∙ Special Melbourne Edition ∙
Strategic Engagement Manager at VicRoads
Part of the deal when I meet a Boss Lady is that lunch is my shout if they choose the place. Not only does this give a diverse receipt collection but also a snapshot of where my luncher likes to go. I was to meet Fadak at Rice Paper Scissors, a modern Vietnamese restaurant in Brunswick. There’s a couple of Rice Paper Scissors in Melbourne but I hadn’t been to either of them. With Melbourne being a melting pot of cultures, I was excited to dig into some yummy Vietnamese food.
Fadak was introduced to me by way of a friend that works in community services in a regional town called Bendigo. I was in Bendigo recently and spent a couple of hours in the local library. One of my favourite things to do in any town, big or small, is to check out the local library. The rows of books and secluded nooks are all I need to get whisked away between pages. Browsing through one of the local youth mags, who did I stumble upon but this Boss Lady?
Growing up in Iraq, Fadak’s life was irrevocably changed when her father was called to serve as an army doctor during Saddam Hussein’s rule. He fled, eventually finding his way to Australia. A handful of years passed before Fadak, her mother and her siblings were reunited with her father here in Australia. She was just 11 years old. Fadak had already lived a life that was, sadly, all too familiar to those fleeing from Iraq yet at the same time it was an unbelievable life to most Australians. Six months after being reunited with her father in Australia, he passed away in a car accident.
I recommend reading Fadak’s self-published story on LinkedIn just to get a sense of the adversity faced by this woman who, at the time, was just a girl. Yet through all this adversity also comes a heartwarming success story; one where the leading protagonist isn’t even half way through her adventures.
Seeking out change
Fadak’s current position is Strategic Engagement Manager at VicRoads, the government agency that manages roads in the state of Victoria. Fadak is the first I have spoken to that works within government and I’m curious to understand what that’s like. She explains that the organisation is transitioning into a joint venture with PTV, the body that manages the public transport across Victoria.
“We’re in the middle of that mammoth change at the moment. It’s really exciting. In my previous role, I was working in (the sector of) violence against women. At work I was doing something really heavy and outside work I was doing something really heavy and I just wanted to step out of that, still using my skills of communication, engagement and law but not take it home with me.”
Fadak explains that her new role has brought better conditions and a better working culture. She says with a wide grin, “I love it. It’s only been two months but I just love being challenged. I love being part of a big thing.”
So what does her role involve and what’s the problem they’re trying to solve? Well, like most large cities in the world, Melbourne’s population is growing but the transport and infrastructure isn’t really keeping up with the growth. “It’s a pretty big challenge to try and meet the demand not only with our roads but also our trains and trams.”
She goes on to explain what an average day looks like as Strategic Engagement Manager. “I work with our maintenance teams in supporting them to communicate their work in a way that’s strategic, positive, and showcases what they are doing. I also build the brand; obviously we’re going through a lot of changes right now and we don’t always know what that will look like.”
“The maintenance team are the engineers and they will work on existing roads to make them better by, for example, adding traffic lights or adding a bus stop. They go through a whole process to determine community need. I lead a team that sits down with the maintenance team, looks at what they’re doing, and tries to communicate that in a way that is understandable for the communities that use the road. For example, businesses in the area, schools and other stakeholders, to let them know what we are doing, why, and how it will affect their use of the road.”
What about the branding side of Fadak’s role? She explains that it’s part of a bigger movement to change the reputation that the average Melbournian might have about VicRoads…which isn’t always the most positive. “We work on telling our story; telling the community what it is that we do. We’re really trying to create a positive understand of VicRoads.”
Flexible workplaces are diverse workplaces
I recently walked past one of the VicRoads offices on Exhibition Street and was surprised to see an obvious push towards diversity. From the different toned mascots on the glass, to the flags worn on staff name tags indicating what languages they spoke, it wasn’t something I expected to see at VicRoads. Is that also reflected in the teams at VicRoads?
“Yeah definitely. Especially with our engineering teams; we are very diverse.” Says Fadak. But they’ve still got work to do when it comes to seeing more gender equality in senior management. “I think with all companies and government organisations, the higher you go up the less diverse it gets. But I think overall, we do really well.”
When I look at leadership within our team...they really demonstrate work-life balance so that others can take advantage of it as well.
She continues to explain that “When I look at leadership within our team, and we have almost 150 people, the director and the heads of our department are all women. They really demonstrate work-life balance so that others can take advantage of it as well. But that’s our team, I don’t think that’s representative of others. Because what we do, we can do from home.”
It’s an interesting link to make, that between flexibility and gender equality and I probe her a little more on how this influences the teams at VicRoads. “Different teams have different flexibility and that’s usually depending on the urgency of a task. The media team for example, cannot wait and therefore might not have as great flexibility as the public engagement team that I am a part of.”
It’s a very valid point and one that resonates with the conversation shared over lunch with Lilian Darmono. So is flexibility one of the influencers in Fadak joining VicRoads?
Work-life balance exists…and you should strive for it
With an education in law and a background in not-for-profit work, how did Fadak find herself working for a transport agency? She explains that she had worked in government before, albeit in another sector. The biggest influencer for joining government again was the appeal of a work-life balance.
“I kind of wanted to go back to something that I don’t take home. That was a really big value for me. At the time when I made the decision to join VicRoads, I was doing really heavy work outside of work and I loved it but I wanted to do something that I didn’t take home. That was the value for me going into transport.”
She further details her thought process in the lead up to joining VicRoads. “It’s really important for me to feel good about work and feel good at work. I was at a point where I wasn’t feeling good about my job or at work. I have had that experience before and I feel that I have definitely learned from it.”
The key lesson here is that no matter how experienced you are in your role, you have to recognise the signs from your own body that are telling you to shift employer. “If you wake up and you are dreading work, and you have several negative feelings about making the journey into work or walking into that office, then you’re not doing right by yourself and you will impact your health and long-term wellbeing. No job in the world, no matter what it is, is worth that.”
As cliche as it sounds, you need a work-life balance because life is not about work.
“As cliche as it sounds, you need a work-life balance because life is not about work. Work is important and we spend a lot of our lives working but we live in a very lucky country where most people in Australia are lucky to choose to say “I don’t want to do that, I’ll do that instead.” Not everyone (can say that) but a lot of people can. If you have the ability to make that choice then use it.”
The positive side of such a decision is the realisation that leaving your job opens up the opportunity for someone else with new drive and ambition, hopefully someone that can also contribute to the diversity of the company. Fadak agrees saying “Somebody else would love to do the job that I was doing; would flourish in it, would do it really well. I wasn’t enjoying it and I wasn’t giving as much as I should be. It’s also not good for the workplace.”
Don’t take a decade to realise your worth
The not-for-profit sector is responsible for some phenomenal work not just in Australia or Sweden but of course across the entire globe. Without their hard work, many people would continue to be left vulnerable. But like all industries, staff do face adversities. Fadak describes her experience in the sector as surprisingly gendered.
“I have worked for several not-for-profit organisations and have found them to be very gendered and the pay very gendered as well. I’ve met a lot of amazing professional women who deserve so much better. They’re not offered compensation for their time that really matches with their skills, they’re not offered the support, the growth, and the benefits that they deserve. Working at a not-for-profit is really difficult; whatever issue you’re working towards, it’s hard. I think that warrants more benefits than usual.”
She retells one of her early experiences at an employer that she was with for 5 years. The pay wasn’t great nor the conditions, and she wasn’t paid for overtime. “I did a lot of the tasks that weren’t glamorous and the men in the organisation got to do the fun stuff. Even in meetings I’d get talked over.”
Despite this, Fadak remains positive about the overall experience as it taught her how to seek better conditions. “I was very young so I didn’t really know how to handle it. As my career through not-for-profits progressed, I just grew more jaded with them as a sector. They do amazing work but I valued being compensated, valued, and respected more than I did the work.”
I think you start to doubt yourself when people doubt your capability because of your age.
Being a younger Boss Lady, she has also had to face these preconceptions. “Some people don’t believe I am competent despite me holding 4 or 5 other managerial roles in my life. I think you start to doubt yourself when people doubt your capability because of your age. And sometimes people attribute all your mistakes to your young age as well.”
What advice does she give to those in a similar position? “I think young women need to feel a healthy sense of entitlement to the role that we want to be in, and to feel a healthy sense of confidence to go in there and to ask for it. Ask for the pay that we want and ask for the working conditions that we want because unless we do, no-one is going to give it to us.”
But that very personal process of realising your value didn’t happen overnight. “It took time! I have been working full-time since I was 18 and almost 10 years later I was like “I’ve had enough of this.” I still care about the issues but I get to do them in my own time on my own terms.”
Speed it up with mentorship
Having left the industry on a full-time basis, what does Fadak see as possible solutions to improvement?
Quite adamantly she answers with “More research. “I don’t know of any research that shows how women are being treated in these organisations. It’s mostly women that work for non-profits, much more than men. And the higher up you go, the more men there are.”
I wish I had had a mentor in my life to say ‘This is not ok.’
With the benefit of hindsight, Fadak tries to take a step back when reflecting on her experience. “Sometimes I contribute it to being young and naive. I wonder if had I been a little bit older would I also have been a little bit wiser and had more strength to deal with those things. I wish I had had a mentor in my life to say ‘This is not ok.’ Or to ask ‘How are you doing at work? It doesn’t sound too great that you’ve stayed til 9pm and not got paid for it.’ I know that people from other industries go through that as well and I know that that’s pretty common.”
Mentorship then, is something that should be actively encouraged and sought out for those new to their field, especially if they’re in the not-for-profit sector.
Create change through your own stories
We shift topic to some of Fadak’s recent work which includes an Australia-wide tour to share her story. It all came about through her previous role before joining VicRoads. “We worked on campaigning for refugee rights. I got to do some amazing work and meet some amazing people and I got a lot out of it.”
“In 2012, policy towards refugees in Australia changed drastically. From 2012, that’s when offshore processing became mandatory. We were working a lot with closing detention centres, permanent protection for people seeking asylum, higher intake for safe passages, and a focus on regional processing.”
“After 5 years I realised that we were kind of stuck in a bubble (for various reasons) but all of the work being done to help refugees was us advocates talking to each other and talking to the people who are already converted. We were talking about refugees in a really paternalistic way like ‘They need food, they need a home, they need a car or a bike’. We weren’t seeing their faces and we weren’t hearing their stories.”
“When we did hear from them we heard really really sad stories that an Australian could never relate to. But we actually have a lot in common with people seeking asylum because we’re all people. But we weren’t talking about that. The conversation was really problematic. It was creating further divisions because the average Australian who is in the (political) middle are not completely against helping refugees nor are they completely for. They’re more like ‘I care about people, I don’t want people to die at sea but we have limited resources’. We were missing out on talking to that group.”
Fadak recalls looking at some research produced by Melbourne University in 2014 that showed this ‘neither/nor’ mentality was shared by the largest number of people in Australia. “There were about 60% of Australians who were in the ‘middle’ about refugees. I just remember thinking, imagine if we tapped into that group and imagine if we spoke to that group of people? Imagine if we spoke to their values and what they cared about and encouraged them to care about people seeking asylum? I remember thinking how can I do that and how can I contribute to that?”
It was really powerful hearing the vision that I had being said back to me.
At the same time Fadak joined a board called Road to Refuge which shared a similar mission. They wanted to talk to this cohort of Australians to highlight refugee stories. It was then that the idea to tell Australians about her story was born. “I wanted to tell every Australian my story. It was a ridiculous goal, let’s be honest.” She says with a laugh. “I wanted to reach as many people in the country as possible. I was convinced that if they met me and heard my story that they wouldn’t be so opposed to people seeking asylum.”
She pitched the idea to Road to Refuge who were on board with the idea, ultimately helping carry the vision to life. “It’s really worked.” She reflects on an event she went to recently where someone came up to her. “She said to me ‘Oh my god, you tell your story so beautifully, you talk in such an empowering way, if everyone in Australia met you we wouldn’t be where we are today.’ It was really powerful hearing the vision that I had being said back to me.”
The tour lasted for 6 months and lives on today albeit in a more ad hoc way. The future holds speaking events in regional Victoria as well as advocacy meetings at the UN in Geneva. Road to Refuge has also produced a film that will be showcased at the immigration museum in the coming months.
Small wins are still wins
It’s clear that the tour has been a huge motivator for Fadak. For this Boss Lady, it’s all about being a driver of change. “I love making change. That’s been a huge urge throughout my work, throughout my life. I love improving other people’s lives, especially when I care about the thing that I am working for. But I am passionate about change whether it’s in people or in policy, in attitudes or any way. I just love it.”
Is it tiring? Short answer: “Yes.” Longer answer: “It can be exhausting very quickly because you kind of get fed up with change not happening. But focusing on the small wins is really important to staying motivated and energised.”
Focusing on the small wins is really important to staying motivated and energised.
She goes on to give an example. “Let’s say I want to prevent violence against women. That’s going to take generations, consistent funding and several sectors working together whether they’re public or private, in homes, in schools, in all of these sectors working together to encourage respecting men and women equally. So I know that we’re probably not going to achieve that in my life time. And I’ve accepted that. It’s really sad that we can’t but it’s going to take a lot of consistent effort. So instead I try to focus on the small wins.”
Fadak explains that she uses feedback forms at a lot of the events she participates in to understand if she is helping shift attitudes. “In my work, evaluation is really important because it shows that we are on the right track. It’s really important for me to evaluate events where I am speaking at. I have evaluation forms that I send to people or talk to people afterwards. If someone reports that they’ve changed their attitude, that’s a win for me.”
Learn to have difficult conversations
Fadak is the first Boss Lady on Eat 52 Lunches with a background in law. I’m especially curious to learn whats skills and knowledge she sees as crucial to advancing in the field, particularly, which of them she would have liked to have learned faster.
Taking a beat to think, she answers something that’s not yet been mentioned by previous Boss Ladies. “Learning to have difficult conversations at work and not running away from them. As someone who manages people and who is also managed by someone, things are going to come up that mean having a difficult conversation.”
Fadak has learned that people are emotional beings and as much as the professional world dictates that emotions are left at the door, this is actually far from reality. “We are humans so we will take our feelings wherever we go and that includes work.” Building her fluency in difficult conversations means that Fadak has learned to follow a general three-point framework; “Acknowledge your feelings, acknowledge the other person’s feelings but also communicate your message.”
You don’t need to be a specialist
What about the comparative question; what skills or knowledge needn’t she have worried about a decade ago?
“I think that because I’ve worked in a lot of different sectors, I’ve struggled with not becoming an expert in anything and that puts me on edge. I remember talking to my mentor because I was really stressed about it. I remember her telling me that you don’t have to be a specialist. As long as you still see your goal, and whatever you do helps you get to your goal, you absolutely do not have to be a specialist.”
It’s an important takeaway for those new to their field, and an important reminder for those more experienced readers. Shifting your mindset to be long-term goal orientated will ensure that you keep those worries in check.
These beautiful chapter images were found on Rice Paper Scissor’s Facebook page. Feature photo courtesy of Woodrow Wilson.