On 17 January 2015 Robin Probart, honorary president of the ASTD passed away. Robin was the founding member of the ASTD branch in South Africa in 1997, at that time operating under the banner of the American Society for Training and Development. Now that ASTD in America was rebranded to ATD (Association for Talent Development), in South Africa the ASTD acronyms were retained, but to refer to the African Society for Talent Development.
Today we remember Robin Probart as a professional, friend and colleague. We celebrate his life. We mourn his passing. Above all we honour him for the contribution he made to shape the course of our destiny as learning and development professionals in South Africa. But what makes me qualified to speak about Robin? (1) I know him longer than I know my wife; (2) I was with him on overseas trips six times between 1998 and 2004.
Several people contacted me after hearing the terrible news of Robin’s passing. Some of them could not be here today, and they expressed the same words: What a wonderful man. Most of them have been on overseas visits to the Europe and the USA with Robin, others were simply people whose lives have been improved and enriched just by knowing Robin. They are:
- Chris Vermeulen, HR Executive at Parmalat
- Hannes Badenhorst, HR Manager at Exxaro
- Lazarus Nenungwi of the National Treasury
- Leon Fourie of the SA Navy
- Alan Hosking of HR Future
- Martyn Sloman of Kingston University (UK)
As Alan Hosking of HR Future magazine says: “Robin Probart has dedicated a long career to helping raise skills in the workplace. I have also carried Robin’s name in my heart since childhood when I was growing up in the Eastern Cape town of Uitenhage. Robin was the HR Manager of Volkswagen at the time and my father, who was a senior planner at Volkswagen, used to speak of him in conversation in our home. Neither Robin nor I knew that, decades later, our paths would cross in Johannesburg as we were engaged in our respective but related work activities. Over the past years, we have enjoyed a wonderfully warm relationship as both of us invested our energies in different ways in the development of people. Robin, I salute you for the service you have rendered during the course of your career and lately through the work you have undertaken via the ASTD. Life is strange. There are probably thousands of people who have benefited in some way as a result of the work you have done through ASTD – and they might never have met you.”
Lazarus Nenungwi who was mentored by Robin says: “We have lost a wonderful person, a friend, a father, a mentor, a very generous man, an elder, a wise man. He cared for people genuinely. He was such an intelligent and richly humorous person. Robin had a huge positive impact on my professional and personal life, I worked closely with Robin and he taught me valuable skills that make me who I am today. I will cherish every moment I spent under his wings. For me Robin is not gone – he continues to live in many ways through his legacy. I am so grateful that I got to know this wonderful person, a giant in his own right. May his soul rest in peace.”
Robin was one of the most people orientated individuals I have ever met. His ability to connect, respect and inspire people irrespective of their position or level in an organisation was unique. I will never forget his sharp sense of humour in different situations. In a restaurant when the waiter came to serve us, Robin would ask: Ïs it true that all food is free for tonight only? Or when the waiter asked: What would you like to have, sir? Robin would respond: “Just a bag of mealies!” In this way, we would always get the best service from the waiter.
Having worked at many leading South African companies such as Sanlam and Volkswagen, Robin made his mark and showed the way. He worked with Marius Pfeiffer, one of the first HR managers in South Africa, taking Nick Wiehahn’s lead and creating and building the HR profession as its early practitioners in our country – in the late 70s and 80s. When the opportunity arose to grow the HRD profession in the 1990’s, Robin came to the fore. He formed ASTD Forum SA in 1997. We mobilised hundreds of students and HRD practitioners to support him and many of them are still supporters of ASTD today.
But where did my relationship with Robin start? I met Robin in 1997 when he sent a fax to me about possible involvement in ASTD. That fax changed my life. I met with him and some other training managers and we planned the way forward for ASTD. Then I went to ASTD on several tours – to San Francisco, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, Orlando. In the USA we learned from the real life presentations by great gurus like Ken Blanchard, Jack Phillips, Donald Kirkpatrick, Joel Barker and many others. Interestingly, we also met some of our local experts like Niel Steinmann, Andre Vermeulen and Pieter van Jaarsveld in the States. And most of them (including Robin) have delivered several papers at ASTD conferences in the USA, together with other local greats like Moira Katz and Karen Gray who have also served the South African training community for decades.
What I admired most about Robin was his drive to share what we have learned in America with South Africans on his return. His annual feedback conferences are an excellent example of how this can be done. He even brought the ASTD to other places like PE and Cape Town. Some of us would travel with him to present feedback papers to the training community. On one of these occasions, a speaker from Liberty, if I remember correctly his name was James Skuze, did a presentation on e-learning. But James was not available to do the session in Cape Town. So Robin presented it, despite the fact that he knew little or nothing about e-learning at the time. Amazingly he pulled it off and delivered an excellent presentation, using James’ slides of course. In fact, I think he presented it better than James would have done.
Robin’s dedication and work for the training profession have stretched over many years. In particular he achieved the following:
- For more than 5 decades served the HRD profession in South Africa by developing the skills of thousands of people throughout the country.
- For 15 years, built up the ASTD branch in South Africa.
- Received an award from the ASTD in the USA for his excellent contribution to ASTD.
- Led and managed one of the most successful ASTD Global Networks world-wide.
- Arranged 15 South African tours for more than 3000 HR and HRD managers to the ASTD in the USA, including visits to world-class companies and universities in the USA and Europe.
- Ensured that 9 Annual ASTD State of the South African Training Industry Reports have been published, and empowered several post-graduate students in the process (2003-2013). And number 10 is on its way, thanks to Penny Abbott from SABPP who is now the lead researcher of the study.
- Developed an excellent network of HRD professionals in South Africa, including a great local ASTD website (astd.co.za) and against all odds we convinced him to open a twitter account.
- Arranged 10 local international conferences, as well as dozens of local feedback conferences for members and the training community.
- Encouraged South African companies to apply ASTD best practices and international standards, and some of them have been recognised for their achievements by ASTD in the USA.
LESSONS FROM ROBIN’S EXAMPLE FOR ALL OF US
Robin’s life was full of action, but above all his high level of emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills and love for life and people made him a popular man among friends and colleagues. Having played such a significant role in our lives for so many years and decades, I reflected very deeply on what I learned from Robin. He managed to combine a sharp business mind with a rare human touch. His life offered ten good life and business lessons for all of us:
- The power of networking – Robin was the best networker I knew. He had the ability to connect with people and to follow-up on all new networks.
- Relationship-building – Building on networking, Robin was a master of relationships. He knew how to form and grow relationships. He would transform a short-term relationship into a mutually beneficial long-term relationship.
- Sharing – my daughter learned at school about “sharing is caring,” but I think Robin was one of the best sharing people I knew, always ready to share – from ideas, to knowledge, to food, to wine!
- Leadership and people skills – He used his interpersonal skills to charm and impress people. He hated bureaucracy and red tape and therefore never managed to care too much about SAQA and the SETAs and other bureaucratic structures.
- Trust – Robin knew how to build trust and respect, so much so, that people wanted to come back for more networking and conferencing.
- Planning – Many of us wait for the last minute before we plan something, not Robin. He would plan the next year’s conference 10-12 months before the event, and that is the reason why we now celebrate the 11th annual local ASTD Conference this year. This means that this event has now reached more than 2500 HR and HRD professionals over the last decade, thereby making a significant contribution to the HRD profession in South Africa.
- Global mindset – From the first day I met him I could see that this man has a global mindset, perhaps that is the major reason why he could simply internalise the “American” way of doing business under the banner of the ASTD. This is also the reason why he enjoyed the tours to the States. It is thanks to Robin’s influence and opportunities he created for me that I have globalized as an individual.
- Balance – Robin knew how to work hard and play hard. He worked hard to make ASTD a success, and he played hard when he was touring the world, or arranging social functions for all of us to enjoy.
- Wellness & Fitness – Robin had a very healthy life before he became sick. He played more sports at university than the rest of his class mates combined. He was also my favourite tennis partner, and despite being 30 years younger than him, he would still beat me on the tennis court. I will miss every moment on the tennis court.
- Vision – Robin had the vision of establishing and growing ASTD in South Africa, and he did exactly that. However, vision also invariably requires a change in game plan, and renaming “American” to “African” was part of the strategic positioning and realization of such a vision.
Robin, thank you for your inspiration, leadership, support and friendship. His real legacy is a growing and thriving ASTD community in South Africa. With his hard work, drive and dedication he has built up a reputation that is admired by all of us and the ATD Headquarters staff in Washington. He opened many doors for us, and he has grown the ASTD in South Africa. Ironically, while Robin opened many doors for all of us here today, we are closing the door to his life. But his legacy will live on.
Let us learn from Robin’s spirit. Let us continue to build a new ASTD brand in South Africa, and show the world, like we have done with one of the best ever Fifa World Cup tournaments, that we can excel and achieve and exceed international standards in the field of learning, training and development. Let us create great workplaces with competent staff who are energised to deliver their best every day. Moreover, and to me this is one of the best lessons from the Americans, let us celebrate more. We need more days of celebration to honour the people champions in the HR, training and business community. And above all – we need to bring back the humanity in organisations.
And of course, most successful men have a very supporting wife – Juanita thank you for being there for Robin and for us. Juanita, you were sharing in the workload, challenges, pain and also the successes Robin achieved throughout the last phase of his life. Our deepest sympathy with you Juanita and all other family members in continuing your life without Robin. To his family, friends and business partners we offer our condolences and our prayers, but also our thanks for allowing this great son of South Africa to belong as much to us as to them. Today we are all very sad, but God is smiling.
I close with the words of Henry Ford, these words remind me of who Robin was and why Robin will always be in our memories as a learner, leader and friend. And I know you want all of us as learning & development professionals to treasure and live these words:
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” (Henry Ford)
23 January 2015
Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the HR professional and quality assurance body of South Africa. To learn about the legacy of Robin Probart, visit the ASTD website www.astd.co.za