besides ‘don’t head hunt my staff’ - do you have for white companies who apparently have difficulty in recruiting good black advertising agency creatives?

A: The difficulty, as I see it, is that the focus is on getting good people rather than keeping them. If white companies were committed to training and supporting staff development, as well giving real responsibility and opportunities for growth, they would realise more staff retention and therefore reduce the need to poach. Besides, there would be a larger pool of talent to draw from.

Q: Where are the biggest skills gaps in the advertising industry?

A: In structured people development and mentorship, especially in the management and creative areas.

Q: There has been much talk about transformation in the advertising industry. What, in your mind, is the best way to transform the industry?

A: Firstly, the ad business and the industry as a whole was and still is very much a personality/entrepreneur-driven business. Secondly, the word ‘transformation’ in itself gives one a sense of a total overhaul or fundamental structural change. I am therefore not convinced that a permanent structural change will be achieved by merely offering black people ownership via shareholding in white established companies. My view is that the only effective and sustainable way to transform is through having black people start new enterprises. Real and true transformation will be realised only when black people manage, control and operate independent entities and not by negotiating some shareholding in existing white firms.


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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


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