We recently sat down with Johann Strauss who oversees a very exciting program called the Village n Life Mentorship Program which is a community development program. We had coffee and a chat about what the program is, how it originated, where it’s going and also about his passion for it.
VNL: Johann can you give us a little bit of background on the program?
Johann: It’s quite a unique and challenging initiative by Village n Life. The basis to the approach is giving back to the community and while we want to incorporate a formal approach to the recruitment process from the community, it does tie into the formal, established, legal recruitment processes.
The exciting thing is that it forces you to have some sort of partnership in the first place, especially your long serving staff to also give them that acknowledgement for their services and contributions to directly impact on the business. You would approach them to ask if they are aware of somebody in the community that may not have the formal qualifications in a lot of the areas but which you believe could contribute to the business. The excitement is that Village n Life’s recruitment process has got clear career planning. So that is the one leg of the process.
The other leg is also to approach these mentors, and they are people who are linked to the community in which the hotel is based. They should be people who are of good standing, are sensitive to the needs of the people in the community and have their own networks within the community. So these people would source potential candidates from the community and refer them to the formal process.
Then we will have the interview and this interview will look mostly at potential. Initially it’s not a job interview, it is now to test the potential and if satisfied we will then include the person on the internship program. Normally it will be a 6 month program. These candidates would normally not come via the formal internship programs from your Technikon. They may not be able afford that, or they missed a chance in life or don’t have the formal qualifications required. So this is fundamentally to give a second opportunity to people in that community in order to uplift that community.
VNL: How did you come to be involved in the program and what is your passion for the program?
Johann: I’ve got plus minus 30 years experience and I’ve recently retired last year. When Maree, the Chairman of Village n Life approached me, we had a brief chat and he then mentioned that this was his brainchild and it was an initiative but it’s time consuming and it wasn’t always possible for him to follow up on a lot of these things. So he then mandated me to pursue this matter together with the formal recruitment processes with the HR manager Cheri. So we’re working closely together on this.
My major task is to make that entry into the community, to identify those people we can use as mentors.
We did a little bit of research, because mentoring and coaching are certain concepts that are being bandied about freely. We then developed a common understanding of when we’re talking about the mentoring and the coaching. Because the mentor may not have the technical knowledge to train a person to give guidance in terms of the hospitality industry. However their role will be for the life coaching that goes on. We must understand that in a lot of instances there are socioeconomic challenges facing these communities and that’s why people miss the chance to get into the industry.
So Village n Life have taken a step back and said, we would like to see how we can improve, in a meaningful way, those with potential, it’s very important.
The mentorship comes in because it’s one thing to offer someone an opportunity, we can do that to anybody, but is that person up for the challenge and do they have the drive? And that is some assessment that we will make before getting that person onto that program.
VNL: When did the whole program start?
Johann: Well myself and Maree, we started speaking in early January in terms of him getting assistance. He’s got so many other things to do and wasn’t making headway with the program.
(Note: The conversation flowed from there into the following)
The formal schooling system doesn’t always cater for those who don’t have the pure academic ability but is very creative and has got certain logic. So unless you have someone who can sponsor you to a special institution to give you freedom of expression, a lot of those kids fall by the wayside. So you may find a very very good receptionist with all the vocabularly skills and the emotional intelligence but they didn’t fit in at school.
I also think the reality in a lot of communities is the whole teenage pregnancy situation where people also fall by the wayside and then you know, does it mean the end of that person’s career? In a lot of instances it does unless you have that supporting structure that says it’s not the end of the world.
VNL: What’s the uptake of the program been like so far?
Johann: One of the problems that was identified was the lack of staff referring people. We’ve had success in that instance where staff have now referred 2 or 3 people at The Farmhouse Hotel where the project has been launched. We made the effort of letting them know that they must not feel challenged or threatened by new people coming in and getting their jobs. We are saying we thank you for your contribution, and this is the companies life and your life that is involved.
It’s a bit more difficult with the mentors because it’s an unfamiliar territory. We have now targeted retired teachers because at least we have got some referrals. We have to protect the integrity of Village n Life because there are a lot of schemes running out there, offering the opportunity of jobs especially to young people. So we have to vet and know that these people we choose will be safe people.
It took a little bit of convincing, but now we can at least say we’ve got 2 elderly gentleman in the Farmhouse area. The one is currently involved in the internship program at the steel plant in Saldanha. So he’s also dealing with the formal internships there so he’s a person of good standing in the community. And we now also have a retired subject advisor teacher. On the other level we’ve also made contact with the schools but the only high school, or the closet one is the one on Vredenburg. Funny enough, the information we got from the employees indicated that more than 80% of the Langebaan kids attend school at Vredenburg. So we’ve got a relationship with the acting principal there. They were offering tourism at the school, even though hospitality studies is an established subject on the curriculum. Now they were offering tourism and not so much the hospitality studies which is more closely linked to the environment of Village n Life. So we have embarked to start influencing the school principal with the school community to consider a curriculum or subject change but this will still take 2 or 3 years. So that’s a more medium term plan.
The exciting part now is to say OK we’ve got 4 or 5 people identified by the members who we can sit down with and chat to. I’m comfortable being associated with Village n Life because they have got well documented policies whereby you can clearly see this is where my career is going.
VNL: Johann thanks for your time, and the absolutely incredible job you’re going ahead with in the program and we look forward to catching up soon to hear of the many success stories in the VNL Mentorship Program
Johann: Thanks so much, and we’ll chat soon again