Telenor: the art of successful leadership in newly emerging markets

Alan Burkitt-Gray
Published on:

Michael Foley is CEO of Telenor Bulgaria but until recently was CEO of Telenor Pakistan. What does it take to forge a leader in the turmoil of emerging countries? Karin Kollenz-Quétard asks him

Michael Foley, Telenor

Michael Foley: I was passionate about the mobile telephony 
business and I got the opportunity to work where it made
a real difference

For the last 13 years of his career Michael Foley has been leading telecommunication companies in emerging countries – starting in 2003 in Romania and Bulgaria, then moving to the Middle East, Africa, Pakistan and in 2016 back to Bulgaria. Why has he chosen to work in emerging countries?

“After having worked for a North American cable operator I knew I liked telecoms, I was passionate about the mobile telephony business, and I got the opportunity to work where it made a real difference,” says Foley.

“So, you could ask yourself ‘Why does anybody need another mobile phone in Toronto, New York, Boston or LA?’, and the answer is: ‘It doesn’t make a lot of difference.’ But when you put the mobile phone in the hands of a young person trying to get a job in Nigeria or somebody who wants to go to school and needs the security of a phone to call his parents, or if a medical doctor needs the access to the phone, it is a different story.”

Foley has worked with companies that have been able to establish phone services for the first time ever in a community in north-eastern Nigeria “and we have done the same in different parts of Pakistan,” he says.

“That’s a unique opportunity to bring something new to a community. And for me it became a great mixture of service and a great business opportunity for me to do something good with my life. That’s quite honestly why I am doing it in these markets. And it’s fun.”

It’s rewarding and it’s challenging at times, he says. “But it is about getting yourself into other cultures and understanding them, and trying to find out how to get something done from a development point of view, but also ensuring these markets were sustainable.”

He likens the work Telenor does in Pakistan “to the work of a development agency but one that makes good profits and has an incredible impact on the community that you serve.”

The joy of learning

He says that he is able to adapt to different cultures, to put himself into the shoes of customers that very often are in a different situation. Are there any other skills that he believes are necessary for succeeding in emerging economies?

“I think it’s an approach, it’s an attitude,” says Foley, who studied at McGill University in Montréal. “It is mostly about respect, curiosity. It’s about joy and learning about different people. It is being very sure about who you are, but at the same time being able to rejoice in what other people do.

“That’s part of our culture in Canada. About being able to bring people into our country, not to assimilate them but to rejoice in their differences. That is the way I was brought up in my family.”

A country by country approach

He has enjoyed taking part in festivals in Nigeria or meetings in Punjab or districts of Pakistan, he says.

“When you do that, you actually create a connection with people. When you connect with them, be they your employees or your clients, you get the opportunity to understand more what their needs are, empathise with them more – that’s important – and then develop the approach to the business which is more appropriate for the community that you’re serving at that time.” Does that mean for him that managing is really about building meaningful connections with the people in the countries where he is a leader?

“That’s true. I would say invariably you get what you give, and if you’re able to actually make the step forward, especially as an expat and say, ‘I’ll take a step of humility and I’ll wear a national dress or I will learn a language and adopt some of the culture’ without losing your own personality and by bringing your values to the game, then at that point you create opportunities for conversation, opportunities for friendships, opportunities for a deeper understanding of the culture that you’re serving.

“And when you get that, you get the opportunity to do things that otherwise you would not be able to do,” says Foley.

What does he consider the key characteristics of a successful leader in emerging countries?

“Leadership is something that is granted to you; it is not something that you take, especially in business. You are given permission to lead by the people who decide that they are OK with following you. So, you have to approach it, in my view, especially as an expatriate, with a high degree of enthusiasm and humility.”

That is a difficult balance to get, he adds. “If you have that ability to be both receiving, vulnerable and humble, but at the same time highly enthusiastic and engaged, that balance actually gets you where you want to go.”

That is the core of the leadership style that makes executives successful in Telenor, he says. “I am one of the first CEOs to come in to Telenor from the outside. And the reason it worked is that my boss could find somebody who was a cultural fit with the values of the company – at least I think so.”

Harvesting the information to lead

What are his recommendations for aspiring leaders? What should they do to increase their chances of success?

“Always make sure that your team is better at what they do than you are,” he says.

“Secondly, encourage all team members to contribute beyond their area of expertise. That is a condition of being at the table with me: my engineer must have an opinion on commercial and HR issues and my HR person must have an opinion and contribute to technical and commercial discussions.”

As a leader, he says, especially in a market that is not their home, you need lots of different sources of information before you make a decision – and that requires time.

Opening up to other cultures

“The next important thing for somebody that is doing this kind of work is to just open yourself to other cultures. You can’t be afraid and you just have to be able to dive in. If you dive in, people love it, and it makes you a better leader,” he adds.

“In terms of your skill set, you are hired for something, for the skill set that you have. You don’t have all the skills. The most important for me when I look at people are their characteristics. I hire you for who you are and, when things get tough, I still want you to have those characteristics, because that’s what I’m depending on as a leader.”

Value diversity is also important. “You must hire people that are different from you. That is absolutely critical. If you do not do that, you don’t get the diversity of opinion around the table. You can’t make a decision that is not based on group-think.” 

Changes in Pakistan and plans for Bulgaria

Telenor Pakistan had a very rapid growth for the first eight years of its existence; then it hit a bump in 2013, says Michael Foley. “Lots of redressing work was done at that point. Telenor adopted a cluster-based operating model, which I think is a business model for the industry. In 2014, when I came in, we started to see some growth, but it was still not the organisation we wanted.”

At that point the management team looked at the business and decided there were several things that needed to be worked on: innovation, diversity and diversification of revenue streams. “As a senior team, we made a very concerted effort on a very limited number of things that we felt were the levers to create performance in this company.”

That included, he says, making sure that the leadership is spending much more time in the field with staff. “In innovation we’ve made a number of very specific steps in terms of creating new innovation incentives and new internal training programmes to change peoples’ views. This was both for the core business’s operational efficiency – finding billions of rupees of savings there – and in terms of looking for new revenue streams, in 2014/15 particularly in financial services,” he says.

“For us it was about crystalising what we wanted to do, moving us in a direction, and then as we got to the end of 2015, building a plan to 2020 that saw us fundamentally changing the mix of revenue streams – moving from being a commodity-seller of minutes and megabytes to creating value-generating moments for our customers.”

And now, what are his plans for Telenor Bulgaria? “My overarching goal for Telenor Bulgaria is to show our customers the benefits of Telenor’s services and products and the power of digitalisation. Today, our customers stay with us because Telenor Bulgaria has been the first operator to introduce 4G and our customers appreciate our quick and friendly customer service.”

But he admits that a lot of work is needed. “So, my feed on Twitter (@Michael_Telenor) is also becoming a connection with the client. If someone is not satisfied with the service, they can write to me. When we sort the problem, we get a client for life. And I try teaching my people to do the same – to earn customers for life.”

Karin Kollenz-Quétard is professor of strategy at EDHEC business school