Total Rewards Asia Summit 2024 Singapore
human resources online

Q&A with Telstra's Lynne Barry

Vital stats: Lynne Barry has been with Telstra, based in Hong Kong for six months. She was previously the director of human resources for Accenture in Asia Pacific. Currently the director of human resources, International, at Telstra, Barry oversees the HR functions across the business in Asia Pacific, Europe and the US. Her areas of speciality include human capital strategy and diversity, HR planning, as well as the full spectrum of end-to-end HR operations.

What roles do flexibility and diversity play with Telstra’s HR strategy?

When I think of flexibility and diversity, the first thing I do is to go back to talent strategy because diversity and flexibility flow from there. But even before I can get to our talent strategy, it must be absolutely grounded in our purpose and values.

What is Telstra’s purpose statement?

It’s to create a brilliant and connected future for everyone, and that’s really about our customers, our community and especially about our people.

Our five values are showing we care, being better together, trusting each other to deliver, making the complex simple, and finding our courage. I’m always anchored in the purpose and values as I create the talent strategy.

What is the talent strategy at Telstra?

It’s really around our business strategy, so asking how we’re going to deliver better customer advocacy, how we’re going to drive business growth and value from the core, and how we’re going to build new businesses. Our talent has to play a huge role in this and when I think about our HR leadership coming together and creating our talent strategy, I see our programme has underpinned these pillars.

We think about the employee experience that we want to deliver – and that’s got to be inclusive and it’s got to embrace diversity. We can’t grow in Asia, and we can’t be a talent leader in Asia, unless we’re seen as an organisation that’s embracing all of those things.

Could you share a little more of some of the talent programmes rolled out at Telstra?

Because of the changing expectations of the talent in our region, and because they’re digitally connected like they’ve never been before, flexibility is a value our people are expecting. It’s not just something women want and expect, it’s something all of our talent are asking for. If we can offer that, that’s a real advantage for us in the region.

What Telstra is committed to is that all roles can be flexible, and we call that All Roles Flex. That’s a commitment that’s saying it doesn’t matter what you’re doing – you could be in a relatively scheduled role or you could be the person sitting at the reception desk, or you could be a knowledge worker where hours could be a little bit more flexible – but our commitment is to make sure we can offer flexibility, and listen to you to understand the flexibility you want, and we will do what we can to give you that flexibility.

People are choosing hours which are right for them, as long as we know work is a verb and not a noun.
Lynne Barry, director of human resources, International, Telstra

What are the types of flexibility people are asking for?

They want flexibility in their working hours and that’s for different reasons. For the younger generation, it may be because they have personal commitments that are important to them, and that could be wanting to play soccer on a Tuesday afternoon. It may be people who have got parental responsibility, it could be someone who wants to spend a little more time in the afternoon with their children, or people who have parents at home, so working to understand our people is really important. We have many people who are working on an adjusting working structure, like me, for example.

I start my day incredibly early at 6.30am and I make sure I’m out of the office by 5pm and that’s because I want to spend time with my son every day. That’s something my business peers, colleagues and bosses are happy with. That’s very common among our people; people are choosing hours which are right for them, as long as we know work is a verb and not a noun. That’s just one example of the kinds of things people are asking us for.

It’s interesting that you said all roles within Telstra are flexible. Some companies struggle with that as there are roles which may not work as well on a flexible structure.

I would tell those companies to get innovative and creative with it. Like most employers, Telstra has people who need to respond to customers at certain times of the day. You just need to get creative about it.

When you let people tell you what sort of responsibilities are important to them, and when you can talk about that as a team, you will be able to find good solutions to that. You might think you need an employee at a certain time, but when you talk about it as a team, you may see that you can have someone coming in earlier to cover a certain period of time, so it doesn’t always have to mean more headcount, it just means you need to get creative and innovative.

Often in Asia, there is a lot of hesitation from employees themselves in terms of taking the hours away from work.

First of all, you need to have the leaders tell them that’s not the case. You need to have leaders who are also working hours which are right for them. Me walking out the door at 5pm is certainly not the norm, but it gives people permission to do the same thing and find the kind of flexibility that’s right for them.

Flexibility for Telstra is more than just hours.

It could be allowing people to work from home. Again, especially in Asia, there are people on my team who have a pretty horrific commute to work and back, sometimes up to three or four hours a day. If once or twice a week they can get that time back by working from home, we can certainly make sure we’re equipping them to do that by staying connected, and it makes a huge difference to their quality of life.

Can you give an example of that?

When people see that they don’t always have to come into the office, they see that people can work flexible hours, and that people are doing more creative things. For example, I have people on my team whose parents live in another country. When they go for a visit, I tell them to spend another week there, get a bit more time with them, and work remotely or work from our offices in that particular city. What you get back from people when it comes to their loyalty, the feeling they’ve got control and the reduced pressure they put on themselves … the engagement that leads to is engagement you can’t buy.

What is Telstra’s take on diversity?

When it comes to Telstra, what’s important is diversity across a number of spectrums. Gender diversity is really important to us, across all of Telstra, but also across Asia. But diversity is more than that. Diversity is also about diverse thinking styles, diverse backgrounds, and making sure we’re embracing anybody who wants to join the organisation.

We’re broadening our definition of diversity. But we certainly have a lot of our focus at the moment on women and making sure we’ve got the right representation of women in our workforce and our leadership roles, and making sure women feel they can thrive in their career with Telstra.

What is the gender diversity situation within Telstra now?

We’ve got a pretty good representation of women in the workforce overall – we’re not where we want to be in the leadership ranks in Asia, but we’ve made some pretty good progress in the past couple of years, which has put us in a position of strength.

We’re broadening our definition of diversity.

What are some of the things you’re doing to keep pushing this forward?

We’ve already talked a little bit about flexibility, so that’s one piece that’s really helping women be able to participate in our organisation in the way they would like to. We have been putting on increased pressure from a recruitment perspective, on not just ourselves, but also the agencies we work with, to bring us more women candidates, which is proving to be quite successful.

Do you also have senior leadership buy-in when it comes to diversity?

Absolutely. When we have senior leaders – right up to our group executive level – moving throughout the region, we’re asking them to spend time with the women in those locations. The more we’ve done that, the more women are coming together and feeling like they’re part of a pretty strong network. If the CFO of Telstra is calling together all of the women in China when he visits so he can have a cup of coffee with them to talk about their careers, that just speaks volumes of the seriousness in which we take our commitment to women and to diversity.

I think the other thing we do really well is we have several formal checkpoints throughout the year where we step back and really look at the talent in each of our groups. And that’s not just at a really senior level. Every time we do this, our CEO and senior business leaders ask if there will be an increase of women in our talent pipeline, and we absolutely have been delivering on that and having more creativity in the way we’ve been moving our female talent around. That’s something I’ve just been so impressed with at Telstra – that commitment to talent management, and the talent management of our women.

How have these flexibility and diversity strategies impacted the business?

When I look at Telstra’s business performance and employee engagement over the past few years, they’ve been going up together. When you get under the covers of that, we are able to ask a couple of really specific questions around flexibility.

The first thing I want to understand is whether people feel like they’ve got access to flexible working arrangements so they can better balance their lives. The response to that has gone up consistently over the last three years, between both men and women, which is a great thing. We’re also able to measure, as the use of flexibility increases, that overall engagement increases.

People who use flexible working arrangements are more engaged than people who don’t. And people who use flexible working arrangements see a positive change in their ability to manage work pressure.

So all of those things add up to more engaged employees. Every organisation understands more engaged employees have a direct correlation to the business performance and bottom line, and we’ve certainly seen that at Telstra.

Was there any hesitation when these policies were being rolled out across the different markets?

I wouldn’t say it was hesitation, but I would say there was certainly a recognition that we had to allow our local leaders and our local HR teams to get this right in their markets. Our All Roles Flex policy started corporate-wide, but we first had to make sure we were obviously compliant with local labour laws. Then, we also had to make sure we were bringing it to life in a way that made sense in those markets.

That’s where the trust value comes in. You get a little impatient in bigger organisations when you want to roll something out, but you really need to trust that your local teams know what’s going to work best for them. For one market, it could be that we think we’re all ready for flexible working, but in another we might actually have to invest in a communications plan to show some examples before it can be successful.

So it’s really about empowering the local leaders.

Exactly. Empower them, trust them, and also make sure you know the role they want you to play. Some countries might need some help to communicate to our people that it’s non-negotiable. There are other countries who might want a little bit more permission, but there might be others who might already be ahead.

Are there any markets you’ve found to have been less receptive to flexible working?

They’ve all been quite receptive; I guess the challenge is when you have smaller populations in some countries and it becomes an issue of scale. In some markets, we have a small presence; in other markets, we may have hundreds of employees. In the smaller markets, it can be a little bit harder, and people may feel a little bit more in the spotlight about having flexible hours, but again, that’s about making sure it’s a focus on output and reinforcing this is a talent advantage.

When they talk to people in their network, when people see they’re able to thrive in this environment of flexibility, that’s all great for our brand and great for them.

How do you personally stay in touch with your regional team, and make sure they’re empowered and engaged?

We’ve got a pretty good rhythm going with how we connect the different HR teams. I have teams in the US and the UK, as well as across Asia, so we always make sure we come together virtually as a group, and we flip our timings. On one week, our colleagues from the US can be a part of the conversation and on other weeks, it might be our colleagues from the UK can be part of the conversation.

Why is it important to have these constant conversations with them?

We’re really about sharing experiences from each of our locations and how we’ve brought our programmes to life. I think we do a good job of that, and there are some parts of our business where we have tenured people in mature locations, and we’ve got other locations are pretty new and are experiencing explosive growth. We’ve got a lot to learn from each other, so when the US talks to us about bringing their kids to work for example, that might be something another location hasn’t thought about. Maybe it’s not market practice, but it gives them the courage and confidence to go forth with that.

I find that meeting the HR directors of our customers is one way I can really stretch my thinking and see how I might be able to share what I’m doing.

Is this sharing of best practices quite common across the different markets?

Absolutely. People have a great hunger for that, and I think we do that really well internally. But we’ve also got some great external HR colleagues. Some of them are our customers, and have been sharing their own practices. Just this morning, a group of interns and graduates from one of our customer organisations came into our offices at Hong Kong and told us about their really innovative internship programmes, and to be able to partner with a customer like that and be able to learn from them, is something we put the highest value on.

Does Telstra have these external conversations quite often?

Yes, and it happens at a group level as well, and we’re getting more into that now. Being a really well externally connected HR team and being able to connect with our customers is fantastic. I find that meeting the HR directors of our customers is one way I can really stretch my thinking and see how I might be able to share what I’m doing.

Is there a formal structure to these internal and external sharing sessions?

It’s something that’s been pretty organic; there are certainly organisations which we partner with externally that formally bring groups together, but within Telstra, I’ve found the more informal sharing and natural connections we’ve had with our customers just lends itself to the way we work.

What do you think is the most important characteristic a regional HR leader needs to possess?

Some of the most important characteristics is to know your talent market really well and having business acumen. That’s what I look for in country HR leaders and HR business leaders, making sure they absolutely know what’s going on with their talent in their market. What are the big organisations entering the market, what sort of trends are we seeing in mobility, where are we seeing people returning home. I always want my country HR leaders to have the finger on the pulse.

But I also want them to be connected to the business we’re in and connected to our customers. If they don’t have those skills before joining Telstra, I would want them to get to know our customers and the work that we’re doing in that part of the world.

What are some of the development opportunities Telstra provides to support the growth of leaders?

We have some great and relatively new learning within Telstra. We have a leadership capability programme which was introduced after we did some fantastic work around understanding leadership capabilities. A great example of one of those is our league programme which targets the level just before you move into the senior executive ranks.

Could you share a bit more information about the league programme?

We target about 30 people in that career level across the world and they go through a pretty intensive 12-month programme. They will come together as a team three or four times during that period where they’ll have intensive sessions with our leaders which will really help build their own self-awareness and their leadership capabilities. It also helps them in areas such as customer advocacy, thinking about critical strategic challenges, and how we’re going to deliver on our growth strategy. But we also want them to be working together on some real-life business problems, which they will do as groups.

How does that work?

We ask each group to assess a specific business problem and come back to us with their solution. That’s something they would work as a team, and it may be a process they would not have touched otherwise. That’s one of the really interesting things about the league – you can have an HR professional and a retail professional come together to solve a business challenge even though they may not have experienced that process.

Through that kind of action-learning approach, they’re learning to work across business units and borders and they’re learning to present to senior leadership in a really succinct way. You know a programme is successful when people are beating down the door to get on it, and we’ve seen many people be successful in moving into leadership positions after they have gone through this programme.

We want people to know it’s OK to make mistakes and that it’s OK to call something out when you feel uncomfortable.

How do people get into the league programme?

We have a couple of qualifiers, but also some really interesting assessments. One of things that’s important to us when we’re thinking about moving people into leadership ranks is agility. We look for leaders who are able to move laterally into different roles and be ready to take on a challenge they may not have necessarily faced before.

We want them to be able to deal really well with ambiguity; in Asia, as we grow, we’re faced with situations and challenges which we have not faced as an organisation before. We need to be able to throw someone into that situation and have them land on their feet, so we have some really interesting assessments around that. We’re certainly oversubscribed with interest, and through that assessment programme, we can identify the people we know have the ability to take on the next career level.

The league programme seems to support what you said earlier about having diversity in mindsets as well.

The programme just builds a great network which supports our growth in Asia. When our top performing talent come together with their peers whom they may never have worked with before, that’s the start of a really powerful network and creating a global mindset.

It also goes back to that point on agility. By asking people to tackle problems we’re not tackling every day, it lets them flex their agility muscle, and builds strength and resilience. Once we’ve put people through that high-pressure environment, when they come out of that and are successful, they have a greater confidence to take on a greater challenge and take that leadership step up.

The programme also gives them a safe space to experiment and fail.

It also helps them find their courage, which is another one of our values. It’s important not just in the programme, but also across Telstra. We want people to know it’s OK to make mistakes and that it’s OK to call something out when you feel uncomfortable, and that may be a process that’s causing you pain. I would absolutely agree the league provides a safe environment, but I would also say that Telstra as a company is a safe environment.

How’s that?

People are very thoughtful about that value of finding our courage and absolutely believe it’s OK to have uncomfortable conversations, and that it’s OK to fail because that means you’re trying to innovate, and trying to be better for our customers.

How would you then describe the communication culture within Telstra?

It’s very open. I think the way we communicate through our social networks is fantastic. Our CEO is posting and sharing with our people on Yammer all the time, and it’s just the way we work here. And when that’s a part of the way you communicate, it helps you be more flexible. I don’t send email announcements out among my HR community, instead I post something on Yammer and get real-time feedback because I’ll know who is following a thread or who is giving me the thumbs up on something, and I’ll know if something hasn’t quite hit the mark because there’s no reaction to it.

One of the really interesting ways of using Yammer that I and other leaders do is called a Yammer jam. In HR, myself and another HR leader recently led an hour-long jam. At Telstra we call it, “ask me anything”. So for an hour, many HR folks were firing questions at us. It was anything from asking what my first concert was to asking about the HR strategy. It was fun, and my typing skills definitely got stretched within that hour!

What are you currently working on that you’re most excited about?

There’s a lot I’m passionate about at the moment. But I think I’m particularly passionate about the role the international HR team is going to play in driving our growth in Asia, and we’ve got a lot to do to enable that. We’ve needed to have a look at our own structure, make sure we’re prepared for that growth, we’ve had to pay a lot of attention to the way our HR business partners are interacting with our business leaders, and really thinking about our own capabilities. I spoke a little bit about business acumen and customer focus, and really dialling that up among our HR leadership team is at the top of my agenda.

What does this mean for the HR team?

We need to be as savvy about our customers and understand their needs because that’s going to translate into the kinds of capabilities our people need and the types of people we need to recruit. One of the really innovative things we’re doing at the moment is strategic workforce planning. We’re trying to take a big macro picture of thinking and seeing where we want to go in each part of our business, and turn that into understanding the types of skills we’d need in the different cities at these career levels. That can be a really dynamic and complex thing to get your arms around, but when you get that right, and figure out where you want to invest in your talent, that’s when you know you’re driving fabulous value to Telstra and our customers.

Follow us on Telegram and on Instagram @humanresourcesonline for all the latest HR and manpower news from around the region!

Related topics

Free newsletter

Get the daily lowdown on Asia's top Human Resources stories.

We break down the big and messy topics of the day so you're updated on the most important developments in Asia's Human Resources development – for free.

subscribe now open in new window