Asked to describe herself, Miriam Hoosain considers her answer carefully. “Curious" would be an apt word, she decides. “One thing people say about me is that I always ask four-million-and-one questions," she laughs. “Have you thought about this…? And what about that…? But what if we try it like this…? I do ask a lot of questions, which is why I love working in higher education."
Stellenbosch University's (SU) newly appointed chief director of Human Resources (HR) also loves the word complexity. With more than twenty years of experience in HR in higher education, Hoosain is no stranger to the complexities and demands of managing people in a large and dynamic institution. Formerly the executive director of the University of Cape Town's (UCT) HR Department, she has an impressive academic resumé.
Before joining UCT in 1999 she worked as a researcher at the Centre for Epidemiological Research at the South African Medical Research Council. Hoosain has a keen interest in human psychology and women's health and studied and worked in these areas, as well as in the areas of epidemiology and biostatistics. As a researcher at the Gender Equity Unit at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), her focus was on gender and employment equity. At the start of her career, Hoosain lectured statistics at the psychology department of UWC and also worked as a researcher at the New York Psychiatric Institute during her fellowship at Columbia University in the United States.
It's her curiosity about people and the world that led her down this multidisciplinary path, Hoosain explains. “When I was young, I actually wanted to become a veterinarian, but under apartheid, it wasn't an easy option for a person of colour. As a child, I used to collect strays and at one time I had seven cats and five dogs. My poor mother!"
Her love for animals is still strong, but she now only has two cats. Although she'd love to own dogs again, she's currently simply too busy to take proper care of pups. The highlight of her daily drive to Stellenbosch from her home in Cape Town's southern suburbs is spotting animals in the pastoral surroundings along the way. “It lights up my heart when I see those cows. It's magical."
But Hoosain is also quick to identify the complexity underlying this joyful experience. “I'm very conscious about environmental sustainability, so driving all this way and contributing to pollution begs the question, is this the best I can do? Is there another way?"
Changing world of work
She doesn't shy away from addressing the predicament of a higher education institution where staff got used to working from home during the Covid pandemic. When people return to a full-time office work routine again, expectations must be carefully managed on all sides, she acknowledges. “The fact is the world of work has changed. We must accept it's not going to be the same again. We're dealing with humans and we're complex beings, we all have different needs and strengths."
Although she feels strongly about fairness and consistency in policies, Hoosain is not a proponent of one-size-fits-all solutions. “In academia, we thrive on complexity. If you translate this approach to an HR perspective, you must take into account the complexity of the environment and the complexity of being human."
Decisions about how we work ought to informed by the nature of the role and desired deliverables amongst other things. Employers are having to think differently about how to arrive at a win-win solution, she stresses. “How do we achieve the goals of the organisation and at the same time help our staff achieve their life goals? If we can get those aspects as closely aligned as possible, we'll come up with approaches that work. And we will be able to attract and retain the best staff and deliver on our goals."
Reminded that she once described herself as a “workaholic" Hoosain says it's educational to reflect on your younger self. “I said that more than ten years ago, and perhaps some people still see me that way. I'm fortunate that I love what I do and yes, I'm very passionate about my work, but I've realised the importance of putting in place intentional practices for rest and how, as a leader, you have to be very mindful of the kind of behaviour you model.
Hoosain and her husband enjoy spending time with their two adult sons and daughter in law. “My eldest son and his wife live and work in the Netherlands and we were very blessed to be able to visit earlier this year and spend time together as a family."
Hoosain describes her leadership style as “transformational". She continues to be excited about the challenge of transforming HR functions from being predominantly administrative and operational to being more strategically focused and aligned with the University's organisational purpose and goals. “It sounds like a cliché, but you've got to take people along with you. You have to listen carefully. There's so much wisdom in each one of us."
A university is measured by the success of its people, Hoosain believes. Her approach is always organisation and human-centered with a strong emphasis on growth, development and creativity. She thrives in a consultative, collaborative environment and is happiest when she can share ideas and innovate with others. She's keen to take on the challenge of streamlining unnecessary bureaucracy and revising burdensome systems. “If you don't focus on organisational development initiatives, you engage at a level that remains operational and transactional, and you won't really see change. Reviewing business systems and automating processes help academics and researchers to remain focused on their core tasks so they don't drown in bureaucratic responsibilities."
Hoosain joined SU in May this year before commencing on a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca. She reflects movingly about the journey that is intended as a humbling experience for Muslims. “When you go on the Hajj pilgrimage to the holy land and for the journey to be truly transformational, you need to become more conscious of and strip yourself of any ego issues as well as free yourself of all possible prejudice and 'isms' – racism, sexism, ageism… to become one with humanity. Dressed in a simple white garb, you're indistinguishable from the next person irrespective of your positional status, rank, wealth or nationality. It is a truly beautiful and humbling experience."
She returned from the pilgrimage inspired and motivated to tackle the demands of her new job, Hoosain says. “I feel extremely blessed to have this opportunity to be able to contribute. I think SU is a special employer. I'm very excited about my role here. One of the highlights of my life is the amazing people I get to work with. I've already met wonderful people at Stellenbosch, colleagues whom I can learn from and engage in meaningful ways."
As a bonus for SU employees, Hoosain shares some tips for job interviews:
- Firstly, be yourself and speak truthfully. Panels of interviewers can pick up quite easily when you're not being authentic.
- Don't rush your responses, listen to the questions and don't respond before you understand exactly what you're being asked. Pause to think about your answer or seek clarity about the question if you need to.
- ·When you do not have direct work experience in response to an interview question, think carefully about how you can link your broader life's work and experiences to the position you're applying for. Try to find connections to things you've done in your life, even if it is not work-related but something you did in your community or as a parent, for example.