Interviews

Yasir Azman, Deputy CEO & CMO, Grameenphone

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MAKING THE BEST USE OF DIGITAL DIVIDENDS

How do you define success? Could you please tell us about your successful journey till now as the Deputy CEO of Grameenphone?
Defining success might be a trick question to answer. For some, it might be reaching up to a position where many aspire to be in one day! Yes, that can be considered a hallmark for success. Being the Deputy CEO or CMO might not have given me so much sense of pride had it not been in a company like Grameenphone. The company has been a change agent for a country full of millions of people; so from that perspective, it is a success. Just like many of today’s youth, I was not sure about the purpose of my life in the beginning. While studying for my MBA at IBA, I started a small venture with a couple of my friends but eventually, some of us realized that they had their holy grail hidden somewhere else and made life choices accordingly. That landed me in a situation from where I opted for a cozier environment; a job in a bank as an intern turned officer. After some time, it occurred to me that the institution offers a limited scope of showing my creativity and was not catering much to my thirst for learning. A sense of disconnect compelled me to jump ship and I joined British American Tobacco. The company is an ideal space to learn management and marketing skill but by that time, I was slowly starting to understanding that my purpose of life was to do something that enables me to give back to the society and if possible that too being in a corporate set up. The scenario was much different at that time. Grameenphone was still considered to be a local company. However, what attracted me was the vision to connect communities and empowering societies. I had learned a lot from six years in the tobacco industry. I was up for something new, something, which has more value addition towards the society. Today, after 12 years when I look back, I find a deep sense of satisfaction that I took up the offer at GP. From then onwards, my motivation was “yes we are not only doing business and creating value for our shareholders but also creating value in our customers” life’, in millions. Ever wondered how a smartphone brings empowerment in the life of a rural person who probably never thought of going beyond his or her known boundary but can now avail so many opportunities i.e. connecting abroad to banking to education to health to the power of access to information etc.

I was born and brought up in Dhaka; however, I am connected to our original home, a remote village named Gochia in Sunamganj. During my childhood, it used to take three days to get there from Dhaka. Even in a village like that, a simple handset has ushered a revolution in the lives of its dwellers. Four years ago, I faced an incident that made me understand what a rewarding job I am doing here at GP. I met an elderly woman who sacrificed her only goat to offer us a meal, all because she heard that we are from GP and she was using our services and was getting Tk. 100 from her grandson through mobicash. For her, the mobile money transaction was all greek; but our brand, Grameenphone, was close to her heart. She was fascinated to meet us because she thought her life changed all because of that mobile connectivity. This was a very emotional moment because it was exactly what I wanted to do, creating value for the society where we operate in and finding new business horizons for the company. That is my agenda as a professional; I believe that if I succeed in this endeavor, the next big role will come to me automatically.

Why is it very difficult for people to understand that they should give back to the society? Where is the missing link? Is it because the education link does not teach us empathy?
There are a number of factors contributing to this condition where a person does not find enough motivation to give back to the society. We must not forget that it is a competitive world and only the fittest among us will survive. I firmly believe in the attributes possessed by today’s youth – many of which are of high merit. We need to look at the system and ponder over the issue of how we educate them and make them aware of the responsibilities they have to shoulder. I have seen in many countries where voluntary work is very important that people find a sense of purpose in giving back, cleaning the roads, parks etc. I have never seen a lack of enthusiasm or effort when someone takes the initiative and tries to inspire the youth in Bangladesh to do something for the community. Therefore, if you talk about the missing link, then it is leadership, not the youth. Someone needs to show the path, which I am sure they will take eventually, as today they have the power of connectivity to learn and choose what is best for the society. This sort of strong guidance from society, corporate culture, or the government can lead the youth on a path of doing good.

In a corporate set up, I think this should be ingrained in the culture of the organization. The organization needs to imbue this whole sense of giving back to the society to its employee; so that employees will feel motivated to give back.

At GP, we do it a little differently. Our vision and the service we provide empower the society. We have done a great deal of work out of social responsibility while staying out of the media limelight. For example, after the catastrophic flash flood that happened last year, we made a significant contribution, which we did not want to talk about. We collaborated with The Red Crescent and provided Tk.10 crore as disaster relief. The idea was to help the community, not use it as a PR stunt. I can also mention how GP helped during the crisis of Rohingya refugee after our CEO visited the camps. In addition, last year we educated 50,000 students on the safety and security of the Internet, this year we are aiming to educate 4,00,000 students on internet safety. We do not bring these sorts of social activities in front because we believe in our service, and that is the biggest contribution to empowering society. That is our agenda.

For the last couple of years, GP has been trying hard to pose itself as a digital service provider, not just a mere telecommunication company. Where did this vision start and how did it evolve over the time? Where does the company see itself in the next five to ten years?
None of these milestones happened suddenly, we were following a rising global trend. Communication was meant to be voice connectivity in the earlier days; but now when we mean connectivity, things have changed. As an example, if you look into the roles of both Facebook and ours, we are in the business of connecting people, connecting communities. The core purpose at the end is the same. Today, we do not even need numbers to contact our friends, we can just activate Facebook and call them. Should we be afraid and give up? We rather chose to transform us. Our objective first is to digitize our core and then to bring in relevant digital services to our customers.

We are not here to say that we are digital service provider; rather by believing in our core strength, we strive to further enable our customers’ digital life by bringing in our own or partners‘ services to them. We want to remain relevant in people’s everyday communication and that can only happen when we have meaningful content, be it for education, health or business purposes. If someone has a profound content, we as a company would want to partner up with him or her. Where there is a demand for content but no developers, we may build it ourselves and provide it to our customers as this solves a problem for our customers and is based on our core beliefs.

I think I have almost now 1,400 permanent employees within my area of work and more than 6,000 employees of our distributors. Therefore, I think I have an impact on the people with whom I work both directly and indirectly. In addition, through them, I have to keep 400,000 retailers motivated. 

Speaking of developed and developing countries, I was going through this survey and it was done in Australia on the companies in Australia. Many of the CMOs believe that it is not the chief marketing officer, rather the salesperson who can contribute to more in the disruptive growth of a company. What is your take on that? Do you think that the CMO can or cannot add to the disruptive growth of the company?
It is very difficult to define in that manner. The way the world is changing, you actually cannot segregate sales and marketing. Everything is digital. Customers today often do not come directly to your shop, they also buy online. While customers are leaving, their online data footprint has already been processed and the relevant communication is being triggered and delivery is happening through the delivery system. This is a single journey. You cannot differentiate between those who are the business team, the marketing team or the sales team. The person who is leading needs to be someone who can align the dream with the rest of the organization, build the required capabilities and drive the organization towards achieving its goals. In addition, I must say it is even beyond the commercial area of Marketing or Sales, it demands technology and commercial come together to build an agile way of work. A leader may come from any background but should be capable of leading the team.

How can you identify that your personal growth is ensured in a company?
I think there are different stages in your career and even in one role; a different period in that role, your objective is not always the same. Sometimes you take a role in the learning opportunity. Likewise, I was a management member in the Telenor India team. From there I took a step back and I went to Telenor Group to join in a position, which did not have a big team and being a management member; my entire purpose in those three years was to contribute, learn and prepare myself to contribute even more. That learning helped me to become successful in my current role and I am sure it will help me in the future. I tell my team members that you will not always be promoted but try to find out your objective and what you are giving to the organization and what you are achieving out of this.

How do you motivate your team members? Is there any particular way you do that?
I think I have almost now 1,400 permanent employees within my area of work and more than 6,000 employees of our distributors. Therefore, I think I have an impact on the people with whom I work both directly and indirectly. In addition, through them, I have to keep 400,000 retailers motivated. We have a big chain of people to follow up with. I believe one has to be very cautious in leadership because in a position like that when you say something, people need to trust you. The first aspect is to be extremely transparent. There is a natural tendency for leaders to be biased towards a few. So if you take a course of action on that basis, you cannot influence certain groups of employee because they will not see you as a trusted leader. So from the start, I need to be a very neutral, unbiased, and transparent leader. If something harsh needs to be told to an employee, sugarcoating it is unnecessary. It is not easy to tell people the truth. It is not easy to face the tough time but one needs to share the dilemma with the team so that others become a part of the challenge. To create a trusted pool of employees, give the right accolades and benefits to those who deserve it, and for those who are failing to perform, provide them with the opportunity and support to overcome their shortfalls. Also, appreciate the inputs that you receive from your employees. Being surrounded by “yes” men can do real harm to a company.

For companies like GP, what should come first? The employees or the customers?
It is a difficult choice to make but I would pick the customers; as employees, we have the common vision and that is nothing but customers being at the center.

What is the best advice you ever got?
I started from a humble beginning but much of my success I owe to my tendency to listen and learn from anyone and everyone I come across professionally. If I may say, I was really motivated and inspired by my line manager in Telenor India, Sigve Brekke. He is now the President and Group CEO Telenor. He was living in five different countries at the same time while working full time in India. He was acting as India’s CEO but also Asia’s CEO for Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand etc. I have seen how he would listen to the people, act and bring strategies into action, which reflected people’s needs. I tried to learn so many things from him. I mentioned to him that, I am in a stage of a senior role and I get exhausted with so much going around and looking for ways to manage everything. His advice was to focus on the present. “Let’s say this is the session I am discussing with you,” he said, “I must respect you and give my full concentration to you. There is no point in thinking whether sales are happening or not. Because if I start thinking, I will not be able to concentrate here but I cannot also help there either. So nothing actually happens.” I think observing these leaders, and listening to them and reflecting on things helped me a lot.

How to maintain a work-life balance?
In the way we understand balance, it will not be possible anymore. 100 years back, when all the manufacturing industries were there, people went in at 9:00 am in the morning, worked for eight hours, then another team would come for a new shift; that era is gone. 24-hour connectivity is compelling all us to work anytime. If my office needs me to work 24/7, no matter what, I would try my best to render my services. At the same time, I must be careful about the needs of my family. I just returned from a ten days’ vacation: I took my sons to watch the World Cup in Russia. It was priceless and I am glad I did it. It was only possible because I identified the needs on time, be it professional or personal.

When you started you had the entrepreneurial spirit. Do you see it can come back anytime in the future? Any plan to set up your own enterprise in future?
I am a happy person in a sense that I use my entrepreneurial skills in my professional life. There was no digital team at GP back in 2015. I came back as CMO and started building one; we have a couple of good services now, for which we are thankful to the team. There are several new services and business where I am trying to involve myself, like e-commerce; in media, there is bioscope, etc. With entrepreneurial skill, I mean the urge to do something new that can solve a problem or mitigate a demand existing in the market. This, however, is no cakewalk, the creative process of developing a new service, failing, learning, new product development, customer interaction, etc. I am really satisfied that Grameenphone provides this opportunity and as a management member, I also get the opportunity to take the decisions about the future of the company. My inner needs in that sense have been fulfilled. For the future, I would like to emphasize two things. To keep doing meaningful work that may vary from my current responsibilities at Grameenphone, the most loved brand in the country or just being involved in social work and spending more time with my family.

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