Yasir Azman, CEO of Grameenphone (GP) on preparing the telecom behemoth for the next digital revolution
Congratulations on being at the helm of GP. How does it feel to be the CEO of the company where you’ve been working at for so many years?
Actually I am very thrilled, overwhelmed, and at the same time humbled. Besides my family and friends, the way the whole country has felicitated-in terms of lots of good wishes, congratulation messages, confidence, promise to support, makes me happy and grateful. At the same time, it reminds me of our promises and the ability to deliver on those.
GP boasts a subscriber base of 76 million. There are a lot of other foreign companies, for example, WeTransfer has almost 80 million subscribers. So when you are the CEO of a big company like this, how do you confront the bigness?
This is not only a fact of the present time; this what we have dealt with over the last 23 years. The credit goes to our good and efficient workforce who has been taking care of our subscribers, to bring on innovation and keep creating values. But when you talk about how I really confront the bigness, I think it is very humbling: to have the confidence and trust of the 76 million customers. You need to be very down to earth, in terms of understanding your customer need, and serving them, to connect them to what matters most. For us, it is important to concentrate on a few things that are very impactful. In the telecom industry, you need to ensure very good customer experience, because when it comes to data, it is almost like, without data, we would stop breathing. Our day to day job is to ensure that we offer the right kind of experiences to our subscribers. Secondly, understanding the customer behaviour, by which I mean how they are using our services, needs to be analyzed. The amount of data they generate every day can be overwhelming, and to confront that kind of bigness, we must prepare ourselves with the right kind of skills and efficiency. Last but not least, protecting our customers’ privacy is also an important area where we focus on.
When we are talking about a succession plan, you have been serving outside as well as inside the country. Which one do you think, has impacted you more in professional life?
Different stages of my career impacted me in different ways. When you are in the early stage of your career, there is nothing other than working hard. When I joined the GP back in 2005, I was a sales manager. I am grateful to that stint because it enabled me to understand the industry, the customers, the country and the geographic location well. It was my country, my people; things were already known to me. But when I went to India that tested me on how to work with a completely different set of people: I didn’t know who was who, and whom to call, and how to basically get help. There I was basically tested to demonstrate my leadership skills because I was the Head of the state. That phase of my job instilled in me the confidence that I can take on a role, I can be a leader at any setup. When I was leaving Karnataka, we actually shut down our business there and I tried to make sure that all of my team members were able to secure jobs. And then only when I accepted a job in Oslo, I would say that was a completely different setup, beyond what I knew in the Bangladesh or India market. There I was basically trained on how to see the future coming in, this digital distribution taking place. That has had an impact to build existing Grameenphone for the next, to modernize it.
Do you have plans to change how things are done here at GP?
I think we need to understand the purpose of whatever we do as a team, as an organization. It is not only about the everyday numbers–how many subscribers we sign up, how much data packs we sell. Rather the question should be: when we take a subscriber onboard, what impact do we create. Let’s take the example of the Internet. If through an internet connection, a professional’s career gets changed, it changes the generations following. When I become a better person, the next generation will benefit from it. With our services and innovations, we can create immense ripples and can change lives and communities. I would like to bring that narrative and mindset in GP, with an even better version. We are always good, our starting point was something like back in 1997, when the current Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had democratized the telecom with multiple licenses. The vision was spread connectivity in rural Bangladesh. One may recall the first campaign, where a village woman was featured with a phone in her hand. We have come across a long way and still, a lot more needs to be done. So if we, as a team, can understand it and feel it, then we will innovate, invest and do more in an effective manner. I want to bring that mindset into GP in a bigger way.
When you say you want to bring in change and keep innovating, are there any other global CEOs you look up to?
You see I will not probably mark someone outside at this point. I follow a lot. I read what Sundar Pichai from Google is saying. I read what is coming from Microsoft, IBM, Facebook, and small organizations everywhere. I read like almost 14 different books last year to learn and unlearn and keep myself updated with the global perspective of technology and services. Internally I would say that I was really inspired by our current group CEO and President of Telenor Sigve Brekke, with whom I worked very closely in India. I have seen how passionately he used to understand customer pain points and then linking them to product & service development. Let me give you an example. I took him one day to a retail shop to show the kinds of products and services we sell in that area (Odisha). Eventually, he came to know about a nearby slum with 1.5 lac people who were the customer of the products. To my utmost surprise, he wanted to go there and understand what kind of product they may need. But there was no road, it was too muddy and narrow, filled with huts. He then instructed me to get a motorbike; he drove the bike with me sitting behind him. On our way, we talked with the customers, and in the evening we built a completely new product, which was based on customer needs. This incident changed the way I used to think before ideating a product or innovating a service. His customer orientation mindset I still follow while thinking of product development.
When you have become a successful professional is there any challenge that shapes you like a different person?
Success to me equals doing things transparently, in the proper manner. You achieve something not via a shortcut, or not by depriving someone, or not by cheating your customers. When you do something in a transparent way, and you can develop a sustainable business model, that something to me is a success. What shapes us as a professional is a way we keep advancing towards our goals. My two cents for the next generation and the youth would be to learn how to think transparently and honestly. The path might not be easy, but this is how one can go and secure the ultimate success.
You are the CEO, you have to juggle with different kind of works every day. How do you make sure that it is a productive day? Or how do you finish all in a day’s work?
Simply put, we translate our vision into a strategy, which in turn is translated into action. As of Grameenphone’s strategies, there are very simple four or five pillars which all of our employees are aware of, and there is clear action point out of all those strategies delineating our deliverables. A big company like ours has everything very structured which helps to measure whether we could deliver our goals in a day, we measure customer satisfaction, customer KPIs every day. You couple that with a good monitoring system and voila! You would know whether your day is productive enough or not. Now as for myself, if I look back, you know, I worked as Chief marketing officer for 4 years, 7 months and 16 days– the largest time frame in the history of GP any CMO has served. I have still equal energy and passion to contribute and grow as a professional. Because at the end of the day, I ask myself, whether I have a strong & meaningful purpose in whatever I do. As long as the purpose is achieved, I would consider my day to be a productive one.
When you started in the corporate world, did you do a kind of mapping, like this is how you want to see your life change? Did you have aspirations that have brought you up to this level?
My educational background was very simple. In my early days, I was in Udayon school till up to class 1. Then I went to Kakoli High School. Then I went to Dhaka College, followed by Abujar Gifari College and I was lucky enough to get admitted into IBA to do my MBA. I have never thought of, nor dreamt of working at GP as the CEO. But I have always had an aspiration to lead a team and to work for something which contributes back to society. I am fortunate enough to have ended up in a technology company. In the process, what I learnt is that if you concentrate on your present, if you utilize your time in the present, it builds your future, which is very simple. But we often miss that part, we always think of starting to prepare for the next. It is good that you have a goal for the future, but you also need to utilize your time now to make the most of it. I have not thought of that I would come here, but I did have the confidence that if I did well with my present then it would pave the pathway for a better future.
Can we expect something extraordinary from GP considering that 2021 will be the 50-year anniversary of our independence?
There are a couple of projects that we are working on at this point in time. As mentioned earlier, we are building an ecosystem, which gives the best data experience, where we will be ready for 5G, IoT and things future in pursuit of bringing in the modern digital services for the urban people, particularly to the youth and the professionals. At the same time, we at GP are committed to reducing the inequalities in the country. And there we have a couple of projects: one of them is to empower the women in the deep rural setting. We are working to put in place the right digital service that ensures network coverages for deep-sea fishermen. We are working on the innovation for the farmers’ community as well as on digitalizing education. So these are the four areas where we have started exploring & progressed. On top of that, we are basically preparing ourselves to understand on what sort of project we can work in the realm of public-private partnership, to unleash the real potential of digital Bangladesh. Because the government has a very high vision and they are investing in it, so I think there are opportunities to work together.
What are you really into outside your work?
I am a family-oriented person. Actually there is not much else that you could do, other than to give quality time to your family, and nothing can be better than that. I am now in a situation that within next 2 to 3 years, my children will go for higher studies. InshaAllah. So apart from work, I try to spend the rest of the time as much as possible with my three kids and wife. And I have a little passion to see whether I can do a little for our village in Sunamganj. I try to visit the place twice a year and try to render help to anyone who is in need. The act of giving back indeed brings immense peace in my mind at the end of the day.