Real People in Data: An interview with Anila Fredericks

Ever doubted a career decision you’ve made in the past? Anila Federicks’ experience shows how the idea of a right or wrong career move can be a fallacy, it’s what you make out of your decisions. By defying conventions, first by joining a grad program as a mature candidate and then applying for a role others thought was too senior for her, Anila is now leading teams to achieve customer service excellence at Telstra.

Read on!

Share a little about yourself. How did you come to be Head of Customer Service Operations at Telstra?

I was a very young mom, and I had to go back into work—my first daughter was eight months old then. Back then, all I wanted to do was stay at home with her. So even though I had an MBA and I was a pharmacist, what I wanted was a part-time job to support my family. Maybe it was the worst career decision to just pick the first job that I got, which was at a call center as a sales and service consultant. But in hindsight, it was fantastic training.

There was a five-week training program where they took you through everything that you needed in Telstra. Then for three months, we were part of a kindy, where they train you to take calls and you learn customer service 101. I worked for about a year, then I had my second daughter.

When I went back, I saw in an email that Telstra introduced a grad program for internal staff who had completed a degree. I applied, got in, and topped the grad program. I was a mature-age grad, because I was 31 when I joined. It’s unheard of, right? All the other grads were just straight out of university.

As soon as I finished the program, I applied for a service director role. There were a lot of naysayers. Even some of my grad mentors said, “No, you can’t.” People told me that after a grad program, you have to get into a starting role and then work your way up. Well, I feel I can do it. I’m passionate about service. I’ve got 10 years of work experience, I can do it.

I got the role. So it’s really about believing in yourself and pushing through. Don’t ever think that any job is too small or too big, because in every role you can learn. You can learn from every single person. Sometimes you can get bogged down thinking, did I make the right decision? But I think from a family as well as career perspective, now I feel rewarded.

What would you say were the values that guided you?

Authenticity is a big one for me. It’s about being true to what I believe in. Whatever you do, you check against that value system. Is it right for me? I would always speak up and explain why I think I will do it. That’s very important to me.

Paying it forward is a big principle in my life as well. In the last six or seven years with Telstra, I never had to ask for a role. It’s always been a tap on the shoulder and someone saying, hey, would you like to do this? I’m very grateful. I feel that as people are giving me opportunities, I have to pay it forward. I think the more you share, the more you encourage people to come up, it gives immense satisfaction. It’s like the legacy you leave behind.

What’s a common misconception about heading customer service at a telco that you would like to correct?

Many people think it’s very uncool being in post-sales, because pre-sales is what brings the revenue, then you deliver the service, and then it goes into assurance. One of the questions that people have asked is, your work is in post-sales or it’s purely just break-fix, how come you get involved in continuous improvement, data analytics or design thinking?

I think what you’re dealing with in post-sales gives you credibility, you really understand what the business needs. The misconception is that people in post-sales may not be able to contribute to strategy and transformation. But that’s not true. You need representation from every area of the company if you want to succeed.

Given your long history with the company, you must have fine-tuned your work routines over the years. Tell us how you stay on top of things.

What I really like about my job with the company is a culture of flexibility. As a mother, as a family member, as a senior member in the organization, I value that flexibility. I’m in a job where I’m on call 24/7. I can be called anytime of the day.

For me, what works is I’m at home with the family, I have breakfast with them and send them off to school. Then I come to work after the peak hour. I’m there till about seven or eight o’clock because I’ve got support at home in the evening. That works really well for me. But for some others, they start at seven or eight in the morning and they finish up at four. It’s about embracing that flexibility and making it work.

The other thing that works really well for me, is taking time off. When I have time off, I’m usually just dead to the world. Yes, I can take emergency calls, but I make a conscious effort not to be looking at my phone all the time. I role model that for my staff as well. You give your staff time to breathe and enjoy their earned leave. I think that makes a huge difference. I think if you firmly believe in something, you’ve got to role model it.

Another thing is prioritizing, because I get over 1,000 emails a day. How do you let go of things so you can focus? How do you delegate better? Delegation is building the next-generation leaders. I now have such a good structure and strong leaders that I could walk away and hand things over to someone in the team. Also, one thing I learned through a program I implemented, is about never touching something twice. Whether its email management or any work, I try to deal with it once. I hate repetitive tasks, I don’t like doing things over and over again.

How do you leverage data in your current role?

I took this role as the head of international service centers three years ago. What I found was, there was very little information. First, we didn’t have any data, because we combined two systems of two companies together. There was no baseline. Second, we weren’t measuring what mattered. The metrics were all over the shop.

One of the first things I did within the first two months was to create a jeopardy report. We used Tableau and got the metrics that mattered into a report. If I look back at our first report, it’s so basic, but it was the start of what we do today.

Today, everything is underpinned by quality data. We have a service operations team that provides us with the analytics, whether it’s on workforce management, daily performance management, or even picking up recurring faults. It helps us prevent future outages. It’s about reducing volume into our center so we can manage the work more efficiently and reduce cost.

We share a daily report every morning at 10 to all our stakeholders, so they know exactly where their issues stand and which customers are impacted. The other thing we’ve done is to have dashboards on our ticketing system, and we have data available at multiple levels—the consultant level, the manager level or senior management level.

The people who built the dashboards came from the grassroots, from the team itself, so they know what they’re measuring. As we digitalize and automate, a lot of the roles that they did previously is now redundant. You don’t have to have go hunting through lines and lines of Excel sheets, the information is all there at your fingertips. What we’ve had to do is up-skill people, so we have people with inherent capabilities or interest go for free Tableau training that anyone can do. If they show promise, we spend the money and get them to learn, challenge the status quo, and ask questions. It’s about continuous improvement as well.

What’s a word of advice for those who are looking to transition into more data-related roles?

For me, you don’t need to be a data expert with certificates. It’s about curiosity, interest, and passion. You may not have all of the skills yet, but that can be taught. But some people shy away from it, saying, it’s too tough or there are too many numbers. It’s about peeling through the data and asking, how does that impact your organization?

I tell the story of my duty manager, who was an escalation specialist. He saw me one day and said, have you looked at my resume? I told him, yeah, I hired you, I know what you do. He shared his interest to do something different and we gave him opportunities. Today, he heads all our improvement/digitization and automation initiatives. It’s just quite amazing.

The responsibility is also on the individual, isn’t it? You have to take ownership of where you want to lead your career. You have to be able to share what you want to do. But as leaders, I think we need to be approachable and create an atmosphere where people can actually share, hey, I’d like to try this.

I remember when I was doing the grad program, one of the senior mentors at that stage said, you’ve got to say what you want to do. You might want to become a future CEO one day, but if you never talk about it, people won’t know and encourage you. But under some forms of leadership, you just feel you can’t share. I think as leaders, we need to encourage openness.

Another thing I always say is, if you attend a meeting, contribute. You’ve been called to the meeting for a purpose and if you don’t do that, then you miss the opportunity. One of the things I’ve noticed while working in Asia, after having worked in Australia, is that people aren’t as outspoken or upfront about what they think. You really got to encourage it, sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. Now my team’s great, everyone’s contributing and sharing. But initially, it wasn’t like that. People were a bit wary. Maybe it’s their schooling, I’m not sure what it is.

The other big thing for me is communication. I’m very grateful to my parents. I grew up in India. My dad would take me to debates, and he would coach me and push me forward. When I moved to Australia, people told me I spoke good English. What I find with my team in Malaysia is, a lot of my leaders are technically skilled. They are data-savvy, but they lack the communication skills or their English is not as smooth. When you put them in a meeting together with our Australian counterparts, people will assume that the person who speaks well is more intelligent or a better leader. It’s unconscious bias but it affects whether people respond to what you’re saying. We are rolling out communications training for the team.

What’s a passion project that you want to share?

I love mentoring people. I’m constantly speaking at schools, like with my daughters. One just finished her ‘O’ Levels, and the second one is in secondary three. So I pick up opportunities to go and speak—get people together. I love working with people, it energizes me.

The other thing is needle craft. I attend conventions, and I collect a lot of yarn. When I finished a full day’s work, I go back and I’m crocheting or stitching. My daughters are very interested as well. Everywhere we travel, we try and go and find some local craft. I think creativity is a big part of who you are, as well. It inspires you to do things and push boundaries.


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Alexandra Khoo