Vodafone Group Plc UK CEO Arun Sarin: Global, Mobile and Growing
March 5 2008 by Chief Executive
After a series of mergers and acquisitions, U.K.-based Vodafone Group Plc now boasts revenues of $61.2 billion, operations in 25 countries and 60,000 employees whose mix of nationalities reflect its global business. The world’s largest mobile operator won a spot on CE’s 20 Best Companies for Leaders ranking in 2007, and Hay Group recently dubbed its CEO, Arun Sarin, Europe’s highest paid CEO (reporting total compensation of $16.65 million). CE caught up with Sarin, 53, at Vodafone’s
How much of your business is international?
Less than 5 percent of our operating profits come from the
How do you define leadership?
I consider somebody a good leader if they exhibit three things. One is strategic leadership, which simply means the ability to assess the big picture. There is a lot of noise in this industry; every day you hear Google saying this and Microsoft saying that and Apple saying something else. So being able to think clearly about voice, data, video, mobility and convergence-is it happening, what are the economics, could we get into these spaces, etc.-is an important facet of leadership in our industry.
The second is operational leadership. I expect our leaders to make things happen, serve our customers, have good processes, organize their own divisions properly and, most important, hit their numbers. And the third is people leadership, the ability to motivate, retain, recruit and develop people, to have both good and difficult performance dialogs, and to set high standards.
You need all three simultaneously. If you’re really good at producing numbers but can’t have a decent, intelligent conversation with your people and motivate them, you will not make it to the top here.
What other qualities are important?
The other axis core to our culture is “red, rock solid and restless.” Red stands for being passionate about your business, your job, your industry and your people. Rock solid means you’ve got to be dependable. If you say you will deliver something, you must deliver it. Restless is about innovation. You’ve got to be innovative. When I’m selecting the CEO, or the senior team for
How do you develop your people to have the skills and qualities you describe?
I moved around a lot in my own career. I’ve run sales. I’ve run marketing. I’ve run finance. I’ve run strategy. I’ve run international. I’ve been a general manager. We follow a somewhat similar path here. We want you to move around. You can’t just be a one-trick pony in our company. You have got to be completely comfortable wherever you get dropped.
We have leadership development forums where we look at the top 150 twice a year and say, “How is Joe doing? How is Jill doing?” We look at their 360 assessments, what their line managers think of them, where they want to go in the next 18 months, and where we think they can go in an 18-month to five-year period. Then we look at our organization and say we need more general managers or more people with Internet experience, we say, “Okay, who will be traveling to this spot with us?”
You operate in 30 countries. How does your leadership team reflect that global culture?
My top 10 executives represent five nationalities. Among the top 22, there are at least 10 nationalities represented, and in my top 120, at least 30. At GE, all of Jeff Immelt’s direct reports are American; at Siemens, all but one are German. We have a group of executives here that is far more diverse at the absolute senior level than any company I know. Frankly, I wouldn’t know how to run this company … if I didn’t have diversity of thought. We are a very international company and therefore we need an international group of executives.
Can you give an example?
Americans want to land on a decision more quickly than Europeans, who usually want more debate before signing on. My style is to give everybody a chance to express their views. If I don’t get consensus, I will take a decision and get on with it. But in Europe, I tell myself, “Arun, slow down,” and I let the debate go on longer than I would in America to allow more time for that consensus to build up. I view it as an upfront investment that pays off in execution because people who have made that initial buy-in are less easily displaced.
The challenge of running an inter national team is understanding the balance and complexion of the team and how that impacts the way members bond, work, take decisions and follow through.
What do you personally do in the leadership development process?
I go to each of our companies every year and talk to a group of employees. We do an open town-hall-style Q&A for a few hours, and then I take a smaller group-between 20 and 70 people, depending on the company size-and do a deeper dive on whatever they want to talk about, whether that’s strategy or what it takes to be successful at Vodafone.
You were born in
Yes, a huge advantage. I lived in
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