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Vodafone Group Plc UK CEO Arun Sarin: Global, Mobile and Growing

After a series of mergers and acquisitions, U.K.-based Vodafone Group Plc now boasts revenues of $61.2 billion, operations in 25 …

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 London office, where he shared in sights about the challenges and opportunities of managing this diverse global workforce.

How much of your business is international?
Less than 5 percent of our operating profits come from the U.K. We’ve had to fundamentally redesign this company as a global company with 250-plus million customers around the world. We are a highly consumer-centric company. In Germany, we feel German. In Italy, we feel Italian. In Spain, we feel Spanish. In India, we feel Indian. Here, we feel British. But there are common values and common skills that we look for.

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 Germany, I ask myself, “Do these people have red, rock solid, restless, and are they strategic, operational and human?”

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 India, have U.S. citizenship, and are now based in the U.K. Has being Indian-born given you an advantage in the context of managing a diverse employee base?
Yes, a huge advantage. I lived in India for 20 years, came to the U.S. and lived there for 30 years. My entire professional career was in the United States, okay, and I became a senior guy. Then I came to the U.K. five years ago. So I’ve seen [and lived among] people from around the world; you just can’t have that advantage if you grew up in just one culture no matter how good and empathetic a human being you are. You actually have to have lived in other places to understand how people genuinely feel and be completely comfortable with them.


According to reports, New York governor ELIOT SPIT ZER, former Torque – mada of Wall Street when he was that state’s AG, finally recognizes that the overlapping mandates of the present rules-based U.S. regulatory system is injurious to America’s financial markets, and is sympathetic to a U.K.-style principles- based regulatory structure. “The fact of the matter is,” Spitzer told the Financial Times, “that New York‘s regulations are out of date.”

To DR. ROWAN WILLIAMS, Archbishop of Canterbury, for calling to include Islamic Sharia law into England‘s legal system. It’s official; the Church of England has succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps he would like to repeal the Magna Carta as well.

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