It is natural to expect a communications professional to be extroverted, so hearing one admit to being the opposite is a surprise. But Datin Anita Azrina Abdul Aziz is a woman who thrives on change and challenges that build her strengths − and working on areas that she deems wanting is something that she does not shy away from.
“I’m an introvert – every single personality test that I have taken says so. Every day I keep pushing myself, to come out of my comfort zone, out of my shell, to be a more effective communicator − not only for our external audience but also for our internal stakeholders,” says the Senior General Manager of Group Strategic Communications at Petronas.
In conjunction with International Women’s Day, Anita talks about brand-building, driving communications in a global operation and the challenges of “keeping an entire organisation in sync and aligned” – an apt definition of her role in one of the world’s largest energy entities.
Keeping an organisation aligned means always being mindful of its purpose to move it forward. “In building a strong brand, we need to first be clear about our very purpose, mission, and values. At Petronas, our purpose has been clear since day one and still holds true today.”
Anita remembers how the company was set up amid the global oil crisis in the 1970s, to better manage and optimise the value of Malaysia’s petroleum resources to best benefit the country. In response to the nation-wide fuel shortage resulting from the crisis, Petronas in 1979 quickly set up skid tank stations in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya offering diesel and kerosene to customers, giving birth to the company’s retail business.
“We have grown to become the country’s largest fuel retailer: those three skid tanks hastily put together have long been replaced with sleek, modern stations offering customers a host of products and conveniences.”
Upstream, Petronas has been striking partnerships locally and abroad to help ensure energy security for the nation and customers around the globe, while expanding its downstream footprint that spans regions and continents. She credits this stellar growth to the foresight of Petronas’ past leaders and the progressive current leadership team that has tremendously helped in building a strong brand affinity among the company’s constituents.
Last year, Petronas won the Putra Brand Gold Award in the automotive fuel, lubricants, and accessories category. The awards recognise Malaysians’ increasing affinity for its products. And, who does not feel a surge of pride come every major festive season watching Petronas advertisements that help strengthen the connection between the brand and local communities.
But how does one build a strong brand to begin with? For Petronas, Anita explains, it was a case of stepping up to the responsibility it is entrusted with – managing and maximising the value of the hydrocarbon resources for the nation. This major task comes with the challenges of meeting market needs and ensuring energy security while keeping a keen eye on sustainability, as economies worldwide shift from fossil-based energy systems to low-carbon solutions.
This transition demands that the brand be agile and pivot in the way it operates and, in the products, and solutions it offers to stay in step with the global requirements. It also means embracing change by innovating, engaging, and strengthening relationships with the media, stakeholders, communities, customers, and society at large to communicate the company’s key commitments and business direction.
The thrust is to get the brand heard and recognised across borders via multiple platforms. “We are intensifying our communications to position Petronas as the leader in sustainability in Asia. At the same time, we are fortifying our digital presence and engagement through artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and data science,” Anita shares.
Getting the brand’s messages across its vast audience is no mean task: it requires capability, experience as well as personality. Anita, who has worn many hats in her 33 years with Petronas, and held her own in each role, fits the bill in Group Strategic Communications.
A Petronas scholar, she joined the company in 1989 after completing her Economics degree in the UK. She started her career in the trading and marketing of crude oil and business development for gas.
“I wanted to be a crude oil trader – the job required that you travel regularly to meet clients and end-customers, which provided a lot of exposure that strengthened your business knowledge and network. That was very attractive to me then as a young person, and I stayed in that role for a while.”
Having sharpened her business acumen, she then headed to Gas Business followed by Petronas Motorsports (later renamed Brand Management) from 2008 to 2014, where she was pivotal in negotiating the terms for Petronas’ partnership with the Mercedes AMG PETRONAS Formula 1 team. The company’s involvement in motorsports has opened up limitless opportunities in driving the business forward, from product research and development, sales and marketing, brand-building to training and capability building. One of the lesser-known benefits of this partnership, Anita points out, is the opportunities given to students of Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS to intern at the team’s facilities in the UK, exposing them to invaluable high-technology knowledge and other skill sets.
In 2015, Anita joined Petronas’ Pengerang Integrated Complex (PIC) as Head of Stakeholder, Communications and Risk Management. PIC is the company’s largest downstream investment in Malaysia to capitalise on the region’s growing need for energy and petrochemical products. To make way for the massive undertaking, more than 3,000 members of the communities in seven villages had to be relocated, along with schools, places of worship, cemeteries, and other public facilities and infrastructure. It was here that Anita’s skills were truly tested – reaching out to the communities, their leaders, local and state government officials, and managing their concerns, grouses and expectations.
“It was definitely a learning curve, coming from the ‘hard’ business background and brand management, and now having to deal with social commitment. I learnt that what’s most important in communication is being open and honest, and that was what we did − we listened to the people, and we shared our perspective and worked together to reach common ground and solutions.”
She was the driving force behind the successful social impact programme #ForPengerang which pushed for economic empowerment and enhanced wellbeing and livelihood of the surrounding communities through more than 90 initiatives.
Pengerang was also where Anita stepped up beyond the call of duty to handle an incident at a joint-venture company that quickly unfolded into a reputational crisis.
“When I received a call on that, my first thought was, ‘I need to be there, despite the crisis - and its management - not being directly my responsibility’. After all, I was familiar with PIC and had become to know the communities well. We drove down to see how we could help. We took over the communications side of it and kept all of our relevant stakeholders updated and informed, preventing the crisis from escalating further.”
Taking charge of varied portfolios, setting and meeting business goals, and working alongside people with diverse skills have helped her grow professionally and personally. “The transition over the years taught me the need to have an open mind to embrace change and adapt to varying dynamics. As a leader, I feel that this is very important to have, to lead and nurture your team to perform their level best and realise their fullest potential,” she says.
Heightened awareness will help us unlearn what we have been familiar with and start identifying differing complementary values and celebrate our difference. Therefore, good communication, transparency and openness at the workplace are vital to fostering positive work relationships.
Going beyond company matters, Anita strives to help drive faster responses from the industry to climate change. She is part of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership global alumni network, whose members are like-minded business leaders around the world trained in business sustainability management.
She is on various boards and committees within Petronas and aspires to “humanise corporate communications by closing the divide between corporations and stakeholders”.
There are challenges in driving communications across a global company with a presence in more than 50 countries. One involves delivering “coherent and consistent messages on who we are and what we want to be, promoting and nurturing a shared voice, and creating a common professional culture within such a diverse work environment,” Anita says. Her team is constantly learning and evolving as it increasingly commits to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion in different aspects of the company.
For integration to work, there must be policies, frameworks, platforms and tools in place that promote shared values anchored to open and seamless communication. This eliminates silos between different offices, regions and countries, she feels.
With employees spread out in different countries and continents, it is crucial that the company’s messages and direction are consistent and universal. The form of communications must adapt to the specific nuances and cultural environments of staff.
Anita notes that the pandemic accelerated Petronas’ digitalisation efforts, including advancing communication tools across its offices, resulting in better access to communications.
Anita says Petronas, which has 46,884 employees – 20 per cent of whom comprises other nationalities - has a D&I agenda focused on four areas, namely gender, age, multinational and culture, each with specific targets.
“I truly believe there is strength in diversity and the values it brings to any organisation. Our own experiences taught us that different ideas, views and backgrounds create a progressive and creative work environment that deliver better outcomes.”
D&I is especially important when companies serve a broader market where localised cultures and experiences have proven to be an asset in helping to not only capture new markets but thrive in it, she adds.
“Petronas really believes that all individuals within the Group should be treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organisation’s success.
“We are intentional about creating a safe space for a diverse range of voices to be heard, including cultivating idea-generation among our young talents as we aspire to increase inclusive leaders at all levels.
“We have taken deliberate actions in gender inclusivity by providing equal opportunities in our scholarship selection, hiring process and performance evaluation. We aim to continue to ensure fair treatment, access, equality of opportunity and advancement for everyone, based on merit, regardless of their differences.”
But not everyone understands the necessity for or the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. How does she advocate for these people then?
Education is key, says Anita, who personally thinks it is all about mindset and awareness. As a first step towards that, she has conversations and engages with different groups across Petronas throughout the year, to discuss issues and address their concerns.
On the other hand, there are challenges to working in a diverse environment as well. Asked to name a few, from her own experience, she says: “The aspiration is to have everyone co-exist and work harmoniously as one entity towards a single goal. For this, awareness is important because you will learn to be more sensitive and respectful towards each other.”
That would be the ideal scenario. Often, though, human beings are naturally drawn to the familiar, a situation akin to tribe mentality.
“Heightened awareness will help us unlearn what we have been familiar with and start identifying differing complementary values and celebrate our difference. Therefore, good communication, transparency and openness at the workplace are vital to fostering positive work relationships.”
What drives her in her professional life? “Challenges. You can choose to view them as stumbling blocks, surrender and resign or you can choose to see them as an opportunity for growth. I’d like to think that I thrive on challenges – they keep you on your toes to be agile and pivot, build resilience and sharpen critical thinking to advance yourself.”
“I believe there is always more to learn even though I’m 60 this year. I want to keep myself busy, keep the brain active. I want to continue to contribute and make a difference.”
Anita has taken the long and winding road to where she is today. Her philosophy of always seeing and having humour in her life and heart has helped her overcome obstacles and stay the course for more than three decades.
“I believe in having humour. We must laugh more, find humour in things. You can remain professional and still enjoy your job. That’s how we get our teams to do well – they must enjoy their work, no matter how challenging.”
Asked what principles she holds close, she says: “I’m pretty open and relaxed. When I do work, I plan ahead so I will encounter less issues and therefore life, hopefully, will not be so stressed. I like to encourage that.”
As a mother of three − one works in Kertih and the other two are pursuing further studies – with four cats to care for, plus a career filled with multiple responsibilities, is time for herself a rare luxury? “Time for yourself, you can always find,” Anita says.
Time for her spells a chance to travel, to observe and get ideas from different cultures and far-away places. Things like architectural details of buildings in different cities fascinate her. Once she returns, these become inspiration for personal projects around her home, such as interior design and decoration that help her chill and recharge. “I admire beautiful things and forms – they inspire me, and a lot of times make me see things from many different facets and perspectives. As with the diverse cultures, perspectives and viewpoints found across Petronas.”