When you are going through disruption, there is a lot of noise, and at the same time there are some signals, you have to be able to separate noise from the signals - Gopal Vittal, MD & CEO, Bharti Airtel.
Recognizing the opportunity to remove inefficiency from business and get sharper in the post-COVID era, Vittal strongly adheres to his belief of being the bridge between different functions and teams as a CEO, and encourages leaders to emphasize on inputs to ensure all efforts are aligned towards growth and collaboration.
In this conversation of the “Be the best version of yourself” webinar series hosted by SOIL Institute of Management, their Founder and Chairman Anil Sachdev engages in an interesting dialogue with Airtel's MD & CEO, Gopal Vittal, about how the telecom giant navigated through a volatile three years, only to be confronted with the pandemic, the cornerstones that enabled Airtel to reach a lifetime high market share post-pandemic, and why an unshakeable focus on inputs is crucial to stay on track.
Read on for highlights from the conversation.
Making it to a lifetime high market share post-pandemic
“When you are confronted with a crisis, which is both a danger and an opportunity, it’s a moment in time when you can grow.” This growth, said Vittal is one where you can grow yourself professionally as well as witness your team growing. “In life we go through our crucible moments, which are our low moments, those can be unpleasant, but in hindsight, those are the moments where I have grown a lot.”
Vittal said that in the last three years the telecom industry has gone through “brutal competitive intensity - a market that was perhaps 40-$45Bn, got reduced to $20-25Bn - revenues collapsed, 8 players went bust in dramatic circumstances, companies went bankrupt, jobs were lost, number 2 and number 3 in the telecom sector merged, cash became an issue, capex went through the roof.” In that background, where the telecom industry just survived through a volatile three years, the pandemic is just another bump in the road, he noted.
“We entered the crisis with a market share of about 30% and we have come out at a lifetime high of a close to 34% market share. Our non-mobile services businesses have become stronger and we have built a digital services platform within Airtel.” What made that possible? The four cornerstones shared below:
- Ability to anticipate: “When you are going through disruption, there is a lot of noise, and at the same time there are some signals, you have to be able to separate noise from the signals.” The ability to separate noise from the signals, is what Vittal refers to as anticipation.
“Anticipation allows you to setup processes to pick up all the different patterns that are emerging."
- A lot depends on the tone that the leadership sets. “Our tone was not that of being a victim, our tone was an optimistic tone, our tone was genuinely a tone where we believed this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, as the market would consolidate and we would come out of it strong.”
- It’s ultimately about the customer. “Your obsession has to be about the customer. What is it that you can do for the customer?” As customers move to digital channels, how do you build strong digital services? “The real hard battle is going to be the battle for experience. How do you put experience at the cornerstone of really delivering that for the customer?”
- Culture: “In an organization, how do you flatten hierarchies, to be far nimbler, far agile?" An agile culture enabled by a flat hierachy accelerates the endeavors towards growth and success.
Vittal shared that he is at his personal best when he is focused on the input rather than the output. All the above, noted Vittal, are ways to stay focused on the input rather than the output.
Dodging stress-induced scenarios
“Stress is caused by what you imagine is going to happen. If you can focus on the input and the purpose that you are trying to serve, as a team, as a business, as an individual, then the stress disappears because you are obsessed about the input,” emphasized Vittal.
“If as a leader you can direct the attention towards inputs rather than output, then the politics disappears, conversations become healthier, and the team gets more aligned.” He urged that it is when your backs are against the wall, that teams come together. “In these times, the single biggest driver for action, is a leader’s focus on inputs rather than output.”
Vittal reckoned, “As CEO, one of my primary roles is to be the bridge or the glue between different functions, different business units and different agendas,” adding, that there is no substitute for honest conversations. “First and foremost, if you are clear about what needs to be done, if you are aligned on the what, invariably the challenge is in the how. The cracks that appear in the way people work, is always on the how, never in the what.”
There is no substitute to tough conversations, especially when cracks appear, he added. One can have the perfect strategy. But the challenge is on how do you make it happen, and this how do you make it happen is ultimately about people. Nobody has got bad intent, you are seeing things from different perspectives. “When you start discussing the how - this is how I see it, this is how you see it, what support do I need, how can I help you, how can you help me, what feedback do you have for me, what feedback do I have for you - the environment becomes more conducive to people actually liking each other, and you begin to see how you can be more effective as a team.”
Curiosity, unlearning and letting go
Having had the opportunity to gain his education from a one-of-its kind boarding school, Vittal learned early on that the most important thing is to ask a lot of questions. Speaking of the school’s Founder, he shared that the Founder believed in the method of enquiry. “If you asked him a question, he would respond with a question. And that bred a lot of curiosity in a young mind.”
“The determinant of potential in people, be it an organization or individual, is really about being curious.”
You are not taught everything, you are not expected to know the right answers, but if you ask the right questions, you are better placed.” This curiosity helps Vittal to not only stay ahead of the curve, but also helps him predict one’s capability. “The determinant of resilience beyond performance is also curiosity.”
“A job helps me learn more about myself, and helps me grow as a person, as a leader, and it’s only when you are aware of yourself and the impact you have, conquering your own ego, knowing that you aren’t always right, that you are able to get the best out of people, and this is a continuous journey.”
To be able to find success in what one is doing, one needs to be able to bring all their focus, attention and attention to the present moment, and break down things they can and cannot control. “It is really important to focus on the things you can control, and not focus on the things that you can’t.” By letting go of what you can’t control, you can recentre and redirect all efforts towards a better tomorrow.
“You get stressed when you start imagining what can happen, and then your mind starts playing tricks by creating all these scenarios, that frankly is just noise.”
He suggested that it is important to be aware of the feelings you have. “If you can have a conversation about what’s really bothering you and even that out, your stress levels disappear. Find what works for you. Speaking with someone, or writing it down or something else.”
Once leaders and organizations can bring themselves to the present moment, as rightly said by Vittal, they need to recognize what they can and cannot control, and invest time and efforts in scalable inputs as they sail through the rough tides and head towards a shore of untapped and unexplored possibilities.