Up&Ap: Jannet Atika on ensuring that customer issues at Safaricom are solved promptly

If there’s to be an award to recognise those who know Safaricom, both in and out, she’d undoubtedly get it. For she’s with the telco since late 2000, after joining as the Retail Shop Manager, a position which came with additional role of handling Care Centre Operations. From here, she rose to other positions, before finally becoming the Director of Customer Operations, and among the only three women in Safaricom’s senior management team (or C-Suite in current corporate parlance). But she’s also faced various challenges along the way during her career journey and learnt valuable lessons in the process. Jannet Atika recently shared with us her background, career highlights and challenges as well as future hopes in an interview. Here are excerpts…

QUESTION: Who is Jannet Atika? Please give us a background about yourself

Jannet Atika: I am the Director of Customer Operations at Safaricom. I was born and bred upcountry, went to Givogi Primary School, then Kaimosi Girls High School before proceeding for my A levels at Mukumu Girls High School. After high school, I joined Egerton University to study Economics and Sociology.

After university, I began my career, worked for a few years then did my MBA at the University of Nairobi in 2005, Strathomore University and ESA University in Spain for the Executive Trainings which is continuous.

(TOP: Jannet Atika, the Director of Customer Operations and one of the longest serving staff at the telco. BELOW: Jannet in various poses for the camera).

Q: Growing up, did you see yourself working in the telecoms industry?

JA: I wanted to be a lawyer when growing up based on the injustice I witnessed when I was younger in order to try and stem some of that. However, when I did my A levels, I changed my career direction based on the grades required to get into Law which I had narrowly missed.

Q: As the Customer Operations Director at Safaricom, what does your job entail?

JA: When I joined Safaricom is when I felt I needed additional skills hence the reason I decided to go back to school to get the Master’s Degree. My job is 365 days to ensure customers are getting their problems solved and my role is to ensure customers’ problems are solved in good time through the various platforms.

Q: You have been with Safaricom for almost two decades now. What have you learnt over the years? What has kept you ‘loyal’ to the Safaricom brand as an employer throughout this period?

JA: A school education is good but you don’t just need acadmemic qualifications to scale the corporate ladder. You also need emotional intelligence over and above intellectual intelligence.

Q: Over the years, we’re sure you’ve been involved in several projects at Safaricom, working as part of (or leading) the team(s). Which projects can you cite as the most challenging and most successful and why? 

JA: My previous job, before joining Safaricom, was in a government telecom – Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC and the forerunner to Telkom Kenya) – where there was a lot of bureaucracy. At Safaricom, which I moved to on November 6, 2000, decisions were (and are) made almost in real time. Part of the reason Safaricom has grown so quickly is the speed at which decisions have been made that affect the customer. The environment at Safaricom always requires one to pursue bigger targets and one cannot celebrate for too long when they reach their targets.

Let me now highlight my key challenges, which in hindsight, were in fact opportunities for growth:

One was accepting to move between jobs, which were unexpected, and sometimes you feel like you did not ask for the job. The learning here is that it has been the best thing for anyone growing in your career. The more flexibility you show, the more you demonstrate the speed of thinking, the more beneficial you are to an organization.

Some jobs I did were very intimidating and it required a mind shift in order to work best at them. For instance, I was given a job of channel expansion which involved going around the country and looking for a suitable space for retail, designing the space itself, building it up and rolling it out for business occupation. My first intimidating factor was stepping out of my office and from my suits and into my jeans and sneakers, then put on a helmet and start to construct. I almost thought it was a job that I would fail at as I didn’t have any educational background to back it up. It took me opening my mind to realize what kind of big opportunity I had to learn that job. It gave me resilience, patience and an opportunity to tour my country.

Today, I will tell you that all the shops in Mombasa were acquired and built by myself all the way from South Coast to North Coast to Malindi. To develop the shop in Garissa, I had to make almost 10 trips driving myself and building it up. The same for Kisii, Kericho, Eldoret, Bungoma and Central region – Maua, Thika, Naivasha, Nakuru and Narok. I was able to interact with different personalities and business owners. I also learned to negotiate for space and rent. This enabled me to build resilience to where I am today.

It was the most challenging job yet the most enriching of all the different areas I have worked out. I can now supervise a project from scratch where construction is related and I have benefited from that experience as it became handy when constructing my own personal home.

Q: Who has been your greatest inspiration (or motivation) in both your personal and professional life and why?

JA: Professionally, I admire Michael Joseph. He teaches results oriented spirit. He’s a known no nonsense leader. His mentality is you either did it or you didn’t, no excuses in between. He gets straight to the point. I am very lucky to have worked with Michael at the onset and then reported to him directly later. I like his attitude towards delivering results and it should be done with speed and efficiently.

Bob Collymore is my current boss and I admire him. He looks more to what transformations can be made. He looks more towards purpose over profit. It has shown me great impact in terms of determining a purpose, going out to do transformations and in the course of it, making profit. This approach leaves the world feeling better.

In my personal life, I admire Michelle Obama. This lady is a powerful lady. She’s smart, eloquent, witty, a great mother and a great wife (though I don’t know details of their married life). I see her as someone who is 360. Her personal presentation and branding is very impacting to look at. She presents herself intellectually and physically as much younger than she is given her age (54).

Q: Being among the only 3 women that are members of Safaricom’s senior management team, what kind of message can you pass to young girls and women aspiring to such positions in future? 

JA: I play a big role in the organization in terms of determining diversity and inclusion. Today in my division, I employ the largest number of people living with disabilities. This has not watered down my ability to deliver to the business. I have more than 80 persons who are persons living with disability working in the call center. I have managed to give them economic capabilities and they are able to able to utilize their intellectual knowledge in delivering work.

When it comes to women ascending the corporate ladder, it comes down to preparation. You must be smart, confident and remember you are interviewing for a role as a professional and not a woman. Women are always looking for affirmation to take on challenges while men just take them head on. This is the confidence they require to also be more involved in challenging jobs.

Q: Are you, either in your individual capacity or as part of the Safaricom team, involved in any career mentorship programmes for young girls?

JA: Inside Safaricom, women leaders at EXCO level are three. We looked at women in a 360 approach – career, business, benchmarking other women internationally. I look after mentoring and coaching of women leaders within Safaricom. Some of the things I have done is to try and connect them to a big network of women who are already advanced and from where they can choose their coaches and mentors. I drew a lot of this from the Women Corporate Directors Kenya Chapter, which is part of the Women Corporate Directors International (WCD Foundation) based in New York. On the WCD Kenya Chapter, I sit on the board, I used more than 30 women in Executive positions in this country, to come and mentor women in Safaricom who are in leadership positions several times. Whenever there are women corporate directors gathering here in the country, my counterparts in leadership positions are invited to come and engage so they can learn from women who have already made the strides so they can know what it means to stay up and go up.

For schools, I am working with Givogi Primary which I attended to help the institution come up with programs that can help young girls get boarding facilities from Standard 6. We were inclined to girls’ from orphaned homes especially households that had HIV parents who passed on. These girls are vulnerable and exposed to exploitation and therefore were not going to pursue education. Together with the school and the school Principal, I started a program of ensuring that we set up a dormitory. We converted a class into a dormitory initially but have now built a two-storey building that accommodates 120 students. This dormitory has a library and catered to by its own borehole to ensure the students have all the facilities needed to excel academically. Also knowing that I started my own education there inspires the students.

Q: If you were to start all over again, in your career journey, what would you do differently?

JA: I would ensure I start my career with a coach and a mentor. This would help me understand what I need to do in order to grow. My mentor would be someone I would turn to for empathy and for growing to become like them.

My coach would help bring out the best in me ruthlessly, almost like a tormentor to me. In the process helping me to achieve those things that would otherwise scare me from pursuing.

I would employ a lot of emotional intelligence to help me better understand all the different people I work with, the challenges of the corporate world, how to work in teams and how to work with different bosses among other things.

Q: What do you aspire to post your current role because we’re sure you’ve not reached the apex yet?

JA: Where I have reached, I’m looking more at legacy – what kind of impact can I leave behind, what kind of transformations can I enable around me. Any role that can put me in a position of influence where I can have impact on other people and bring them along to where they can be proud of is something I’m looking for. Whether that job is the CEO or Managing Director’s job or not, it’s not about the title or money, it’s something I want to look back on and be proud of.

Today, I’m trying to do that. Right now, I’m reaching out to persons with disabilities and giving them a voice, enabling them, supporting them throughout their career lives, and showing them they can achieve more beyond the disability they have. When I look back, I’m very happy at that. Anything transformational I can do is my next aspiration.

Q: Any final comments?

It is very rare for me to walk around feeling I’m “up there”. I believe anyone can get to the top of an organization. Getting there is easier than it is to stay there. We need to aim to get there then learn how to balance yourself out – socially, intellectually and spiritually – in order to deal with the challenges that arise when you get to the top. The blood, sweat and tears at the top is real. The conversations are quite bare and naked and if you’re not properly balanced, you will not be able to stay at the top.

Surround yourself with mentors and coaches and always be authentic. There is no end to learning. Be sure that people you lead want to see you at your most vulnerable in order to relate to you as a human being.

Integrity and honesty is very important to me. How you relate to your colleagues at the office is also important. And lastly and in no means least, always put effort and God first in all you do.

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