HR in the hot seat: Sapna Saxena, head of country, HR, Asia-Pacific at Telstra

HRD sits down with the head of country, HR for APAC at Telstra to talk about business partners, HR’s current transformation and helping stray dogs

HR in the hot seat: Sapna Saxena, head of country, HR, Asia-Pacific at Telstra
What is your job title and what brought you into this particular role?
My exact job title is head of country HR, Asia-Pacific. In the beginning while at Telstra, I started managing the South Asia region. A year and a half ago, I was promoted to handle the entire Asia-Pacific region. This came together at a time when Telstra did a major acquisition of Pacnet. We actually acquired a company equal in size from an international point of view. It was a great experience bringing these two companies together.
What motivates/excites you about this role?
What excites me is the variety of things I need to do in a day. I can be doing integration-related work in the morning, business-as-usual work in the afternoon, analytics later after that, and coaching business leaders at the end of the day.
What motivates me is the constant challenge that I’ve been given from the organisation. Every one or two years, I’ll get something new to do whether it is a cross-boundary project or something new like the integration of two companies.
What are the goals you most want to accomplish in your work?
The number one goal would be for us to be known as the best HR group in the region. We have done a tremendous amount of things in terms of milestones such as the harmonisation of the two companies – Pacnet and Telstra. Before that, we also did an acquisition in India so there are lots of entities joining Telstra. As an HR group, we’re doing a great job. In terms of personal goals, I see myself contributing to the function on a larger canvas.
What is your favourite aspect of the job?
The favourite part of my job is spending time with business leaders so that they walk away with a lot more than they expected out of the conversation. It’s about approaching them, providing them with support when they’re going through change, and helping them derive value out of our engagement with them. Recently one business leader called me up. After our conversation, she was so much more confident about managing the issue at hand. The outcome was really good. On a larger scale, you make big impacts when you help a business leader go through structural or strategy change. You have to really think like a business leader to make sure you’re creating organisational design that meets the people and organisational agenda.
What’s your least favourite aspect of the job?
The least favourite part would be doing business-as-usual tasks. This can mean very traditional HR-related work such as managing employee lifecycles. Having progressed to where I am today, I don’t need to look into that, but I do feel a whole lot of HR people are actually spending their time still doing a lot of things which we probably should be outsourcing or automating. These are the parts of the job which are valuable but can be done differently to achieve the same outcome.
The other part that I least enjoy even today is that business leaders often think of HR as somebody who listens or is instructed to do things. That happens much less in Telstra, however we can still have new people joining us from very traditional firms to an organisation like ours where HR actually has a seat at the table. It is a little difficult for me to deal with business leaders who come in with prejudices around HR’s role.
What’s the best piece of HR advice you’ve ever received?
Early on in my career, the best piece of advice actually came from a business leader who told me, “You have a lot to offer. Even if it is not relevant at that point in time, you need to make sure that you’re heard so speak up”. I try to give this advice to people early in their careers in HR. Often our role can sometimes take a back seat, and we may start thinking our opinions are not going to matter. Even at that early stage though, it’s going to matter and that’s going to be your voice. That’s going to make sure you have a place sitting with the decision makers.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of HR? What are they?
I love watching crime dramas on TV. I spend a whole lot of time doing that whenever I have time to myself. That’s number one. I also like to spend a time with my dog. It’s great in the sense that he helps me do volunteer work at the organisation I adopted him from. When they need help, I’ll leverage my network in the corporate world to help this organisation. For example, last year I got Telstra involved in this shelter. We all went on office volunteer work to clean up the centre.

Sapna Saxena will be speaking at HRD Singapore's upcoming HR Excel conference on 1-2 June 2016. Find out more at

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